Religious Freedom and the Undoing of the Westphalian State

Not so long ago, in 1998, the world acknowledged both the fiftieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the 350th anniversary of the Peace of Westphalia. The Universal Declaration was celebrated in the popular press, by thousands of activists, and at well attended open forums at schools and universities. Westphalia was noted almost exclusively at academic conferences. But public obscurity is an undeserved fate for Westphalia, for its legacy in organizing our political world vies with that of the American and French revolutions. What Westphalia inaugurated was a system of sovereign states where a single authority resided supreme within a set of borders, constitutionally unchallengeable from within and without. Further warranting our remembrance are signs of its undoing. What Westphalia once secured in 1648 is cracking in ever widening webs. Since the end of the Cold War, international authorities-the United Nations, the European Union, NATO, others-have sanctioned intervention in venues as diverse as Iraq, Somalia, Rwanda, Haiti, Bosnia, Namibia, Cambodia, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Liberia, the Sudan, and Kosovo. All of these actions pry open the old doors of the norm of non-intervention, one of Westphalia’s key attainments. They reverse history’s momentum, for in consolidating a system of sovereign states, Westphalia ended centuries of evolution away from frequent, fierce, intervention. The Peace of Westphalia fastened the state’s authority from outside claims, sealing the state as a vault. This seal would persist well into the twentieth century; the system of absolutely sovereign states that Westphalia wrought would prove to be one of modernity’s most enduring institutions.