Monday, June 18, 2007

Goodbye, Westphalia

First of all an apology to my Faithful Readers for still coming around after I've been dark for over a week. A little work, a little birthday train ride, and pretty soon you have to hack through jungle that's grown up around the ancient site of a blog.

I'll turn from the technical challenges of space piracy to look at some of the possibilities of future power politics, or specifically one of them, neomedievalism.

No, I am not speaking of these guys, nor of their cousins who follow this social system. Neomedievalism in the sense I'm using it here is a genuine academic jargon term. To explain it, and the title of this piece, geekitude follows.

The Treaty of Westphalia ended the Thirty Years' War in 1648. Everyone agreed to quit leaping to the defense of their neighbors' persecuted Catholics or Protestants: henceforth, membership in the Kings' Club counted for more than religion did. A king could make his subjects go to whatever church he wanted to - even create one all of his own, as Henry VIII had* - and the other kings wouldn't bother him over it.

In technical terms, kings were recognized as sovereigns. (A couple of republics also got to be sovereigns, like Venice and the Dutch.) A sovereign has a local monopoly of force at home - even the Second Amendment still means it's you versus the Army. Abroad, sovereigns deal only with each other: marrying their sons to each other's daughters, making treaties and breaking them, sending armies and fleets around to nab each other's provinces. Such is the international order that grew out of the Treaty of Westphalia.

Anyone who has played Risk or Diplomacy has enjoyed the pleasures of being a sovereign, in so far as those pleasures relate to foreign affairs. (Regarding domestic pleasures, there's no simulation game that I know of, but the phrase "It's good to be King" conveys them pretty well.)

Some of you, whose geekitude extends in other directions than the formal theory of international affairs, may wonder how exactly all of this differs from barons marrying each other's daughters and besieging each other's castles, or any other variation on those pretty timeless themes. The answer is that barons, though they had their own armed followings, and a recognized right to use them at times, were also answerable to the king - who sometimes came around to make them answer with their heads.

Well, you say, the kings were sovereigns, weren't they? A medieval king could have as many mistresses as Louis XIV, and enjoy their company in a good deal more casual comfort. What a medieval king couldn't do, however, is summon his army and be entirely sure that it would show up - or that part of it wouldn't show up on the other side. This was not a problem for Louis XIV, at least not once he showed everyone who was boss after the Froude.

That is what distinguishes a Westphalian system; it what Louis XIV and a Diplomacy player have in common that Henry II did not. The Diplomacy player has to worry that her ally will stab her in the back; she doesn't have to worry that her own playing pieces will. (Or fight over her hand in marriage, an occupational hazard for reigning queens.)

The international relations of a non-Westphalian system can't be represented by a classical Diplomacy or Risk style game - or by filching from the history of 1750 or 1900 - because the lines between sovereignty and non-sovereignty, and between international and domestic affairs, are blurred. Dukes, or other entities such as Free and Imperial Cities or even trading companies, can have obligations to higher sovereigns, yet also have military forces of their own and considerable latitude in using them.

All of this is interesting, and necessary for understanding the historical past, or fictional worlds modeled on the past. It also has obvious possibilities for a science-fiction future - in fact, variations on it are already well-established SF tropes. Some futures are dominated by corporations that have their own military forces; it may be ambiguous whether they have entirely supplanted national states or merely muscled their way to the table. In interstellar futures, trade federations or associations of Free Traders regularly show up with fighting fleets, whether or not they directly rule planets or have much else on common with states as we know them.

What is odd - not only curious odd, but a bit spooky odd, is that academic scholars in International Affairs felt that they needed a jargon term for this type of international system, and called it neomedievalism. Why are SF tropes being analysed in the solemn pages of the Journal of International Studies, where they probably never heard of Hober Mallow or Nicholas van Rijn?

They're talking about it because of a fair bit of evidence that we live in a post-Westphalian world. Whatever you think of it, what exactly is the Palestinian Authority? It has some of the attributes of a state, but not all of them. In a different way what exactly is the European Union, superceding above familiar France, Germany, and so on? As yet another variation, what exactly is Scotland now, and why have English people taken to displaying the Cross of St. George?

(American states were also just a bit anomalous in the Westphalian system, though the anomaly was resolved for practical purposes in 1865.)

Neomedievalism means lots of things. Some of them are rather admirable, like the global influence of NGOs ("non-governmental organizations") like Human Rights Watch. Some of them are thoroughly repulsive, and probably don't need to be spelled out. What they add up to is the possibility, maybe the likelihood, that the world politics of the 21st century will be essentially different from the familiar model of great-power rivalry.

From an SF point of view this is fascinating, even though it may not be completely fun to live through.

* It was more complicated than that, but the bottom line remains: Without Anne Boleyn's flashing eyes, no Church of England as we know it.


Anonymous said...

It's interesting to note that the breakdown of the "Westphalian" system since World War II has been spearheaded by Muslim groups -- the PLO, the Iranian "students" who took over the American embassy there in 1979, etc. It's interesting because, of course, Muslims weren't part of the European system of sovereignty in the first place. So the problem is apparently trying to graft the idea of national sovereignty onto a civilization which preserves a medieval structure akin to European "Christendom."


Doug said...

Uh, Westphalia hasn breeaking down almost since it's inception. Things really accelerated with the rise of Nationalistic movements during and after the French Revolution, the treaties established in 1815 were an attempt to turn back the clock, but they didn't work in the long run.

By the First World War the various competing national identities had pretty much made Westphalia obselete, just look at the speed with which new states tried to establish themselves after the war. Even before the war ideas of connections across State boundaries that superceded those boundaries were having a definite impact: The French had declared themselves the protectors of Christian Minorities within the Ottoman Empire well back into the 19th century, and competed with the Russians for the pribvilege in flagrant violation of the ideas of Westphalia. While Nationalism might seem ostensibly to reinforce State power the realities of human mobility made it an international challenge to State power: The Fenian movement or the Italian Nationalists or the German Nationalaists or Lord Byron haring off to fight for Greek Liberation or Polanbd's endless attempts to reconstitute itself..claiming that Wespphalia broke down after the Second World War requires ignoring at least a century of history that preceded. The entire rise of both national movements and international movements like Trade Unionism were nails in the coffin.

And so we come to the modern era, we can talk about the PLO but we might as well talk aboiut any number of groups in our own society. Just to connect this to the Piracy angle we've been talking about, have any of you heard about this crew of pirates?,22606,21038435-5005962,00.html

What we have had for the last 89 years since the peace of 1918 is the pretense that everything is working the way it used to. Denial is a powerful thing, but it is limited; nationalism begean this process, but the reality is that local and international groups increasingly hold people's allegiances over the nation-state they happen to reside in. I would like to raise a glass to Johann Gottfried Herder for his role in bringing the Middle Ages back in style.

Doug said...

Ok, that second link doesn't work. Try this:

Doug said...

Eh, I=it's a bit strongly political, and I imagine that the Japanese have got quite a lot to say about Watson. Still since we were talking about Pirates so recently I thought I'd pull this up.

Rick said...

Cambias - interesting point about the Islamic world. Its historical arrangement wasn't quite like medieval Europe, but my impression is that local emirs and such had a circumscribed legitimacy, far from the status of a sovereign state.

Also, while not specifically related to Islam per se, the Ottoman system was a particularly fit to transformation into states. The basic Ottoman strategy of governance, as I understand it, was to rule through local leaders of various communal groups, ethnic or religionus - e.g., the Orthodox Patriarch, Sunni sheikhs, and so on. Members of each community dealt mostly with their own communal leaders, not directly with the Ottoman authorities - which was fine with everyone.

It was an effective strategy - but it means that former Ottoman provinces have sharply defined but geographically intermingled communities, whether it's Serbs, Croats, and Albanians in the Balkans, or Sunnis and Shia in Iraq. How the hell to you create "nations" out of such populations?

Doug - well, yes; Westphalian theory never exactly accorded with reality, and the rise of nationalism horribly complicated things. But up through 1914, or even 1945, a Diplomacy board still represented the practice of international relations fairly well.

(Though just as wargamers are unrealistically bloodthirsty, Diplomacy and Risk players are far more prone to treachery than real statecraft, even in the Italian Renaissance.)

Rick said...

Doug - meant to add, neither link works for me!

Doug said...

Ah heck, for some odd reason it keeps on cutting off the URL. More to the point it doesn't really address what I was talking about, it's just justifications of why being called terrorist or pirate isn't really relevant. I'll snoop around some more and see if I can find something that talks a bit more more about this, maybe something with a bit of analysis. In the meantime if you want to read that one remove the ":" from the end of the URL and replace it with "8_1.html" and that should do the trick.

I see your point about the state of poilitcs in the 19th and early 20th centuries, but my point was that the neomedievalist tendancy had nothing to do with Islam in particular. While it may be visibly most evident in the former territories of the Ottoman empire that has more to do with the peculiarities of one particular muslim empire's social organization than any tendency of the religion. The system was always extremely unstable, and pretty much required warfare and new treaties to address shifts in the balance of power.

I think there are a number of reasons why wargamers are so much more bloodthirsty than real world leaders, and more treacherous. For starters they don't have real people to deal with getting oppressed and slaughtered; running a war is much easier when you don't need a real government to wage it. There's nothing like fractious nobles to make a king think he wan't to stay close enough to home to keep an eye on them. Secondly most wargames have greatly simplified economic systems where wargfare leadsyou to greatness rather than bankrupting you. Thirdly the victory conditions in a wargame usually involve total domination. In real life if you're hanging on and not losing any territory than you're doing well. Fourthly wargamers can always play again the next night you gather to play, mortal humans don't have that luxury. All in all bloodlust and treachery are punished far more harshly in real lifde than in a game.

Though I'd love to see a simulation of the effects of the Czechs in Russia towards the end of the First World War. The looks on the faces of the players when they realize that a group of Austro-Hungarian soldiers, who had surrendered to the Russians only to find the revolution placing them in territory allied with their hated oppresors, is moving around Russia under the control of no player capturing the Trans-Siberian railway and heading for the Pacific would be just too fun to watch.

Bernita said...

I have contended that we already live in a neo-medieval society - but at the moment I can't remember why I came to that conclusion.

Rick said...

Doug - just to note that I don't think the Islamic world's mismatch with Westphalian assumptions is rooted in Islam as such. Mostly it has to do, as we both agree, with former Ottoman provinces. (Note that the nation-state model didn't work super well in ex-Austro-Hungarian provinces, either.)

The one respect in which Islam itself might be an indirect factor is that the strife that led to the Sunni-Shia split also left even the Caliphate with somewhat shaky legitimacy, and the local emirs that followed with even less. Intellectual and religious leaders, etc., weren't going around teaching King and Country the way they did in Europe.

Bernita - if you remember, I'd love to know what led you to it!