Sunday, May 16, 2010

Westphalia's Last Gasp?

Brian Urquhart's articles about international affairs for The New York Review always make for a fascinating read. As a former Undersecretary-General of the United Nations and biographer of his former boss, Dag Hammarskjöld, he has a clear sense of the history of global thinking following the Second World War; and he is now sufficiently detached from the field of play to take it all in with a relatively dispassionate point of view. Thus, when Thomas G. Weiss wrote the book What's Wrong with the United Nations and How to Fix It (published by Polity in 2008), Urquhart did not respond defensively; instead he wrote the foreword.

In his latest New York Review piece, "Finding the Hidden UN," Urquhart emphasizes one of the key arguments posed by this book:

Weiss points out that although the UN's original purpose was to protect member states against external aggression, sovereignty and power remain vested in those states. Since the UN's founding the need for international management of both political crisis and of global problems has steadily grown, while the incidence of wars between states has steadily decreased. "Treating traditional sovereignty as a cornerstone for the United Nations," Weiss declares, "is a fundamental structural weakness in urgent need of replacement." The concept of sovereignty established by the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 is 360 years old [or was when the book was published]. "This venerable institution," Weiss writes, "remains a hearty enough virus. It is a chronic ailment for the United Nations, and perhaps a lethal one for the planet…." If governments really considered the effectiveness of the United Nations an urgent priority, this would be the first problem they would have to tackle. As it is, one can only wonder which of the great global problems will provide the cosmic disaster that will prove beyond doubt, and probably too late, that our present situation demands a post-Westphalian international order.

Note that his "great global problems" phrase is no mere rhetorical flourish. Rather, it is the context for his entire article, established in very specific language in the opening paragraphs:

So-called "global problems," issues that no government can successfully deal with by itself, were virtually unknown in 1945. Now they include nuclear proliferation, the deterioration of the environment and global warming, international terrorism, pandemics, and a probable future shortage of such necessities as clean water.

Choosing only one of these as an example, Urquhart cites the recent failure of substantive progress at the Copenhagen meeting on climate change.

Weiss' virus metaphor is an apposite one. Were it more tangible, one might also call sovereignty an addictive substance, to the extent that we cannot conceive of thoughts about world affairs in which the concept does not signify. The Treaty of Westphalia may have been effective enough in resolving the horrors of the Thirty Years' War; but it could not have anticipated that, whenever horrors are vanquished, new ones pop up in the most unanticipated ways. Thus the very concept of the United Nations sought to banish the horrors of the Second World War, and even a critic as strong as Weiss acknowledges the success of this effort. However, the founders of the United Nations could not have anticipated that the prospect of another world war would pale beside this "new generation" of "global problems." Unfortunately, neither Weiss nor Urquhart has very much to say about how the world, as a whole, might turn to "post-Westphalian" thinking, which is why they are such brothers in pessimism.

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