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Sovereignty, International Relations, and the Westphalian Myth


The 350th anniversary of the Peace of Westphalia in 1998 was largely ignored by the discipline of international relations (IR), despite the fact that it regards that event as the beginning of the international system with which it has traditionally dealt. By contrast, there has recently been much debate about whether the “Westphalian system” is about to end. This debate necessitates, or at least implies, historical comparisons. I contend that IR, unwittingly, in fact judges current trends against the backdrop of a past that is largely imaginary, a product of the nineteenth- and twentieth-century fixation on the concept of sovereignty. I discuss how what I call the ideology of sovereignty has hampered the development of IR theory. I suggest that the historical phenomena I analyze in this article—the Thirty Years' War and the 1648 peace treaties as well as the post–1648 Holy Roman Empire and the European system in which it was embedded—may help us to gain a better understanding of contemporary international politics.

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Ronald G. Asch 1997. The Thirty Years' War: The Holy Roman Empire and Europe, 1618–1648. Basingstoke: Macmillan.

Hedley Bull . 1977. The Anarchical Society: A Study of Order in World Politics. London: Macmillan.

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Andreas Osiander . 1994. The States System of Europe, 1640–1990: Peacemaking and the Conditions of International Stability. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

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John Gerard Ruggie . 1992. Territoriality and Beyond: Problematizing Modernity in International Relations. International Organization 47 (1):139–74.

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Mark W. Zacher 1992. The Decaying Pillars of the Westphalian Temple: Implications for International Order and Governance. In Governance Without Government: Order and Change in World Politics, edited by James N. Rosenau and Ernst-Otto Czempiel , 58101. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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International Organization
  • ISSN: 0020-8183
  • EISSN: 1531-5088
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