Westphalia vs. Appomattox: The Problem with the New World’s Approach to Geopolitics

By Miguel Nunes Silva

In The European Conservative


It is an irony of fate that today, well into the 21st century, in an era of decadence of Western primacy in the world, it is the rest of the planet praising the principle of sovereignty while we in the West—its birthplace—are undermining it.

Our civilisation triumphed with the global systematisation of its languages, its calendar, and its measurements, but it appears to be reneging on its diplomatic paradigm. The European origin of the concept of sovereignty stems from the old continent’s geography. It has always been defined by great mountain ranges, powerful rivers, striking peninsulas, and distinct islands. Europe’s rough topography contrasts with the rest of the Old World; think of the vast plains of Asia and north Africa and the continental continuity of the great orient.

With this in mind, you would not expect to find in Europe the same tendency for either nomadic pluri-continental tribes that we observe in the Middle East or the Far East’s imperial absolutism. Europe evolved into a reality of small, circumscribed rival absolutisms that have invariably failed to unify the continent: Rome was defeated in Germania, Constantinople in Italy, the Habsburgs in the Channel, revolutionary Paris, and Berlin in the Russian winter.

Following the Thirty Years War and the Treaties of Westphalia, Europeans were forced to accept the limitations of their topographical realities and abandon their normative aspirations. Catholics and protestants, while representing clear and distinct moral agendas, both failed to consecrate the continent to their normative claims. This, in turn, led to tolerant coexistence under the principle ‘cuius regio eius religio,’ which holds that the leader of a given state may dictate the religion that the people are to follow.

Jean Bodin was keen to quote Seneca’s maxim “omnia rex imperio possidet, singuli dominio” in his conceptualisation of sovereignty; Westphalia would ultimately be an adaptation of private property within the sovereign’s domains, to the realm of diplomacy. Western sovereignty, then, fundamentally consists in monarchical property within the res publica christiana. Especially since the fall of Rome to the barbarians, moral authority has existed amputated from secular authority.

This, in turn, raises the question of what happens once the European model is implemented in different geographies—taking into account that this has been happening since 1415, or even further back, since the crusades and the Kingdom of Jerusalem. The New World has answered that question, and in neither North nor South America has the sovereignty model survived.

The Portuguese captaincies system withered very quickly in Brazil, given the need to centralise military efforts in resisting competing colonial undertakings by the French and the Dutch. In North America, we had to wait until 1865 and the conclusion of the Civil War to learn what would be the actual validity of the confederal model in a geography of continental continuity.

The Southern Confederacy naïvely chose to wage a European style war, standing their ground against the centralizing offensives of the unionists in an attempt to exhaust the North’s morale by attrition. Fatally, neither did the South possess the resources to fight a war of attrition against the industrialised North, nor did the terrain lend itself to a European style secession. It took 2 years for Robert E. Lee’s staff to comprehend the strategic reality and decide on a march on the North to compete for the continent as a whole and impose their separatist solution on the North. Nevertheless, in 1863 this incursion resulted in the Gettysburg defeat and the end of the Confederacy’s strategic initiative. Carl Schmitt was famously of the view that “the sovereign is he who legislates on the exception,” and in the instance of North American federalism the southern states were seeking an exception to the North’s moral model; a confederate sovereignty would have allowed the South to legislate autonomously in matters of trade tariffs and slavery. Implicitly, this outcome could only be achieved by defeating Washington, D.C.; New York; and New England, as well as imposing the Union’s dismantlement. Yet, the solution of tolerant coexistence was impractical in a territorial continuum without many natural barriers, and General Grant demonstrated precisely this point by overwhelming the South’s frontlines with superior military numbers and economic power. He then proceeded to dismantle the South’s oligarchic society during Reconstruction, cementing the North’s dominion with the support of the newly emancipated former slaves—and under the close surveillance of the federal occupation forces.

The South’s capitulation in Appomattox, however, did much more than settle the American Civil War: it aborted the emergence of ethnic territorial divisions in the northernmost New World. Had the Confederacy been successful, the Ohio River would have constituted a sovereign border, not just between between states, but also between Dixie and Yankee—leading potentially to the creation of regional nation states. Conversely, the coercive reunification and the Lincoln-Grant state-building model meant that the issue of civic identity would now be necessarily derived from much more basic common denominators. The original English puritanical republic had transformed into a continental sovereign. Such a space could not possibly base its identity on European ethnic traits, since national cultures were too many in number and too diverse. Nor could it be based on territory since that was massive. As for religion, it was too sensitive to politicise.

The synthesis thus focused on the legal-constitutional system, which was totemised, sacralising the Founding Fathers and the myth of the Revolutionary War for independence. After all, the legal system inherited from the Anglo-Saxon homeland was already institutionalised, it was a common reference for all citizens that could be compared and differentiated from Latin systems to the south and monarchical ones to the north.

Puritanism mattered chiefly, as indeed Tocqueville himself had already remarked, in that the puritanical mentality prevented a true separation between Church and State, since the Law existed as a kind of national sacrament. If, on the one hand, such an obsession guarantees some respect for the founding principles and prevents dramatic regime changes which might disrupt the Rule of Law—as is often the case in the Old World—on the other, the self-perception of the North American people as distinct and predestined gives rise to the idea of American exceptionalism. The ‘city upon a hill’ following her ‘manifest destiny’ can never acknowledge horizontal rules of conduct between sovereign states; the extraordinary is incompatible with the ordinary.

Such a millenarian view is similarly observed in the ‘Bolivarian’ regime as fetichised by Hugo Chavez in Marxist Venezuela. All countries have founding fathers, but the cult of Simón Bolívar in Venezuela borders on the religious. The Venezuelan state ails from the same illness as the USA: it is a nation without an ethnicity of its own, without a language of its own, without a religion of its own, and even its territory has a short history of cohesion. The sacralisation of that which is revolutionary allows for the glorification and distinction of the country as an entity that exclusively curates the Bolivarian normative legacy, the incubator of the movement to expel the colonisers and liberate the Hispano-Amerindian melting pot. A parallel can be made with the Saudi dynasty as well, which in turn bases its political legitimacy of the domination of modern Arabia with the ‘Custody of the Two Holy Mosques.’

Unlike the identities of the Old World, Appomattox systematised morality as the basis for citizenship in the New World. In the Westphalian system, morality is the temptation to avoid since to fight a moral battle requires absolute nonfungible or negotiable ends. The institutionalisation of Westphalia guaranteed that military disputes were bound to quantitative goals such as economics, territory, or strategic advantage, but never moral goals. Crusades and schisms, though, tend to lead to widespread wars with no rational conclusions.

1648 marked the end of the res publica christiana, and 1815 collapsed the Holy Roman Empire. Both the spiritual and secular sources of moral authority had vanished: no more universally recognized western Pope or Western Emperor left to guide public morality. Europe voluntarily abstained from its fights of political moral normativity and chose to focus instead on its colonial expansion. 

The world wars jeopardised the Westphalian System. World War II in particular was characterised by mutually exclusive contending universalist projects, once again leading to total and maximalist conflicts, a tendency then prolonged with the onset of the Cold War.

1918, 1945, and 1989 incurred all three of them—an American participation in Europe’s peace. Wilson’s 14 Points, the Nuremberg Trials, and the World Trade Organisation gradually transposed North American concepts of millenarian peace into the Old World: respectively, national self-determination (democracy in opposition to rule by divine right), Multikulti (cosmopolitanism in opposition to ethnocentric racism) and private initiative (individualism in opposition to materialist collectivism)—one single legal system to accommodate the many peoples.

The collapse of the Iron Curtain convinced the European elites that the future of the old continent would rely on the reproduction of the American model in Europe. A prerogative that Washington, DC, has been enacting since the 20th century: convincing the heirs of the German empires to adopt democratic federalist models. This is a doctrine that was repeated in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Ultimately, federalism was not successful in the Islamic deserts any more than cosmopolitanism triumphed in European nation states. The mould does not fit the cake. Let us compare, for instance, the 1813 Battle of Leipzig with the 1862 Battle of Fredericksburg. The former became known as ‘the Battle of the Nations’ due to the presence of different ethnic armies on the battlefield, fighting on one or the other side of the front. The latter though, echoing a trend of the American Civil War, featured contingents of the same ethnicity fighting on both sides of the barricades.

The father of optimum currency area (OCA) theory, Robert Mundell, has made this clear, in case there are still any doubts. His four criteria for the sustainability of a single currency area are an integrated labour market, free flow of capital, a centralised budget, and the synchronicity of economic cycles. This is possible in the USA where linguistic and work ethics are common but it is impossible in Europe, where linguistic, geographic, and normative diversity will always prevent political unity. The colonial founding fathers will not succeed where past dynasties failed.

Although political similarities between nations of both sides of the Atlantic is natural given the common cultural legacies, it is highly doubtful that the instruments of normative cooperation devised throughout the last century will survive their incompatibility. To put it simply, sovereignty and exceptionalism cannot coexist.

The European model of diplomacy has met with great success around the world, and sovereignty has become a mainstay of diplomatic doctrines at the highest levels of geopolitical fora.

Far from owning this successful Western export, the West has tried its best to erode it, with a multitude of transatlantic initiatives from ‘universal jurisdiction’ legal structures to ‘responsibility to protect’ stances. In conjunction with a cavalier attitude towards signed agreements (UN Res. 1244, 1973) and a dismissal of arms control treaties, Europeans risk isolation from global cooperation structures if the borrowed exceptionalism remains rampant.

The European continent is not North America, and thus it should not seek to emulate models unfit to its own structural reality. The attempted cosmopoliticisation of Europe has resulted in severe ethnic tensions domestically and a diplomatic ring of fire externally. Worse still, universalism has corrupted state institutions by politicising them into a moral ethos that replaced dispassionate duty with fanatical activism. 

The EU is very much the incarnation of the delusional belief that peoples, nations, and cultures can be moulded into a sense of belonging based on the lowest legal common denominator. The foreseeable future does not look like glorious post-war Americana. It resembles the self-inflicted catastrophes of Soviet or Yugoslav despotism.

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