The giant news of today is the Brexit exit of Britain from the European Union, so named because the news media saw what the tabloids were doing with portmanteaus and celebrity couples and thought that it would be cute to introduce the concept into monumental, world changing events. If it worked for Brangelina, then it can work for international politics. Now, before we get into it, I’m going to give a little history lesson.

The Treaty of Westphalia is a big deal that happened a long time ago and yadda yadda yadda, history lesson over. Look it up, you scrub. The outcome was that rather than rely on a religion as the primary marker for self-identity, the Westphalian system created a paradigm shift where sovereign nationhood became the fundamental borders between people. It solidified countries into nations with legitimate borders that were now universally acknowledged across Europe. It didn’t stop countries from invading one another, but now they were invading France, rather than invading land that was owned by the French king. The idea was that individual nations could run their own affairs independently, and if one nation seemed to be getting too ambitious, then the surrounding nations would form an alliance to humble it. This didn’t stop people from trying to overturn this balance of power, however, and Napoleon and Hitler both came close to overcoming that institutional barrier. Religion still played a huge role, obviously, but ever so slowly nationalism added itself to humanity’s lexicon of dogmatism.

Henry Kissinger, known for his political acumen in maintaining worldwide stability through warfare (with all the paradox that that implies), in his book World Order advocates for some version of the Westphalian system as necessary for maintaining political cohesion across the globe. He then goes on to say that the world needs the United States to implement its way of living on the rest of the planet for that modified system to be a success because he’s a jingoistic jackass, but we’ll ignore that part of the book for now. However, his point that the world needs identifiable and respected boundaries has some value. The ideal of multiculturalism is a “separate-but-equal” philosophy where each culture is respected on its own merits, despite their differences, and segregated so each unique culture can thrive according to its own direction. For this to function, a Westphalian system seems appropriate.

Increasingly we’re seeing the dangers associated with nationalism borne of Westphalian principles. Britain left the EU because it saw itself not as a part of a whole, but as a distinct nation, fearful of an infection from its surrounding neighbours. Similarly, Donald Trump wishes to make America great again by removing the foreign element from within the American midst. People claim it is a hypocrisy for a nation of immigrants to complain about more of them, but it is not so hypocritical when you realize it is based on an illusory ideal of nationalism. History is not important, the borders are.

This means that the Westphalian system is running into the same ideological problems of its religious predecessor. Though certainly an improvement, as religion claims universal truths and therefore sees no egalitarian compromise while nationalism only claims locational truths, hate is blooming out of fear akin to the expulsion of the Jews during the Spanish Inquisition. This is not a completely unpredictable outcome. The balance of power that the Treaty of Westphalia promised was based on eternal yet balanced conflict between nations. Peace was only possible through the fear of mutually assured destruction that comes from the combat of equal armies. An ideology built on inherent conflict will inevitably lead to further conflict.

Today, power comes from money rather than land, meaning that nations wage wars of GDP rather than on the battlefield, but the mentality remains: one of the arguments of the Leave campaign centred on the financial demands of the European Union on British coffers. Though its effects are still preliminary, as nationalistic fervor is limited to only a few countries and even then there are competing ideologies, I do see the evidence of a potentially fatal flaw of the Westphalian system.

Kissinger is right in that a Westphalian system would need modifications for order to be globally achieved, and he suggests a kind of unifying agent that denies complete segregation between countries and cultures. As discussed, he suggests liberal democracy as that unifying agent, which is dumb, but his idea is not unique nor completely wrong. Slavoj Žižek argues against multiculturalism by saying that a unifying agent of respect is necessary across all cultures for order to exist, and too much leftist focus on tolerance leads to the perils of relativism. In a Westphalian context, this means that distinct nations cannot function on a globally multicultural level if they behave with zealous independence because there is no unifying bond between them and their neighbours.

I believe that for a world order to exist, there does need to be some version of a global ideology with universal adherence. Obviously not a political one as Kissinger suggests, but one based on compassion and respect, closer to Žižek. This cannot be achieved through warfare, as history has proven again and again that attacking an ideology pushes it deeper into fundamentalism in order to retain its sacred beliefs. The book I’m reading now, Jews, God, and History, shows that Jewish people almost always assimilate to the best parts of the dominant culture when they are allowed to practice their religion unencumbered, but violently rebel with religious fervor each time they are coerced. To win a worldwide ideological battle, it cannot actually be a battle. It needs to be an ideological success, and people will conform to it willingly.

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