23 April 2020

What lies beyond Westphalia?

The Westphalian state is remarkably assertive, often regarded as the inevitable, near-sacralised referential. In a contribution to the recent SAGE Handbook of Political Science Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou, Professor of International History at the Graduate Institute, examines the intellectual history of statehood, its historical dominance by North American and European perspectives, and explores the forms of statehood that we have not overlooked but rather been unable to imagine because of that foundational monopoly. Interview.

Can you describe the origins of the Westphalian state and the issues associated with its articulation?

By and large, discussion of the state tends to start in most academic quarters with the so-called Westphalian state. So much so that Westphalia and statehood are coupled almost reflexively as commonplace in the study and practice of political history. Roughly, the genealogy is that between the spring and autumn of 1648 a series of three treaties were debated and signed by approximately one hundred delegations coming from sixteen different regions of Europe. The treaties were signed in the cities of Osnabrück and Münster in the Duchy of Westphalia, which earlier had come under Prussian control. These treaties were meant to bring to an end the succession of armed conflicts known as the Thirty-Year War, which had taken place initially on religious Catholic and Protestant matters across Central and Western Europe since 1618 (and since 1568 between Spain and the Dutch Republic). 

The treaties produced a novel type of systemic interaction between these self-selecting agents predicated on the notion of limited sovereignty (with the view to end the conflicts and to maintain some sort of resilient “rules of the game”) – novel in the sense that this perceptibly departed from what empires round the world and theocratic systems (such as the Holy Roman Empire or the Ottoman Empire) had based their universal suzerainty on for centuries. The vision – and it is inherently that – which emerged came then to stand as the cement of statehood conceived in this particular mould of “the nation-state”. 

Over the next two centuries, this configuration was gradually fleshed out within each of these domestic systems, primarily by the development of local institutions fleshing out this now-elevated sovereignty (fiscal unification, military conscription, socialised education, and so on), and by congress diplomacy which did so similarly amongst the system’s actors. As Europe took to its colonial expansion, that model came along, and later, with decolonisation, the “new states” sought to emulate it. What this tells us, first and foremost, is that the Westphalian state was the unpremeditated result of discrete meetings whose explicit aim was to resolve armed conflicts in a given part of the world, and that the emphasis, or simply selection, of sovereignty was merely conditioned by that initial territorial demarcation objective. Westphalia’s canon of the nation-state is therefore inherently related to conflict and to the settlement of war by diplomacy. Logically, it birthed ragione di stato, today’s national security, around that dual DNA.

Why do we have so few alternative forms of statehood?

Because this particular understanding of statehood was successful and remained unchallenged. More precisely, because it was successfully engineered and, in the case of several of these states, efficiently – if destructively – exported to the rest of the world soon afterwards. The practice of Westphalia made Westphalia. Combined with the central place these “states” came to occupy in the “invention of the modern world”, the model was logically looked upon as desirable, and soon enough presented as the universal norm. This last aspect is key. Even when challenged – and there is a long tradition to that effect in social sciences, as in the case of the works of John Hobson, Benno Teschke or more recently Zeynep Gülsah Çapan – the Westphalian state is remarkably assertive, more often than not regarded as the inevitable referential adorned with near-sacralised authority. “What else is there?” sort-of-ask both the laudatory and the opposed critic, fatalistically working with the problematic fact that the history of the state remains a political history associated with the history of the West and confined to the Westphalian model. My starting point is different. I seek to explore the fullness of the possibilities of the worlds of statehood. I visit the notional nature of stateness by first provincialising Westphalia, to borrow Dipesh Chakrabarty’s phrase, and exploring not what forms we might have overlooked but rather what we have been unable to imagine because of that foundational monopoly. The management of violence, the organisation of civic affairs, the establishment of legal systems, the control of individuals, the invention of foreign policy and the subjugation of the citizenry may well be universal matters, but their sui generis staging at a given moment and in a given place in post–Middle Ages old continental Europe cannot exhaust all the potential configurations of the regulation of communal political and socioeconomic life. Such an exploration uncovers, too, the fact that the normative domination of the territorially defined and coercively monopolistic Westphalian state has produced a de facto dismissal of non-Western statehood and negative understanding of the issues today.

What exactly do you mean by that “negative understanding of the issues”? 

Non-Western statehood is defined negatively, given in relation not to what it is but to that which it is not. Like many notions in canonical contemporary international relations, non-Western statehood suffers therefore the fate of having to start off by justifying its existence. And this subjective indication forced on it comes problematically in addition to the objective challenge of identifying its elusive characteristics. Quite simply, non-Western statehood has not so far been taken seriously in mainstream international relations. It is often looked upon as, at best, a folkloric sideshow associated with non-viable, pre–modern Global South, passé “traditions”. This Handbook is, as it were, one of the few to have taken the issue seriously and incorporated it in its curriculum, and I am grateful to its editors to have invited me to analyse this question. To try to think of different statehood today means working against the sum total of knowledge about the state that has been poured into schools of thought such as Weberianism, Marxism, Gramscian-Marxism, realism, neorealism, liberalism, neoliberalism, constructivism and dependency theory, all with the Westphalian yardstick in hand. Indeed, the whole mid-1990s-to-early-2000s phraseology of “failed”, “collapsed”, “fragile” and “weak” states is derivative of this a-historical construct.

So, what would be alternative ideas of state projects, and what might they tell us about competing forms of ideology or interregional aspects?

They are not necessarily in competition. They simply coexist. Again, the history here is that the particulars of an experience were put on a pedestal as standard and practice, and so, by now, we read this history as inevitable and everything else as “alternative”. Away from this and noting the vastness of possibilities in Africa, Asia and the Arab-Islamic worlds, to name but these places, I attempt a first generic typology with four proposed sectors in which different statehood can be delineated: the open-ended nature of the social contract as basis for state-building, the changing arrangements around the notion of power, the unsettled concept of territory, and the fluid idea of struggle. Whereas Jean-Jacques Rousseau essentially approached the state as a monolith and therefore posited the attributes as markers of the interaction with society, Ibn Khaldun examined social affairs through privileging not structure but time. The state can then be different temporalities interacting with complex national imaginaries. Similarly, power can be understood differently from a force- or violence-anchored reading by pointing out to neglected aspects such as competence producing order while limiting internal social differentiation. Thirdly, differently from territorial contiguity, non-Western statehood opens the possibility of continuously interpenetrated transnational space as a base of political authority. Finally, the Western standard of statehood has assumed a certain linearity in the organisation of social struggle (i.e., order from revolution). Other perspectives have featured struggle more as a dynamic of demarcation and preservation. The struggle itself is statehood rather than its eventual outcome. All in all, non-Western statehood emerges as a set of historical processes rather than structures, contrary for instance to what J.P. Nettl argued in 1968 in his text “The State as a Conceptual Variable”.

How does the history of statehood help us contextualise better the democratic state and its contemporary legacies?

I would say that historically it is more the nation-state dimension that is the key aspect rather than the democratic one. Democracy was an added value to that construct, and it remains very much a work in progress. In point of fact – and though this may appear surprising given the emphasised image of the emancipated Western citizen – the strength of the Western state is historically correlated with its emasculated citizenry domestically. The Western state was successful because it was more lethal, not because it was democratic. And that lethality, in turn, was often amoral, driven primarily by military necessity, not ethics of accountability and representativity. Bringing in the non-Western state allows us principally to decouple the state-West tautology that international relations, and particularly North American political science, are built on misleadingly. Historicising statehood properly and away from the forced Westphalia caesura allows us, secondarily, to understand that the cornerstone of modern-day statehood proceeds from a specific history, instead of what we tend to see and teach as an inevitable, scientific matrix. It allows us, thirdly, to better contextualise the problematic power configurations replayed for over a century in and around international institutions such as the League of Nations, the United Nations and the regional organisations. Importantly, it opens vistas beyond the long sequence from raison d’État to garrison state to neo-imperial state as the force-driven mainstay of statehood. It helps us account more comprehensively for the history of the state and its contemporary transformation, particularly as regards the fragmentation, fluidity, transnationality and indeed de-statisation (which would then be de-Westphalisation) colouring international affairs since the late twentieth century. The problematisation of non-Western statehood gives way to a positive project wherein the vanishing of alterity problem is addressed, and these additional perspectives become co-constitutive of the fullness of international affairs. It gives us a more complete history.

You discuss nationalism as well in the essay. Given the influence of nationalism on statehood, is there a decisive and nonviolent role for it to play?

Indeed, there is. The Westphalian state has also led us to see nationalism and violence as related in the context of state-building. Again, this is the story of Western state-making from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century, followed by communism, fascism and Nazism in the twentieth century. Nationalism is not necessarily related to violence; their connections only materialise under specific historical conditions, which admittedly often take place. But again, we need to think in more generous and creative terms. Reification of nationalism as primarily related to violence obscures, for instance, the coalescence (what Ibn Khaldun again called iltiham) that materialised around feelings of nationalism, and that in itself in the end can be a marker of statehood.

How does this chapter relate to your current and upcoming research?

The chapter examines the intellectual history of statehood, its historical dominance by North American and European perspectives, and the resulting eschewing of other traditions and understandings of statehood. It critiques the limited purview of such a canon, erected as a central referential for statehood per se, and examines the historically variegated journey of statehood by non-Western actors. It is a first foray in a book I am writing on The Untold History of International Relations, which is a critical examination of the history of international relations as a discipline in social sciences. Paying particular attention to the sources of that knowledge formulation, the background and worldviews of its key contributors, the tenets and logic of the strands that came to dominate that field, and the relationship – spoken, unspoken; seen, unseen – with policymaking, the project aims at mapping and understanding the power dynamics that presided over the birth, coalescence and development of the field of “international relations”, and particularly Western political science. The project endeavours to go beyond the critique of Eurocentrism and Orientalism (as “traits” or as language and discourse traversing the mainstream canon of international relations) to interrogate the ways in which an academic discipline itself emerged historically in a particular diplomatic and power context that determined, possibly in indelible ways, its international purpose and direction, and notably its attention to questions of power. 

The chapter also grew out of the research for an edited volume, State-Building in the Middle East and North Africa: One Hundred Years of Nationalism and Politics (Bloomsbury, 2021), which I am completing on the historical challenges of state-building in the Middle East and North Africa, focusing on the period spanning the past century. These issues have also been explored continuously with my students in my seminar “State-Building and War-Making in the Developing World” taught at the Graduate Institute since 2010 and at Sciences Po Paris since 2013, and at the University of St. Gallen next semester.

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Full citation of Professor Ould Mohamedou’s chapter:
Ould Mohamedou, Mohammad Mahmoud. “In Search of the Non-Western State: Historicising and De-Westphalianising Statehood.” In The SAGE Handbook of Political Science, edited by Dirk Berg-Schlosser, Bertrand Badie, and Leonardo Morlino. London: SAGE, 2020.

Interview conducted by Joshua Thew, PhD candidate in International History; editing by Nathalie Tanner, Research Office
Banner image: excerpt from an image by Maurizio De Mattei/