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The Peace of Westphalia and Its Hierarchy Essay


Signed in 1648, the peace of Westphalia was an international agreement among the major European powers of the 17th century to respect the sovereignty of other nations (Gross 20). This agreement ended more than three decades of conflict in Europe (Clark 13).

As the continent’s influence spread around the world, the same principle of sovereignty became a pillar of international law (Clark 13). Consequently, the signing of the peace of Westphalia became a hallmark for the development of the principle of international law, which introduced the concept of nation-states and sovereignty in global politics. Indeed, according to Beaulac (68), the treaty reaffirmed the concept of a nation’s sovereignty over its domestic affairs. Conversely, it advocated for the exclusion of all external powers in a country’s internal affairs by promoting the principle of non-interference (Gross 20).

This paper investigates the significance of the peace of Westphalia by focusing on the views of selected researchers, such as Osiander (260), Jackson (431), Gross (20), and Krasner (214) on the peace agreement. However, before delving into the details surrounding this investigation, it is important to understand the three pillars of sovereignty, which will help us to comprehend whether equality or hierarchy characterized the peace agreement and evaluate how the peace of Westphalia is of importance to our understanding of sovereignty in modern society. This paper also contains an auxiliary analysis of this issue through an investigation of the views of Osiander (244) on the concept of sovereignty and its application to our modern understanding of the same.

Pillars of Sovereignty

Based on the peace of Westphalia, some experts believe that the principle of sovereignty has three main constitutive pillars, which manifest in our general understanding of the principle of sovereignty (Stirk 641). The first pillar advocates for the absolute exercise of authority by a sovereign government (in a sovereign state) over the people living within the sovereign territory (Lake 46). In reference to this philosophy, some researchers dispute the exercising of absolute authority over people and societies because they argue that it cannot exist in its natural form (Osiander 247). Instead, they advocate for the use of the term, “final authority,” as the correct description of this phenomenon. Jean Bodin argues this fact in his book, Six Books of the Commonwealth (Lake 46). He says,

“Persons who are sovereign must not be subject in any way to the commands of someone else and must be able to give law to subjects, and to suppress, or repeal, disadvantageous laws and replace them with others – which cannot be done by someone who is subject to the laws or persons having power or command over him” (Lake 46).

President Harry Truman added to this conversation by saying, sovereignty is “where the buck stops” (Lake 46).

The second pillar of sovereignty forbids external powers from having authority over people, or a territory, that considers itself sovereign (Clark 14). This pillar of sovereignty shares a corollary relationship with the first pillar. Stated differently, if sovereignty infers that a government is the ultimate (final) authority over a given jurisdiction, there is no room for another power to exercise its authority over the same jurisdiction (Lake 46).

Stated differently, there is no room for an external power to exercise its authority over the “internal affairs” of a sovereign state, legitimately. This is a principle of exclusion in international politics and Krasner (214) presents it as the primary trait in the peace of Westphalia.

The last pillar of sovereignty presents the principle as indivisible. Here, Lake (48) says it premises on the understanding that there can be only one ultimate authority within a sovereign state. In other words, societies cannot subdivide this authority with other parties. Excerpts of this paper show that this philosophy is contestable, but it suffices as the third pillar of the sovereignty concept. Nonetheless, researchers have explained this principle more intricately by saying that the only way this authority is divisible is by subdividing power among different levels of government (Krasner 214). Several jurists, such as Hugo Grotius, have supported this view (Krasner 214).

Did Equality or Hierarchy characterize the Treaties?

During the 17th century, hierarchy, and not equality, was the dominant theme in international politics (Clark 13-15). According to Lake (46), the principle of international dominance was the core principle of the European international system at the time of formulating the Westphalia agreement. The spirit of the international legal sovereignty premised on the understanding that sovereign states should have legal equality (Clark 13-15).

In other words, every state has a right to enter internationally binding agreements. Comparatively, the spirit of the Westphalia sovereignty model is the understanding that each state has a right to determine the nature of its domestic structures. It also advocated for the independence of states from external influence. Although this norm was overtly associated with the formulation of the peace of Westphalia, the world did not explicitly articulate it until the 18th century (Osiander 244). Emmerich de Vattel articulated this fact in his article, the Law of Nations (Lake 46).

Christian Reus-Smit and Richard Ned Lebow also affirmed the above assumption when they said the principle of hierarchy was the founding principle of international relations in the 17th century (Lake 46). In other words, different nations found it important to pursue a favorable international standing over their neighbors, as opposed to pursuing the defense of honor, or the pursuit of glory, in their relations with other states, as proponents of sovereign equality would like to believe (Osiander 244).

In the 17th century, this scenario meant bitter disputes about precedence in international politics. The negotiations that led to the formulation of the peace of Westphalia provide ample evidence of such behavior. Here, it is important to acknowledge that as smaller states strived to assert their dominance in international politics, there could have been attempts to present the principle of sovereign equality as the guiding principle in the peace of Westphalia (Lake 46).

In other words, some researchers believe that different countries strived for equality with dominant states (Gross 48). While such attempts may seem like pursuits for equality, in reality, they were pursuits by major European countries to enhance their status (Stirk 644). Preferably, they would do so at the expense of other nations. The extent of the quest for states to assert their dominance over others appears in an excerpt of negotiations among the Dutch and its adversaries, cited in Stirk (644). It says,

“When we ask them if they mean to aspire to any equality with the king, they say no, but also that we would do them a greater injustice if we made any difference between them and Venice, or if we introduced any equality between them and a vassal of the Empire”( Stirk 644).

Modern historians would interpret the above citation as a conversation, of the Dutch, about the demands of smaller states on the larger and more dominant states. In fact, such demands appeared as preconditions of the smaller states to consent to signing the peace of Westphalia. Coupled with the expansionist aggression of major European powers of the time (notably, France, Dutch, and Sweden), this statement shows that the hierarchical system was the main motif characterizing international relations in the 17th century. Osiander (260) affirms this view because he said the major powers were in constant conflict with one another because they wanted to “aggrandize themselves” and not because they were seeking absolute equality among themselves.

According to Lake (47), the main impediment to understanding the dominance of hierarchy in the peace of Westphalia is the assumption that sovereignty is indivisible, Classical and contemporary scholars are the main proponents of this view (Lake 47). What this view means is that even small states that have achieved sovereignty cannot be subordinate to others. However, this view is false because dominant states often exercise their influence on smaller states (although the latter may not be under their authority).

This situation prevails in modern society, although, in principle, sovereignty is indivisible. Like the notion of juridical sovereignty, the classical and contemporary scholars wish sovereignty was indivisible, but, in practice, this is not so (Lake 47). Indeed, it is a political aspiration and not a true reflection of the facts. This assertion shows that the principle of sovereignty characterized the peace of Westphalia. Furthermore, in affirming the principle of cuius region, eius religio (whose kingdom, his religion), the victors of the 30-year war that preceded the peace of Westphalia often elevated their secular rulers to positions of dominant power that were often used to influence smaller jurisdictions.

The victors first articulated this principle in the peace of Augsburg and often used it to undermine the dominance of the church (Lake 47). Gross (20) described this phenomenon in majestic portal and declared that it was the age of the rise of sovereign states.

Comprehensively, we find that although there were arguments about equality in the 18th century, they did not form part of the spirit of formulating the peace of Westphalia. The principle of equality only emerged in the 19th century, when some researchers claimed it suggested a Westphalia provenance (Osiander 247). Indeed, it was not until after the Second World War that the linkage between Westphalia and sovereign equality became commonplace.

The influential work of Gross (28) opposed this view. In this regard, Gross (28) bequeathed a dubious account of the Westphalia model, which is detrimental to our understanding of the Westphalia model. Nonetheless, the accounts highlighted in this paper show that hierarchy, and not equality, was the dominant theme in international relations at the time of formulating the peace of Westphalia. Indeed, we find that the peace of Westphalia was restorative and not innovative because there are few traces of sovereign equality.

How Persuasive is Andrea’s Critique of the Westphalia Model?

Osiander (251) is a prominent IR scholar who has studied the disciplines of international relations, economics, and history. His contributions towards understanding the importance of the peace of Westphalia stem from his studies on the concept of the state. His main teachings, in this regard, strive to explain that the concept of sovereignty is subject to change. His works also demonstrate that the concept of sovereignty, as conceptualized during the signing of the peace of Westphalia, does not suffice as the concept of sovereignty as we know it today (Shibasaki 41). He also says the conception of sovereignty, as conceived during the signing of the peace of Westphalia, is irrelevant to today’s global landscape (Shibasaki 41).

In traditional international relations, the peace of Westphalia heralded the start of the international system of state relations. Contrary to this understanding, Osiander (251) argues that the international political system as we know it today does not reflect the same principle described in 1648, in the Westphalia treaty. He presents a counter narrative that argues that the concept of modern sovereignty started with the French revolution and found its footing in the industrial revolution (Shibasaki 41).

Therefore, Osiander (251) postulates that the concept of national sovereignty was not a product of the Westphalia peace agreement, but, rather, a product of the interactions of different countries during the 18th and 19th centuries. In other words, Osiander (251) argues that the treaties of Westphalia explained who had the rights to make laws, but did not consider the territorial matter of what we consider as “sovereignty” today. A key part of his argument strives to portray the view that the Westphalia model has little to do with the treaty signed in 1648. Some people have openly accepted this argument (Jackson 431; Gross 20).

However, others have treated it with contempt (Osiander 251). Some experts have referenced the works of these critics for purposes of developing a holistic historical record of the principle of sovereignty in international politics (Shibasaki 41). However, most people have overlooked their broader purpose and critical intent in such debates. Nonetheless, Osiander (251) is persuasive in his criticism of the Westphalia model as the genesis of sovereignty. With other researchers, such as Mulcaire (1), who believe in his teachings, he argued that the principles of the peace of Westphalia have different misconceptions and weaknesses.

Key among them is that the concept of sovereignty is “imaginary.” Generally, Osiander (262) argued that the concept of sovereignty, as conceptualized during the signing of the peace of Westphalia treaty, is not the same, or relevant, to international politics as we know it today. To explain his argument, Osiander (251) presented a summary of the wars that preceded the peace of Westphalia. Although he acknowledges the simplicity of his arguments, we find that he carefully chooses what to include as part of his argument. Based on this methodology, some researchers have criticized the author for lacking depth in his arguments (Stirk 642).

However, to counter such criticism, Osiander (251) argues that sovereignty was a not a key tenet of the peace of Westphalia because there was no threat to other nations, per se. This argument emerges from the fact that, in the 17th century, different states did not go to war with each other to defend their territories. Instead, they fought because of expansionist agendas (Krasner 214). For example, he said, “Safeguarding the Swedish position in the Baltic hardly necessitated the capture of Munich” (Osiander 251).

In this statement, Osiander (251) claims that Sweden was not striving to protect its sovereignty. In his works, he goes ahead to delink sovereignty from the 1648 peace agreement. Indeed, if we accept his claim that the major European powers that fought in the 30-year war that preceded the signing of the peace of Westphalia did not fight to defend themselves, then it is difficult to claim a link between sovereignty and the 1648 peace agreement.

I find the arguments of Osiander (251) convincing because in my experience, most beliefs and principles about international relations are narrowly focused on the western understanding of interstate interactions. In other words, most of the teachings about international relations come from the history of Europe and the myths of international relations shared by people who believe in the “myth” of sovereignty. Some researchers support this opinion through their criticism of the western-centrism of international relations.

For example, Shibasaki (44) investigates this phenomenon by saying many non-western nations accept this myth without properly understanding how it accentuates their beliefs and values about international relations, or how they represent who they are as a society. Another problem about the acceptance of western-based modern science and discipline in international relations stems from people’s failure to arrange historical facts correctly. Osiander (251) alluded to this fact in his criticism of the Westphalia treaty when he said that the concept of sovereignty emerged in the 18th and 19th century and not the 17th century, as proponents of the model would like to believe. In other words, he argues that most people who consider sovereignty synonymous to the Westphalia treaty have their facts misplaced (Osiander 251).

The concept of antagonistic acculturation explains this fact because nations that thrive in a world dominated by a few selected superpowers have to abide by the principles of the superpowers to remain relevant (Shibasaki 44). Krasner (214) further dissects this narrative by encouraging people to break down their thoughts, or belief systems, into several elements, because, by doing so, they would find that their beliefs come from different fragments of society, like Buddhism, Confucianism and the likes.

The problem with understanding their significance to our daily lives stems from their disorderly coexistence. Therefore, it is difficult to understand their logical relation. I believe Osiander (251) tries to use this narrative to explain his criticism of the addition of sovereignty with the peace of Westphalia treaty because as Shibasaki says, “Various thought was imported in a given chronological order. However, they lost their historical structure because they coexisted temporally with sometimes only changing its arrangement in one’s mind” (48).

I also find the arguments of Osiander (251) as persuasive to our conceptualization of international politics because, over the years, globalization has changed our understanding of sovereignty. Therefore, his arguments present a more factual understanding of the nature of today’s international political structure. Martin Wight, an independent scholar, supports this view because he believes the birth of nation-states, through the peace of Westphalia, is a process of the failure of church to reform in the 15th century (Krasner 214).

Benno Teschke shares a similar view because he says that although the origin of the modern international system stems from social, political and economic changes in the world, the peace of Westphalia was a product of changes in property relations in the modern European economy (Shibasaki 44). People who have contested such opinions have often had ambivalent and unconvincing arguments.

Relative to this finding, some researchers, such as Krasner (214), do not perceive the peace of Westphalia as a point of rupture in the modern international relations theory. Researchers who share the same view argue that for most international relations theory, the peace of Westphalia acts as the mythic origin of modern international relations (Krasner 214). Indeed, as Osiander (251) argues, the significance of the model is not historical, but a condition of possibility in our understanding of global politics.

In this paper, we find that the arguments of Osiander (251) are persuasive on theoretical and political grounds because international relations are not a contingent encounter that has passed, but rather a continually evolving phenomenon. In the same lens of analysis, we find that the concept of political sovereignty is not in a historical context, but, rather, in a continuously evolving political framework. A paraphrase of the words of Osiander (251) espouses the same philosophy because he says we cannot move beyond Westphalia, if the model is merely an explanation of how our scholars founded our political philosophies.

Comprehensively, Osiander (251) provides a persuasive argument about the conception of sovereignty in the peace of Westphalia. He grounds his analysis on historical facts and preset-day conceptions of the concept. Consequently, it is easy to relate with them and to find them more persuasive than the views of traditionalists who fail to capture the influence of globalization and present-day political relationships in understanding the role of the peace of Westphalia in international politics.

The failure of traditionalists to present a realistic understanding of sovereignty, in the context of the peace of Westphalia, emerges if we look at how international norms and standards of operation guide national activities. For example, when a country violates human rights, in the name of sovereignty, it is bound to face global condemnation, and possible international military intervention for abusing such rights.

Concisely, the recent military intervention of western powers in Libya, to oust the former Libyan dictator, Muammar Gaddaffi, for contravening human rights, exemplifies this fact because if Libya was a sovereign state, as the Westphalia model would argue, western powers did not have the legitimate authority to intervene in its “internal affairs.” Therefore, the notion of sovereignty, as conceptualized in the peace of Westphalia, is “imaginary,” as Osiander (262) argues.

Significance of the peace of Westphalia

It is the basis for the International Political System

Many researchers have touted the peace of Westphalia as the basis for the international system of nation-states as we know it today (Stirk 641; Gross 20). However, some politicians and revisionist academics have disagreed with this view, citing numerous flaws of the concept (Mulcaire 1-3). However, these criticisms do not take away the contribution of the peace of Westphalia in developing the United Nations (UN) as the global center of international relations.

Loosely, based on the principle of equality, every nation-state that associates itself with the UN has a vote in the national assembly. Owing to the spread of democratic ideals around the globe, many countries around the world have affirmed the principles of the peace of Westphalia, as we could see through the increase of UN member states from 50 to 192 (between the period of its inception and the start of the 21st century) (Mulcaire 2). Nonetheless, some researchers say the nation-states that form part of the UN membership are creations of colonial jurisdictions and, therefore, fail to represent their ethnic, or demographic, characteristics (Stirk 641).

The above facts show that the peace of Westphalia altered the political power structures that governed international relations (Croxton 569). Albeit the principle of sovereignty existed in some parts of the continent, it was not globally accepted (Stirk 641-643). The peace of Westphalia helped to change this perception. The acceptance of the sovereign system also helped to bolster the authority of governments in the global political system because the peace of Westphalia gave them the exclusive authority to impose their decisions and arguments on their subjects (Croxton 569-571). This system justifies government authority in modern society.

Respect for the Territorial Integrity of Other nations

Before the peace of Westphalia dominated global politics, monarchs ruled many jurisdictions of the world. This form of governance often defined states as “personal properties” of the ruling families. However, the peace of Westphalia changed this view by presenting states as properties of the people and not personal properties of a few individuals (Jackson 431).

Although this idea of ownership was supposed to bring order and sanity to global politics, it did not stop the imperial expansion of Europe because many European countries abided by the principles of the peace of Westphalia at home, but never did the same when they encountered other people/nations outside the continent (Mulcaire 2-3).

Consequently, they appropriated, portioned and exploited other people’s territories. Environmentalists and people who advocate for the just and fair distribution of the earth’s resources oppose the peace of Westphalia because they see it as an obstacle to the implementation of a global order to impose international standards for the fair distribution of resources, as it would infringe on their sovereignty (Mulcaire 2). However, this argument does not take away the fact that the peace of Westphalia makes countries, today, respect the territorial integrity of other nations.

Contributions to Theoretical Development

The peace of Westphalia contributes to the growing body of knowledge about international relations theory because some researchers say it provides the basis for the development of the international relations system, through which the theory stands (Beaulac 68-70; Jackson 431-433). Conversely, proponents of the international relations theory have drawn a link between the theory and the peace of Westphalia by outlining three principles, which include the principle of the sovereignty of states, the principle of (legal) equality among states, and the principle of non-intervention as binary elements of the two (Mulcaire 2-3).

Social scientists also assume that the peace of Westphalia is the bedrock for the formulation of several schools of thought in international relations (Gross 20-22). For example, observers say both realists and neo-liberals present their views of international relations through the ideals of the peace of Westphalia (Jackson 431-433). Theorists of nationalism also use the ideals of this peace treaty to espouse their arguments. By linking the role of religion and state power, this group of people says the peace of Westphalia largely contributed to the ideology of nationalism in the 19th century. It also contributed to the deep association of many Europeans with the concept of nation-states (Mulcaire 2-3).

Promotion of Interstate Competition

Since the beginning of the industrial revolution, competition has led to the growth and development of many nation-states. Indeed, the quest for superior products and services has led to increased innovation and economic growth in many countries. Similarly, increased investments in military power, among global powers, is a product of international competition because different countries invest in technology to protect their sovereignty.

Competition is at the center of this development. However, it would not exist without the principles of the peace of Westphalia, which supports the protection of national values through the principles of sovereignty (Beaulac 68). State rivalry and collaboration are also products of the competitive force that emerged from the peace of Westphalia. Today, this competitive pressure exists among nations as they try to outshine each other on political and economic grounds. This trend is a direct product of the peace of Westphalia, which promotes sovereignty. It has helped to improve the quality of life and security in many nation-states.


The findings of this essay show that the peace of Westphalia is the bedrock for the understanding of international relations. This is why international relation scholars and students, in the same discipline, present it as a (Westphalia) model in international relations.

Although the findings of this study are comprehensive, it would be interesting to see how the peace of Westphalia will continue to influence today’s global political system. Indeed, as different states continue to violate human rights under the guise of sovereignty, global attention is shifting towards understanding the principles set forth by the peace of Westphalia. Furthermore, there is growing attention towards re-examining the influence of non-state actors, such as individuals and non-governmental organizations, towards influencing state actions.

Works Cited

Beaulac, Stéphane. The Power of Language in the Making of International Law: The Word Sovereignty in Bodin and Vattel and the Myth of Westphalia, New York, NY: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 2004. Print.

Clark, Ian. Legitimacy in International Society, Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2005. Print.

Croxton, David. “The peace of Westphalia of 1648 and the origins of Sovereignty.” The International History Review, 21.1 (1999): 569-91. Print.

Gross, Leo. “The peace of Westphalia, 1648-1948.” American Journal of International Law, 42.1 (1948): 20-41. Print.

Jackson, Robert. “Sovereignty in World politics: A Glance at the Conceptual and Historical landscape.” Political Studies, 47.3 (1991): 431-56. Print.

Krasner, Stephen. Power, the State, and Sovereignty: Essays on International Relations, London, UK: Routledge, 2009. Print.

Lake, David. Rt-Hierarchy in International Relations Z, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2011. Print.

Mulcaire, Camille. . 2014. Web.

Osiander, Andrea. “Sovereignty, International Relations, and the Westphalian Myth.” International Organization, 55.2 (2001): 251-287. Print.

Shibasaki, Atsushi. . 2015. Web.

Stirk, Peter. “The Westphalian Model and Sovereign Equality.” Review of International Studies, 38.1 (2012): 641-660. Print.

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