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The idea of the territorial state’s sovereignty goes back to 1555, when at a meeting in Augsburg called by the warring dynastic rulers desperately seeking an exit or at least a respite from the devastating religious wars tearing the Christian Europe apart coined the formula cuius regio, eius religio (he who rules, determines religion of the ruled).
Sovereignty meant supreme – unconstrained by external interference and indivisible – authority within a territory: Since its inclusion into the political vocabulary the concept of sovereignty referred to a territorially confined state of affairs and territorially fixed entitlements.
Any attempt to meddle with the order of things established by the sovereign on the territory of his rule was therefore illegal, condemnable, a casus belli; the Augsburg formula may be read as much as the founding act of the modern phenomenon of state sovereignty as well as it is read, simultaneously and necessarily, as the textual source of the modern concept of state borders.
It then took almost 100 years more until 1648 when the “Westphalian Sovereignty” agreement was negotiated and signed in Osnabrück and Münster, this allowed the principle recommended by the Augsburg formula to take hold of European social and political reality: a full sovereignty of every ruler on the territory they ruled and over its residents – that is, the ruler’s entitlement to impose “positive” laws of their choice that may override the choices made individually by the subjects, including the choice of God they ought to believe in and must worship.
By a simple expedient of substituting “natio” for “religio”, the mental frame was used to create and operate the (secular) political order of the emergent modern Europe: the pattern of nation-state – that is, of a nation using the state’s sovereignty to set apart “us” from “them” and reserving for itself the monopolistic, inalienable and indivisible right to design the order binding for the country as a whole, and of a state claiming its right to the subjects’ discipline through invoking the commonality of national history, destiny and well-being.
The Westphalian Model in the 21st Century
After the two world wars in the 20th century the Westphalian model of sovereignty was once again the basis on which the Charter of the United Nations was founded - an assembly for the rulers of sovereign states called to collectively monitor, supervise and defend the state of peaceful coexistence. In fact, Article 2(4) of the Charter prohibits attacks on “political independence and territorial integrity”, whereas the article 2(7) sharply restricts the eventuality of an intervention from outside into affairs of a sovereign state.
So far the United Nations is still the closest we have to an idea of a “global political body”. But it clearly has the entrenchment and defence of the Westphalian principle written into its charter. While many powers (finances, commercial interests, information, drug and weapon trade, criminality and terrorism) have already obtained in practice the freedom to operate on a global level. The absence of global political agencies capable of catching up with the already global reach is held back by the grip of the nation-state and the rhetoric of state sovereignty. We live still in a “post-Westphalian era”. The process of emancipation from the shadows cast by “Westphalian sovereignty” is increasingly protracted.
A recent example of this is the fate of euro: the absurdity of a common currency served by seventeen finance ministers, each bound to represent and defend their country’s sovereign rights. The plight of the euro highlights the limits of local (nation-state) politics under pressures coming from two distinct, uncoordinated and thereby not easily reconcilable authoritative centres, the nationally confined electorate and supra-national European institutions, all too often instructed to act at cross-purposes. This is just one of many manifestations of a double bind: the condition of being clenched between the ghost of the Westphalian state sovereignty on one side and the realities of the global, or regional nonetheless supra-national, dependency on the other.
The essential problem of nation-state sovereignty in a global world
During the 17th, 18th and possibly 19th centuries, the nation-state was relatively well attuned to the realities of the time, but the Geo-Trade blog believes this is no longer the case. In the 21st century, our interdependence is already global, whereas our instruments of collective action and will-expression are as before local and resisting extension, infringement and/or limitation.
In the 21st century much of the power has evaporated from the nation-state into the supra-national, global space – while politics remains, as before, local: confined to the boundaries of the state’s territorial sovereignty. What we confront therefore is, on one hand, a free-floating power cut off from political supervision and guidance and on the other fixed and territorially-limited politics that in addition is bound to suffer from a perpetual deficit of power.
Hence the essential problem is that the two abilities, power (that is, the ability to have things done), and politics (that is, the ability to decide which things need/ought to be done), conjoined for a few centuries in the institutions of the nation-state, now inhabit, as the result of globalisation processes, two different spaces.