After Westphalia: Introduction
Kicking off a new essay series on the nation state
Part of my After Westphalia series
When I first visited Western Europe as a backpacking graduate student in 1998, everything looked like a picture postcard of itself. It is a quality that has survived in the less forgiving age of Instagram. Perhaps I lack the refined eye of a photographer, but Europe in reality looks to me like it does on Instagram.
It was only after I visited Europe that I understood why Europeans say what they do about India, that it is a land of contradictions. That cliche says more about Europe than it does about India.
Europe is a land of tautologies: the experience of the continent corresponds closely to the visceral idea of it. It is the harmony of the idea of Europe that is historically exceptional, not the disharmony of the idea of India.
For an experienced reality to so closely match your idea of it, and at such a large scale, requires not just boundaries — in both space and time — but an ordering consciousness within those boundaries; one that is acutely aware of itself.
Not everything belongs in the idea of Europe, but for the things, people, and ideas that do belong, there is a place for everything, and everything is in its place. Greeks go over there, Vikings over here. Less obviously, everything that belongs in Europe has a time in Europe. Greece as an idea belongs in antiquity, the modern state bearing that name being a mildly embarrassing presence framed by a hallowed memory. The idea of Britain is artistically smeared out over about a millennium, between the Arthurian legends and the Industrial Revolution. The idea of France waxes and wanes between tentpoles like the reign of Louis XIV and the storming of the Bastille.
Each piece of the idea of Europe fits perfectly into a grand jigsaw puzzle sprawling across space and time.
Not everything that belongs within the idea of Europe is necessarily European in origin. Islam belongs within the idea of Europe, framed by the history of the crusades and the legacy of Islamic stewardship of Greek scholarship. Turkey, Egypt, and Russia loom as near-constant boundary conditions, incorporated within the idea of Europe in specific, stylized ways and, with restrictions, awarded actual membership within it.
The epochs that make up the European narrative — Greco-Roman antiquity, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, Early Modernity, and Modernity — are acts in a story with a very definite shape and evolutionary logic to it. It is a story animated by a terminal perfection of being rather than an ongoing becoming. It is a story with no loose ends, at least not anymore, and certainly not within the spatiotemporal boundaries of the idea of Europe. It is a story that terminates in the dense, maximal-entropy order of full self-actualization, the very opposite of a tabula rasa.
This does not mean, of course, that there are no conflicts in modern Europe. But the conflicts, even when tragic, seem to have a faintly ridiculous quality to them. Brexit, for instance, has all the noise and fury of a farcical end-of-history conflict signifying nothing. It is one of Europe’s many endemic conflicts of being, rather than a conflict of growth and becoming.
The terminal idea of Europe then, has something of a wabi-sabi aesthetic to it, and the continent’s idea of itself is something like a piece of kintsugi art work. There are grooves and cracks mended with gold, gracefully worn edges everywhere, instantly recognizable cultural spandrels, and a certain organic grandeur to the whole.
It is a grandeur that is essentially cinematic. One that is at present experiencing a rather picturesque fade-out. All that is left is for the credits to begin rolling. We may or may not be at the end of history but we do seem to be at the end of Europe as an idea.
Within this complete and self-contained story of Europe, elegantly sprawled out across time and space, the Peace of Westphalia is something like a supernova, a crowning moment in 1648 that could be mistaken for the birth of a star, but as in astrophysics, actually marking the death of one. It was an event that, over the next three centuries, scattered the heavy elements from within the core of Europe’s idea of itself across the whole world, as raw material for an ordering principle for global civilization.
The present orderliness of the idea and experience of Europe — an orderliness that has remained unbroken for me across multiple visits over two decades — is perhaps the most visceral legacy of the historical developments we refer to as the European enlightenment. It is this orderliness that allows an abstraction with universalist aspirations like the Westphalian nation-state to be constructed at all.
Viewed from the outside, the Enlightenment appears less an awakening into a scientific spirit or a particular artistic or philosophical sensibility, and more an awakening into being. A continent-scale idea that a single mind can expand into, without fatal contradictions getting in the way. An idea that stretches in your mind from Greece to Great Britain, in both time and space. The Enlightenment, one might say, was a continent-sized idea that first came together and recognized itself in the mirror in 1648, with the Peace of Westphalia, immediately provoking the thought: could it scale to span the world?
At the global scale at which it now exists, nearly four centuries later, this European understanding of itself, embodied by the political abstraction known as the Westphalian nation-state has, of course, failed. Not in the sense of specific instances failing, but as an idea that has discovered its natural limits by being loaded to failure by the burden of being required to make the entire world make sense.
It is a failure that is evident more in the success of attempts to break from it, than in the unraveling of attempts to conform to it. Each successful break now appears as a post-Westphalian force shaping the future in a way not captured by the logic of Westphalia.
Through the second half of the twentieth century, these forces rushed into the vacuums left by European colonial powers in retreat. The dynamics that ensued made it clear that in scaling from one half of a continent to six full continents, Europe’s idea of itself had broken down, both within and outside Europe. Without the backstopping power of European gunboats, the Westphalian nation-state as an idea could not stand on its own, or grow deep roots in non-European soils even within the cultural West.
But we are only just beginning to figure out how and why it failed, because it is only now that we are even beginning to acknowledge the failure at all.
For nearly four centuries, that failure largely manifested outside the core of the cultural West, being explained away in local and specific ways as failures to develop. But now that a crush of post-Westphalian logics is penetrating into the core of Europe itself, the core idea of Europe is coming under skeptical scrutiny. To take Europe’s idea of itself at face value is to be blind to the world as it exists today.
So in 2020, a failed nation-state is not primarily a failure of the particular nation state in question — Western or non-Western, developed or developing — but a failure of an animating universalist idea of nation-statehood imported from 1648 Europe. To abuse a computational metaphor, we must stop looking for misconfigurations in the environment to explain failures to compile. We must look into the source code.
The term Westphalian nation-state has become something of a shibboleth among commentators on the contemporary human condition. To signal that your ideas belong in a better class of futurist speculations, you must use this phrase, rather than the unadorned nation-state. Otherwise you might as well be yet another tawdry peddler of yet another post-apocalyptic or panglossian future.
The way it is currently used, the phrase does no more than gesture aspirationally at a historical consciousness that might potentially shape otherwise ahistorical futurist speculations. Few make any kind of explicit or detailed historical argument about the future based on a detailed examination of the global consequences of the Peace of Westphalia. Few inquire into breakdowns caused by the specific internal contradictions it baked into global modernity. At best, a somewhat more-diligent-than-usual essayist might look up Wikipedia to pick out an evocative reference or two to pepper the narrative with.
But the legacy of Westphalia, qua Westphalia, deserves to be taken more seriously. The world of today is shaped by the path-dependent peculiarities of the idea of Europe, specifically those embodied by the adjective Westphalian, in too many important ways to be ignored.
In this essay series, I want to explore an existential question for human civilization today: what adjective comes after Westphalian, and in what ways will the future continue to be shaped and framed by the ghost of our Westphalian past, even as it incorporates newer non-Westphalian elements?
But one thing is clear even from a superficial consideration of the matter: what comes after Westphalia is not something that “fixes” the internal contradictions that its optimistic extrapolation to the entire world revealed, but something that emerges out of the collision of non-Westphalian forces that the extrapolation awakened. Each such force brings to the post-Westphalian civilization-continuation party a logic that is alien to the Westphalian idea of Europe.
What these forces, with their alien logics, add up to is the question that concerns us.
The global sum of these forces, unlike the idea of Europe, does not yet have a coherent shape, form or narrative to it. At least not one as pleasingly tautological as the idea of Europe. Even the individual forces do not enjoy the sort of internal harmony that the idea of Europe does.
There is the Islamic experience of itself as yin to the yang of Europe. There is the experience of the Americas, an attempted sequel to the European project sprawled across two continents, and born of a legacy of slavery that is still only incompletely acknowledged. There is the Russian experience — if Russia can be considered outside the idea of Europe proper — driven by a perennial drive to keep up with the West. There are the postcolonial experiences of India and Africa in the mess and memory of empire. There is the Sinic rediscovery of an imperial sense of itself after Deng Xiaoping. There is the auteur idea of Singapore. There are the little fragments of paradise in Oceania, present since the Age of Exploration as objects of yearning in the global consciousness. There is the former penal colony that is Australia, a piece of Europe juxtaposed against the simultaneously comical and poisonously terrifying alien wilderness of a continent-size evolutionary biological fork.
There is globalization with container ships on the outlaw oceans at its core, ringed by zones of extrastatecraft.
There is outer space, which despite its small population (as I write this, there are three people on the International Space Station and a few adorable robots running around the Moon and Mars), exercises a disproportionately large effect on the human imagination.
There are the ocean depths, constituting an entire unexplored — and more importantly to many, unexploited — watery three-quarters planet lurking largely unexplored next to the dry quarter-planet we claim as our own.
There is cyberspace, a realm that combines an inherited Westphalian logic with an alluring new logic that as yet has no name.
And there is of course, the natural environment, asserting itself strongly for the first time in centuries.
None of these fragments rules the rest, and the whole does not come together in any orderly way besides being defined in part by being non-Westphalian in some way. Yet, together, they conspired to defeat the Europe’s idea of itself, and with it, the fragile logic of the order it induced, in the world it briefly conquered.
Within Europe itself, the narrative simply ran its course, terminating in the contemporary material condition of an aging population within a social democrat walled garden, tested from within by the tensions of an uneasy union, and from without by the growing pressure of non-Westphalian logics at its borders.
These then, are the raw materials out of which a post-Westphalian larger human condition must emerge in the next few centuries.
Whether the building blocks of this condition are recognizably descended from the Westphalian nation-state, via a sequence of legible transformations and distortions, or whether they clearly originate elsewhere, one thing seems clear: the world a few hundred years from now will look dramatically different.