The End of Westphalia? The Ancient Greek Leagues and a new format for international politics
Debate over the future direction of the EU often seems to be framed as falling into two binary camps, either calls for integration leading to the ultimate creation of a federal state loosely modelled along the lines of the American Republic, or predictions of the doom of nations and hubris which will lead to the EU’s collapse. The recent proposals of President Macron and the treaty of Aachen between the German and French Governments are the latest in a long line of policies which have been framed in this way.
These two ways of thinking are not only unhelpful in considering the future direction of our politics but are based on a premise which is proving to be increasingly false. Our way of thinking about politics on a domestic, national, regional and international level are couched within the terms of what can loosely be called the Westphalian model and the idea of the nation state. However, in a world of increasing interconnectivity where the function of supranational bodies and multilateral initiatives is increasingly important, the assumptions, norms and implications of this framework seem no longer relevant and, in many cases, even detrimental to the effective function of new ways of tackling political problems. With this in mind, it is worth exploring the current framework and considering what other options are available to us.
In 1648 a series of Treaties were signed in the Westphalian cities of Osnabrück and Mϋnster. What would later be known as the Peace of Westphalia ended thirty years of war which had engulfed Europe, leading to the death of approximately 8 million people and ravaging the continent. The Thirty Years War began as a religious conflict within the Holy Roman Empire but had spiralled into a broader geopolitical war, drawing in almost all the great European powers of the day. The conclusion of the war, and the post war settlement, set the stage for the development of European politics for the next 300 years.
The Peace is important not in so much as it ended the Thirty Years War, but in the precedents it established. Firstly, the practice of holding a Congress or Conference in which all participants in a conflict met to negotiate and settle that conflict through talks. Secondly, and most importantly for our purposes, the Peace established a new political order in Europe, based on the peaceful coexistence of Sovereign States, with aggression amongst one another held in check by a balance of power and a commitment to not interfere in the internal affairs of other Sovereign states.
These principles laid the groundwork for what would come to be known as the Westphalian system and were a significant development along the road to the concept of the nation state and the political assumptions in domestic and international affairs which were to become the norm. The spread of European influence around the globe would see this system become the basis for the international law and politics which underpin the global system that has emerged in the centuries since.
However, as the shape of the geopolitical and domestic spheres have changed and evolved since the end of the Second World War, these assumptions are beginning to be challenged. Many of the international political crises and the rise of populist parties, especially in the West, can be attributed in someway to the assumptions and norms of this system being challenged by the new realities that changes, such as new technology, have brought to our politics. As such it is sensible to explore the development of this system and search for possible alternative models which may prove more effective.
The Europe which the Peace of Westphalia emerged from looked very different from our own, international politics of the day was dominated by large, multinational Kingdoms ruled over by absolute monarchs and multi-ethnic Empires headed by divinely blessed Emperors, all loomed over by the remains of the religious institutions of the medieval church. Other smaller states, more like our own republics and constitutional monarchies, did exist, but as political players on the international stage they were virtual nonentities.
The period between the treaties signed in 1648 and the end of the Second World War would see a remarkable shift in the way Europeans practiced and thought about domestic, national and international politics.
While the peace was being established in Europe, the civil wars in the British and Irish Kingdoms of the 1640's and the Glorious Revolution which followed in 1688, would see the rise of a constitutional monarchy. The new ways of thinking and newly established norms which would manifest themselves in the Peace of Westphalia made this an easier task, although not without its fair share of trouble. The rise of the Dutch Republic in the years immediately before and after the Peace was also a symptom of these new ideas beginning to coalesce.
Despite a revival of the idea of absolute universal monarchy personified by Louis XIV and his immediate successors, the general trend of thinking in the 18th century was toward these more constitutional, representative states, increasingly based on small ethnic and linguistic groups as opposed to the vast multi-ethnic kingdoms of before. Although this would be done with much strife and suffering of the smaller groups unable to break free of larger, controlling neighbours.
The many wars of the 18th century in Europe saw a further embedding of the ideas established at Westphalia in the European political psyche. Towards the end of the century, the American revolution was an important step in this development as it saw these ideas, and their implementation, shift beyond the realm of Europe. It also demonstrated that it was difficult, with the technology of the time, to implement a more representative nation state system spread over seas and vast distances, necessitating small, more compact and homogeneous states.
The French Revolution is arguably the high point of this first phase of development since the Peace of Westphalia. The revolutionaries would overthrow the heart of absolute universal monarchy, trampling down the chief rival to the ideas first put to paper in the Peace of Westphalia, a point of no return.
France would no longer seek to expand and absorb European states into its growing Empire, presided over by a divinely blessed monarch. Instead it would export the ideals of the revolution, overrunning the ancient regimes of Europe’s Kings, Emperors and Popes and setting up nation state style republics based on its own model. The ideas of the Sovereign Nation State which first found voice in Westphalia were firmly embedded in the European psyche by the bayonets of the French revolutionary armies.
Even when Napoleon picked the French Crown out of the gutter in 1804, the ideas did not die and he continued to spread these ideals, even if they now adopted the trappings of Kings and Emperors. The end of this first phase is perhaps most aptly marked by the Emperor Francis II’s decision to dissolve the Holy Roman Empire in 1806.
After the destruction of his armies and his capitulation to Napoleon after the battle of Austerlitz in 1805 and the reformation of many of the German territories into the Confederation of the Rhine, Francis, the Holy Roman Emperor, was forced to accept the realty of the situation and the evidence that the ideas first born in Westphalia had come of age. The thousand-year-old institution, forged by Charlemagne taking a rib out of the Roman corpse to create a new backbone for Europe, was gone. A new order would take its place.
Despite Napoleon’s eventual defeat, his enemies had long accepted the ideas the French Republic and Empire had breathed life into. Napoleon’s Empire was divided up by the victorious allies at the Congress of Vienna, a diplomatic meeting like that of Westphalia.
A second phase of development now started. The principles of Westphalia were well established and underpinning the new political order in Europe. The British, American and French Revolutions embedding in the consciousness the idea of representative government based on the more or less homogeneous nation state. Europeans set about creating homogeneous groups under which they could coalesce into nation states.
Over the next century, several rounds of revolution, war and diplomacy would see a Europe which was still dominated by large Kingdoms and Empires, although much changed, at the Congress of Vienna in 1815, slowly come to be a continent of nation states of various sizes and forms.
By the dawn of the 20th century this process was beginning its final advance. A few large powers still dominated the continent, but they were almost unrecognisable to those from a century before and in their midst were smaller powers able to demand to be treated fairly under the terms of the Westphalian system. Indeed, it is telling that the reason the British advanced for their entry into the First World War was the violation of Belgian neutrality, in other words interference in Belgium’s internal affairs. Although the decision was more about geopolitical fears of a German dominated continent, it is telling that the British felt the need to dress the decision in these terms.
The third and final phase of this process overlaps with the second. Agitation of groups still held under the rule of the old Empires and Monarchies, particularly in the East of the continent, grew stronger every day as the principles of the system of nation states became ever more firmly embedded in the European psyche. A series of wars in the Balkans at the start of the century spurred by the idea of the nation state, would eventually see the Austro-Hungarian Empire dragged in, coming under increasing pressure to allow the people it ruled entry into the system, a pressure which would result in the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and bring with it the First World War.
It would be another great Congress that would end this war. Various treaties would see the break up of the central European Empires and the formation of yet more nation states at the heart of the continent.
However, the period leading up to the conflict and the conflict itself had exposed the limits of the Westphalian system. What happens when the balance of power breaks down as nation states scramble for more resources? The temptation or demand to violate the other core tenants of the system had proved too much.
A first solution to this was attempted with the creation of the League of Nations, but this organisation proved not to have the teeth to deal with the demands of the most powerful nation states, leading once again to a bloody and drawn out war. Although the peace that ended the Second World War saw the creation of the United Nations as a beefed-up version of the League of Nations, these organisations were both imagined and designed with the principles of Westphalia at their core and as such were unable to affect any real decision making. What really underpinned the relative peace of the new age was the power of the two superpowers which emerged from the ashes.
It is ironic then that as the Westphalian system entered its third and final phase and began what could be seen as a decline, the rest of the world was finally allowed entry to what had been almost exclusively a European club. Thus, the culmination of the second phase coincided with the begin of the third phase, a precipitous decline.
The European Empire’s had spread with them European ideas and as these Empires began to collapse, Europeans attempted to leave behind them what they saw as the perfect solution to maintain peace and security and the continued participation of former territories in the world system they had created, The nation state. The collapse of these European Empires also saw the final rise of the idea of the nation state in Europe itself. The Treaty of Rome in 1957, founding what would later become the EU, is often projected as the image of a family of nation states working together having turned their back on war, the reality is that the collapse of empire allowed the idea to finally take hold unopposed.
As the world has emerged from the shadow of the Cold War, it is becoming increasingly clear that the old assumptions of the Westphalian system and the idea of the nation state no longer hold. Multinational cooperation, participation and even integration have become the order of the day as states look to build economic blocks and political groupings to allow them to compete on the world stage. With the decline of the Bi-polar world of the Cold War and the slow dissolution of the Uni-polar world that followed, this trend looks set to continue.
Europe, the heart of the old Westphalian system, has been the first mover in creating a new system of world power. The Treaty of Rome in 1957 was the first step on this journey, and the subsequent Treaty of Maastricht in 1992, created a truly new way of conducting domestic, national and international affairs. It is no mistake that Maastricht was signed so soon after the end of the Cold war and the collapse of Soviet power. The idea of a Europe composed of sovereign nation states would look to collective action on a regional level to achieve what the League of Nations and the UN had failed to on a global scale. Although coached in the terms of the idea of the nation state, this represents a new way of conducting and thinking about politics, even if it is still in its infancy with many issues to iron out.
Accepting that a new world system is developing, a new set of domestic, national and international assumptions and norms will need to be developed in order to ensure the system operates in the way it is intended. Although the last 350 years have left us with the impression that the Westphalian model is how states have always behaved, this is not the case and history offers plenty of examples to see different models in operation.
The Kingdoms and Empires of the Medieval and Classical world do offer an alternative system in which to anchor our politics, but an example which seems most apt for our purposes are the Leagues and alliances founded by the Greek city-states before the rise of Rome.
Although we are more familiar with the independent city states of Classical Greece, the League system which developed after this period offers some interesting insights and parallels to our own day.
In the Classical period, these systems started out as alliance structures which would allow a hegemonic power to dominate the smaller states without the need to conquer and control them militarily, an Empire by other means. The best example of this is the Delian League, founded, dominated and controlled by Athens from 478 BC until its destruction in 404 BC at the culmination of the Peloponnesian war. Although the Spartan led Peloponnesian League was less overtly an imperial project on behalf of the Spartans, it was more or less a way of enhancing and projecting Spartan power and so followed the same pattern.
However, with the rise of the city of Thebes, which dominated the Greek cities from 371 BC until about 362 BC, the nature of these organisations began to change. Although Thebes was the largest and most dominant city of the region of Boeotia in central Greece, the Boeotian League developed a unique federal structure which allowed the other cities more of a voice than what was offered to Athens or Sparta’s allies.
The League comprised of eleven groups of sovereign cities, each of which elected a “Boeotarch”, essentially a Minister for war and foreign affairs, and sent sixty delegates to the federal council situated at Thebes. Each member then provided contingents of soldiers for the League army. Any decision taken by the federal council had to be ratified at a local level.
Although the League was dominated by Thebes, which at one point was providing four of the Boeotarchs, an important precedent was set. The Boeotian League would not be merely a tool for the projection of Theban power, but would also allow a say and chance to reject and change decisions to all members of the League. Essentially, the foreign policy of the League was controlled centrally, whilst the internal affairs of individual members were left untouched and, with the federal council, the chance to cooperate across the region in a peaceful and productive manner also existed. Member states also had the opportunity to block decisions through the ratification process.
Although short lived, the Theban supremacy of the 4th century BC would allow this system to spread to other regions of the Greek World, most notably to the Peloponnese. Following their invasion of Spartan territory in support of the Arcadians in 370 BC, Epaminondas and Pelopidas, the two most prominent Boeotarchs of the time and the architects of Thebes’s supremacy, founded a new city named Megalopolis. This new city was to be the capital of a new Arcadian League, based on the Boeotian model, established as a counter weight to the power of Sparta in the Peloponnese.
Although the success of the new League would be short lived, and the power of Thebes and the Boeotian League would not survive the rise of Macedon, the ideas of how to organise internal, regional and international affairs began to stick.
Perhaps the best example of this change in approach comes from the Aetolian League. Aetolia had been unimportant and seen as a backward, almost barbaric, region for most of the Classical period but, beginning with the Athenian invasion of the region during the Peloponnesian War, the Aetolians quickly began to organise on a regional political level.
It is unclear exactly when the Aetolian League was founded, some suggesting it was by Epaminondas himself in 367 BC, but it could have been much later, during the rise of Macedon. However, what is clear is that the League was founded along federal lines and appears to have taken some inspiration from the ideas which underpinned the Boeotian and Arcadian Leagues. Over the next century the League would grow to encompass a large part of Central Greece, taking ownership of Delphi, fighting off several invasions and participating in resistance to Macedonian hegemony over Greece.
The League was eventually undone when it initially sided with Rome to resist the Macedonians and then turned on their erstwhile allies to resist growing Roman power. The defeat of the League’s ally, Antiochus III, the Seleucid King, in 189 BC by Rome, concluding the Roman-Syrian war, saw the Aetolians forced to sign a treaty making them a vassal state of Rome and all but eliminating them as an independent political power.
Like its predecessors, the League had a federal administrative structure whose primary role was to conduct foreign policy on a common basis. The league also achieved a level of economic standardisation across the region, with a common currency and tax rates as well as standardisation of weights and measures.
The central authority of the League was held by an assembly, a council and a number of magistrates drawn from all League members, but its power was limited due to the members only meeting twice a year. Further to this, it appears that members of the League had a high degree of autonomy within the structure, in extreme examples the League even seems to have proved unwilling or unable to prevent members from engaging in military action with states that the League had a formal treaty with.
Although not completely analogous with our own time, these ancient Greek Leagues do allow us to glimpse a different way of thinking about, organising and conducting our politics. In a world in which the assumptions of the Westphalian system seem to increasingly hold little water and the nation state an increasingly elusive and unworkable concept, if it ever was one, it is worth thinking about these other systems.
This type of structure was clearly flexible and able to cope with the demands and strains of an age in which the concepts of sovereignty, freedom from external interference and a balance of power did not exist. Further to this, the long-term success of the League, not only staving off invasion and growing its territory, but in the economic standardisation and reform, allowed the region to grow and flourish, the archaeology shows that the settlements of Aetolia grew significantly in the period of the League’s dominance.
In a world where sovereignty and freedom from interference in internal affairs could not be guaranteed, but people still wished to be most closely associated with the political organisation they felt most connected to, namely the city state, the loose federalism offered by these Leagues allowed people and states to exist, co-operate and maintain their freedom and independence, whilst also offering a sound economic footing and the ability to engage with the world at an international level in a meaningful way.
The Westphalian system only works if all participants are honest brokers abiding by its rules, as soon as one power looks to exploit the system, its limits and inability to enforce itself is exposed. In a world increasingly populated by revisionist powers looking to exploit the international system for their own gain, a rethinking of the way in which we engage politically, on a local, national, regional and international basis becomes an imperative rather than an option. The most obvious and glaring examples of these violations come in the form of cyber-attacks and interference in election processes, but they are just the tip of a very large iceberg.
Europe has begun the process of reconsidering the assumptions of the way we conduct politics, but in recent years its challengers have gained a lot of momentum in their campaign to halt it in its tracks. This is a difficulty but also a measure of its success thus far. However, it is a clear warning for the future tests the new system still has to overcome and a rethinking of how we conceive of politics may provide a way to move forward.
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