Today I read “Sovereignty, International Relations, and the Westphalian Myth.” in “International Organisation” [2001, 55 – 2, p251-287]. It is written by Andreas Osiander, a prominent IR scholar, who studied international relations, history, and economics at Tübingen University, the Institut d ́Etudes Politiques of Paris and at Oxford University. He is currently a lecturer in international relations at Leipzig University, where his work is mainly focused on the study of the concept of the State. Although this text is limited, Osiander manages to point out that the concept of sovereignty is subject to change over time and that what was meant by sovereignty during the creation of the Westphalian treaties is not the same today, nor is it relevant in today’s global landscape.
In traditional IR theory, the end of the thirty years’ war is regarded as the beginning of the international system with which the discipline has traditionally dealt. Contrary to mainstream IR theory, Osiander’s main argument is that the concept of sovereignty, as we know it today, is not the same concept shaped by the Westphalian Treaties in 1648. Instead, he argues that this concept had its most significant transition with the French Revolution and the onset of industrialisation, not with the Peace of Westphalia (p281). He argues that the concept of sovereignty was not born after the Peace of Westphalia, but was built during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (p251). The treaties of Westphalia, settled the basis of who had the rights of making laws but they did not take into consideration the territorial matter, which is one of the main characteristics of sovereignty, as we know it today.
In the first section Osiander presents a summary of the events of the Thirty Years’ war, while evaluating the arguments of mainstream IR theory. Although the author recognises the oversimplification of his account, it becomes more than obvious that the author is strengthening his argument by carefully choosing what to include. Osiander has been criticised for this method for inadequate research and lack of in-depth analysis by other scholars. Osiander attempts to form an argument based on his suggestion that the threat to the independence of the other states was not actually present, and that the expansionist aggression in fact came from those other states. According to Osiander, none of the actors fighting the Habsburgs went to war for defensive purposes. ‘Safeguarding the Swedish position in the Baltic hardly necessitated the capture of Munich’ (p248), Osiander points out, proposing a valid claim for that Sweden was not merely protecting its “sovereignty”. In the second section, Osiander goes on to attempt to delegitimise the link, made by traditional theorists, between the events of 1648 and a new sovereignty-based international system. If we accept Osiander’s notion that there was no legitimate threat to the independence of the other actors in the Thirty Years’ War, then, the link cannot be made. He claims that the anti-Habsburg propaganda, which according to him the twentieth-century IR scholars have been eager continuators of, is misleading in that it created the suspicion of the Habsburg’s ambition for a “universal monarchy”. In the last section he summarises the Holy Roman Empire – with which, the Peace of Westphalia was almost exclusively concerned (p251).
This article breaks the mainstream international relations definition of sovereignty, and opens a debate of what the real meaning of this concept is and where it comes from. Likewise, it leads us to think about a redefinition of sovereignty according to the new challenges of the twenty first century posed by globalisation.