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The Essence of the Westphalian State in a Globalising World

Why nation-states are still of significant importance

Door: , 22:09, 17 april 2018

Why nation-states are still of significant importance

The ‘Westphalian state system’ has been around since 1648, when the peace of Westphalia was signed. Its most important achievement was establishing a new European political order, based upon sovereign states, and the notion of sovereignty. Sovereignty of states was, arguably, best articulated by Shakespeare’s ‘Richard II’. It shows us how state sovereignty is essential in the protection of the breed of men and their liberties:


”This fortress built by Nature for herself, Against infection and the hand of war, This happy breed of men, this little world, This precious stone set in the silver sea, Which serves it in the office of a wall, Or as a moat defensive to a house, Against the envy of less happier lands, – This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England (Shakespeare, 1938).”


Political universalists and cosmopolites have pressed for the traditional concepts of citizenship and sovereignty to come under pressure from the challenge of globalisation. The state is no longer in harmony with contemporary global developments according to them.

Friends nor allies

The problem with these universalists is that they fail to see how the Westphalian state and its notions of citizenship, political community, and rules of conduct are essential for democracy, order and justice in a globalising world. The problem with this view is that it overlooks that notions of citizenship, political community and rules of conduct can only exist in a nation-state. Realistically, the ‘Global Citizen’ does not exist and the nation-state is gaining importance in a cosmopolitan world.

In the present day, the state, and the state system, seem to be under unambiguous, constant attack from within and outside. The attack from inside comes from scholars who advocate cosmopolitanism, while the attack from the outside comes from supranational institutions.

Cosmopolitanism as an ‘ethical’ imperative is deeply pernicious and immensely undesirable. The only conception it demands is one’s scope of moral concern – “the area within which it claims moral duty, solidarity and loyalty to ‘fellow moral agents’ provide intelligible appeals” – and is contiguous with no specific political community. It requires us to recognise the moral standing of those who are “neither friends nor allies, those to whom we might refer as ‘distant strangers’”. This must be sacrificed in pursuit of universal morality.


Universalists often begin their articles by citing Hedley Bull’s “The State’s Positive Role in World Affairs”, in which he states that supreme sovereignty over the community does not necessarily have to be claimed by any one of the levels of government, local, national or supranational. This situation is entangled with the fact that a citizen of a certain territory does not have an exclusive or overriding loyalty to any of them. According to Bull, this situation only would lead us “beyond the state (Bull, 1979).” Cosmopolitanism thus strives to undermine sovereignty.

Consequently, Bull’s statement will be my starting point as well. Bull sets the stage for my arguments why cosmopolitan developments are normatively undesirable, because universalists do not take into account the underlying causes for war and mismanagement:

Universalists argue that we can transcend problems of violent conflict and social injustice via inclusivity and universalising citizenship. Arguing that these problems can be transcended through inclusivity is equal to sophism. It is questionable at least if exclusivity leads to conflict, whereas violence is endemic to the neomedieval system universalists advocate (Fischer, 1992; Teschke, 1998).

Just causes for war

Another established author, Hugh Seton-Watson, acknowledges that the state was driven by an extreme form of nationalism in the twentieth century. However, he found that the tables have turned. Seton-Watson identifies universalism as having taken on the exact same twentieth-century-nationalist-attitude. He analyses;


“where in the twentieth century there were states who believed their revolution to be just and different from all the others, this idea has now been taken upon by universalists. Universalists are convinced that, although past ‘revolutions’ have drenched humanity with blood and have been followed by merciless tyrannies, their own revolution will bring only universal benevolence and happiness(Seton-Watson, 1982).”


An ignorant idea to say the least.

The logical consequence of a universalist line of thought is that ‘the state is a main cause for war’. Universalists assert that the sovereign state, in pursuing its own aims regardless of others, clash with each other. Although this statement is fair, it is hardly worth mentioning, since it is not unprecedented that states fight wars. It is worth more to ask whether state’s movements for unity and efforts to protect the political community, have been just causes for war.

The struggle for power

Additionally, self-determination of the state is central to normative debate about the globalising world. Sovereignty defines what a state is, and what it is not (Buzan, Held, & McGrew, 2000). Looking at representative government, placing an emphasis on supranational and regional government, as cosmopolitans do, will always be in conflict with self-governance on the state level. Cosmopolitanism has led to the conception that ‘universal’ and ‘inclusive’ communities should embrace radical diversity and ‘cosmopolitise’ governance. In order to have representative government the central authority of the state and social cohesion in the political community are required, which one can equate with ‘exclusivity’ (Baudet, 2012; Hutchings, 2000; Jaede, 2016)

Universalists put forward that the notion of cosmopolitan democracy does not clash with the existing order, but that it gives expression to developments which show the decline of the Westphalian state. Universalist author Linklater describes


“[t]he conjunction of forces which are transforming contemporary Europe reveals that the time is ripe to engineer a new revolution in political thought or, more accurately, to complete the Copernican Revolution in political thinking initiated by Kant (Linklater, 1996).”


He continues with, as also mentioned by me at the beginning, that he envisions a system where the local, national and international level do not claim sovereignty or dominance over the other in a cosmopolitan democracy. While this is a contradictio in terminis since democracy cannot take place without a sovereign state system, there are other important, empirical arguments that question whether developments Linklater describes are actually taking place. Whether Linklater, Marx or another postmodern theorist believe that something will happen does not make it so. To make matters worse, universalists simply skip the central realist explanation for international conflict and the struggle for power.

Another important observation universalists make that they see a ‘democratic deficit’ because of its exclusive characteristics. Decisions made within the state are not democratic since the citizens outside of the state, affected by the decision, are not allowed to participate in the democratic process. This limitation of state mechanisms of democracy and responsibility, and on states as the subjects of international law, relies on the possibility of a higher authority derived from the ‘Global Citizen’, as succeeding the state as subject of international relations. According to David Chandler, it is at this point that the theoretical underpinnings of cosmopolitanism appear fragile. The notion of the citizen as subject of international decision-making is under pressure from practical problems (Chandler, 2003). Specifically, as Beetham additionally notes: “the weak point in this regime remains enforcement” (Beetham, 1999).


Normatively, cosmopolitanism is undesirable because of two main factors. The first one being that this neomedieval system lacks the central authority to enforce order, and thus create the setting for conflict in the international arena. After the creation of this precedent there will be no ‘state-like’ actor to maintain peace and stability.

Secondly, self-determination of the state is central to normative debate in international theory and legitimate representative government of this state is not possible outside the state system. States are necessarily exclusive communities whose interaction is ultimately governed by the relative power position they hold. Exclusivity, the feeling of belonging, social cohesion and the contract between the state and the political community make it so that legitimate representative government is possible.

Thirdly, there seems to be little to no empirical date underpinning universalist’ claims. In addition to this they make a fair amount of misinterpretations about the state system. In combination with arguing by fiat, universalist preconceptions and theories rest on a foundation of quicksand.

In the face of criticism posed by me, the author’s I mentioned in this paper, and students and scholars that came before me, universalist articles will still, without a doubt, be hailed as one of the most important and influential academic works on political science for years. Ultimately, there is no shortage of Marxists, poststructuralists, radical feminists and postcolonialists among academics, the group universalists address and which they tell exactly what they want to hear. However, global affairs must and can never be governed by global dialogue, global discourse, global citizenship and global consent rather than by the natural force and power of the nation-state.




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