Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Westphailure: A Memorial Day Reflection

     [This is a repost of a column I wrote three years ago. It seems to me to capture the essential tragedy of Memorial Day better than anything I’ve written before or since. I find that I cannot improve on it. In our time of wholly artificial, politically useful fear and widespread, ever intensifying animosity between private citizens and political Establishments, it strikes me as uniquely appropriate. – FWP]

     Over the past two decades there have been a number of articles, whether scholarly or written for a lay audience, to the effect that the end is in sight for the Westphalian nation-state. Some analysts have treated the subject with alarm, others with glee. Some focused upon specific enemies of the nation-state, such as creedal or ethnic particularism or “non-state-actor” terrorism. A few have attempted to predict what forms of political organization (if any) would follow. And occasionally a visionary has speculated upon the possibility that political organization itself might vanish.

     Yet few of those who spent their efforts on the matter could cope with the two questions that loom above all the others:

  1. Why do nation-states exist at all?
  2. Why do some nation-states appear endangered while others do not?

     More grist for a Curmudgeon Emeritus’s mill.

     The emergence of the political entities we recognize today as nation-states was a drawn-out process. The 1648 Treaties of Westphalia, though widely regarded as seminal, was really the start of a gestational process that continued through the 1713 Treaties of Utrecht, the American Revolution, the French Revolution, the politically neglected Napoleonic Wars, and the Congress of Vienna. Each of those things had a role to play in the birth of the nation-state as we’ve come to understand it.

     Whereas the Treaties of Westphalia were largely concerned with established religions, the subsequent events addressed a supremely practical issue: the desire for an enduring conception of sovereignty, including a sovereign’s authority to determine and enforce the law in his domain. During those tumultuous decades the question of who should have the power to make law, and by what mechanisms and upon what terms it should be enforced, was paramount in the minds of many Europeans. Revolutions had toppled regimes in England, France, and America. Innovative concepts such as individual rights, freedom of speech and religion, and the consent of the governed appeared to threaten sovereigns worldwide. Above all, the unbridled war-making power the Treaties of Westphalia had reserved to the sovereign appeared to threaten the basis of human society.

     Power itself needed a new basis. Sovereign absolutism would no longer serve the purposes of the West. But to proceed from that point required that those purposes be enunciated and clarified. Moreover, the royalty of Europe could no longer reserve those purposes to themselves.

     The major desideratum that powered the emergence of the nation-state was stability. The economy of Europe had been ravaged by endless wars and struggles over jurisdiction among monarchs and nobles. The further advancement of civilization, a foretaste of which was visible in Eighteenth Century England, required that the quarreling cease. The accelerating assertiveness of the common man suggested that the old basis of absolute monarchs and nobles sworn to fealty would no longer do the job.

     I don’t mean to suggest that the movers of the development of the modern nation-state were animated by a sense of civic responsibility or anything comparable to it. They merely wanted to enjoy their positions and the pleasures and conveniences made available by an advancing economy. They realized that they couldn’t have those things if Europe were to remain an eternal battlefield. The defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo opened the possibility of putting an end to the strife.

     Consensus emerged, albeit tacitly, that the aggressive Continental imperialism of the two centuries past, most recently represented by Napoleon, must end. Borders must be stabilized; ruling powers must agree to respect them. Diplomatic intercourse must replace warfare in all but the most serious disputes between sovereigns. More – and ultimately far more significant – the possibility of provoking a bottom-up revolution must be kept in mind in all political operations.

     None of these things were explicit parts of the treaties made during those years. Yet they loomed behind most of the maneuverings of Metternich, Talleyrand, Wellington, Tsar Alexander I, and the rest. Though it appeared that the rise of republicanism had been dealt a setback, the hundred years of relative peace that followed allowed the common man to rise to a stature that would ultimately make it impossible for a European ruler ever again to assert overt, absolute, and unbounded authority.

     The nation-state as the principal guarantor of peace, stability, and orderly commerce had emerged.

     Shortly before he died, the great Herbert Spencer, aghast at the return of social invidiousness and national animosities that characterized the currents of the close of the Nineteenth Century, predicted that the Twentieth would be “a century of socialism and war.” Twentieth Century Europe would prove him correct. National governments, both hereditary and elective, turned once again to warfare to “get what’s rightfully ours.”

     In a way, the famous remark of German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg:

     "The world will be plunged into the most terrible of wars...all for a word -- 'neutrality'...all for a scrap of paper." -- Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg, Chancellor of the German Empire, referring to Britain's decision to go to war over Germany's violation of Belgium's neutrality, which had been guaranteed by Britain, France and Germany in an 1832 treaty.

     ...revealed the cause of the failure of the Hundred Years’ Peace. That peace had been held together by nothing but “scraps of paper:” the treaties and less formal agreements of the Westphalian, Utrechtan, and Viennese periods. The nations hadn’t renounced their arms; indeed, they’d amassed them to a greater height than ever before. What brought about World War I was the dismissal of the peace made possible at Westphalia, Utrecht, and Vienna as supreme above all other considerations.

     Governments, both hereditary and elective, gave notice that peace, stability, and orderly commerce aren’t their major goals after all.

     Once the Great War was over, it became clear that the ascent of the common man to economic potency ultimately made the Viennese system of 1814-15 untenable by the standards of the European political elite. The collapse of the German, Austro-Hungarian, Russian, and Ottoman Empires underscored the danger to ruling elites. A dramatic revision of the political basis of the nation-state became inevitable. Sovereignty must descend to the proletariat at least in appearance, else the commoners would displace the elites once and for all.

     Great Britain and France were already sailing that course. In the wake of the Treaty of Versailles, the other nations of Europe embarked on it in various ways. However, the seeds of popular dissatisfaction with government generally had been planted deep. Watered by the acceleration of the socialist movement and the three great exploiters thereof – Mussolini, Hitler, and Stalin – the shoots would overturn European stability again only twenty years later.

     Over the century since the Great War, it has become appallingly clear to ordinary private citizens that no matter their representations or the formal structures of their governments, the ruling elites of nation-states are in business for themselves. Their interest in the peace, legal stability, and orderly commerce common men so enjoy is secondary to their interest in maintaining their power, stature, and perquisites. They will provide true service to those things only insofar as it serves to support and maintain their positions. At other times, lip service will suffice.

     Scant wonder that the nation-state as an institution is under attack from all sides. The common man, now empowered beyond all the emperors of old taken together, has become dissatisfied with it. Whether his principal allegiance goes to a neighborhood, a race, an ethnicity, a religion, or his own wallet, he’s no longer willing to support the political status quo without reservation. Indeed, he’s actively interested in possible alternatives. Could the best of us, the young men who enlist in their nations’ armed forces knowing that it puts their lives at risk – knowing that their fathers and grandfathers were sent forth to bleed on foreign soil for causes many of which have proved futile at best, evil at worst – be far behind?

     The dynamics of the thing deserve further study. Remember the fallen.

1 comment:


"...the ruling elites of nation-states are in business for themselves..."

If I might add, IMHO these people - across nations, indeed across cultures - see themselves as having more in common with each other than with the people of their own nation.