Neither a Hyperpower Nor a Fortress

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Searching for precedents and parallels to describe the current conflict in the Middle East has led a number of observers to point to the Thirty Years War in Europe between 1618 and 1648. The war culminated a period of religious conflicts arising from the Protestant revolt against the Catholic Church and was a notoriously bloody affair, even for the period. The war closed out European sectarianism and it inaugurated the Westphalian era, so named for the concluding peace that established sovereign states as the principal actors in the current international system. Similarities to barbaric violence and sectarian fanaticism aside, the temporal significance of the Westphalia Peace illuminates how American foreign policy should proceed, not only in the Middle East, but globally as well.

Westphalian Cartography

Applying the analytic framework established by American scholars such as Samuel Huntington (“The Clash of Civilizations”), James Goldgeier and Michael McFaul (“A Tale of Two Worlds”), and Thomas P.M. Barnett (“The Pentagon’s New Map”), a crude geography of the world in Westphalian terms becomes possible.

The Peace of Westphalia marks a Before and After in (primarily Western) history. Before the Peace, Europe was a collection of kingdoms, principalities, duchies, city-states, a few republics, a Holy Roman Empire -- and one Catholic (“universal”) Church amid a major upheaval. After the Peace, Europe remained a collection of varied political entities but two major churches – the Catholic and the Protestant. The latter, which had been under assault in the war, was secured by vesting a given territory’s ruler with the sovereign authority to determine the religion of his domain.

The acquisition of this right provided the basis for ambitious European rulers to begin exercising uncontested authority over its realm’s matters vis-à-vis other states. Over time, rulers accumulated advisors, ministries, and bureaucracies. Eventually, states became the aspiration of stateless nations.

While states were a vast improvement over the archaic feudal political system and constipated economies of the pre-Westphalian era, their cultivation of nationalism and recourse to war were the regrettable twin by-products of the Westphalianism.

Nevertheless, by the end of the twentieth century, the entire globe would be nominally demarcated by states per the Westphalian template: a contiguous territory under the domain of a single political authority entrusted with the monopoly on the use of force.

Nominally demarcated because the extent to which many of the approximately 194 countries in existence actually constitute fully functional states is debatable.

In general, the vast majority of countries do exist in the extant Westphalian world of unitary states administered by complex bureaucracies, protected by national militaries, and capable of regulating the population’s myriad economic and social interactions, both internal and external.

A number of countries in the Middle East, Africa, and Central Asia, however, represent the pre-Westphalian past, where the states are barely sovereign and the region is marked by fluid inter- and intra-state loyalties.

In particular, the Middle East’s various regimes have coexisted with first, pan-Arabism, and now, pan-Islamism. These regimes have porous borders and bloated ramshackle bureaucracies typically staffed by tribal, ethnic, and religious allies of the prevailing elite. More pointedly, the regime does not always possess a monopoly over the use of force and its governance is rarely conducive to its economic and social well-being of the broader population.


Surviving in Pre-Westphalia

If the Middle East represents the pre-Westphalian past, then the most advisable course of action would be to emulate the approach taken by the victors in the Thirty Years’ War.

The concluding peace may have secured the future of the nascent Protestant churches and the ascendance of their sovereign champions across northern Europe, but the ultimate victor was France, a bastion of Catholicism. Under the guidance and policies of Cardinal Richelieu, it was Catholic France that emerged from the war as Europe’s dominant power.

The Thirty Years’ War may have erupted on the basis of religious differences, but the conflict was dominated by dynastic rivalries. The Bourbon dynasty reigned in France and had been contending with the dominant Hapsburg dynasty. The latter house presided over Austria, Hungary, territories in central Germany, the Low Countries, and the Iberian Peninsula, of which the latter two bordered France.

Under Richelieu, Bourbon France seized the opportunity provided by the Catholic - Protestant conflict to undermine the position of the Hapsburg dynasty. Even though France was a large Catholic power, Richelieu provided critically needed financial resources to Denmark and Sweden, the war’s two main Protestant belligerents. Furthermore, France did not commit its forces until 1635, only after Sweden suffered a major defeat threatening to eliminate it from the war.

When French armies took the field in northern Germany and Spain, they did so on the Protestant side. Nevertheless, Richelieu still employed indirect means against France’s enemies, in this case, supporting the Catalan and Portuguese in their rebellions against the Catholic Spanish crown.

In 1648, a combined Franco-Swedish force would achieve a major victory over Hapsburg forces and finally end the war. France would remain at war against Spain until triumphing in 1659. Richelieu died before the end of the war in 1642, but his approach ensured France’s emergence after the war as Europe’s dominant power.

If the United States is to prevail in this Middle Eastern echo of the Thirty Years War, then the proper course is to conserve power, send money and materiel before men, employ surrogates and proxies wherever and whenever possible, and exercise force only when necessary.

Thriving in Post-Westphalia

If the pre-Westphalian past can inform policy in the Middle East, then what is advisable in the post-Westphalian future?

A small number of countries, specifically those on the European continent, have embarked on a post-Westphalian future, whereby states have begun ceding elements of their sovereignty to a supranational bureaucracy with jurisdiction over many (many) aspects of the citizens’ lives.


European states have not yet ceded their monopoly over the use of force, but that aspect of sovereignty may become inconsequential because the entire project is predicated on closing out the nationalist conflicts that once characterized the continent’s relationships. In yielding sovereignty upwards, European states aim to eradicate the threat of nationalism and interstate conflict forever.

Banishing war is an admirable goal, but, the recent experience of the European Union should induce caution.

In December 2009, Greece collapsed under the weight of a massive debt crisis and exposed a major weakness of this post-Westphalian project.

Concomitant with integration is the commitment to a generous welfare state. Greece, like many European countries, had established a generous entitlement system overseen by an extensive public sector. Unfortunately, the fiscal resources required to maintain such extensive benefits exceeded the revenues generated by an economy sapped of its productive potential.

Even worse, the Greek government concealed the matter.

Within a short period of time, participants in the international capital markets soon suspected similar problems in other European countries. For profligate states, the scrutiny of international capital can be unforgiving, and by 2011, the worst fears were realized as the European Union had to provide not only Greece, but also Ireland, Portugal, and Spain with hundreds of billions of euros in bailouts.

European Union leadership did not extend these bailouts unconditionally as recipient countries had to agree to austerity packages to bring their fiscal houses in order, namely higher taxes, reduced benefits, and bureaucratic downsizing.

Recipient countries complied, but only at the cost of major unrest and the ironic occurrence of anti-government protests by furloughed government employees.
In the end, the overall sustainability of the European entitlement state and the continental integration project has been brought into question.

For its part, the United States had declined to emulate the European approach to entitlements, worried “socialized medicine” or the equivalent would undermine its world-leading economy.

Until recently.

In the wake of the devastating financial collapse of 2008, a newly elected liberal administration succeeded in enacting a universal health care system. Despite the assurances of the president and allies, the system’s implementation has been problematic and the projected life cycle costs -- coupled with existing enormous fiscal commitments in the form of Social Security and Medicaid as well as a massive defense establishment -- may prove as unsustainable as those in Europe.

Instead of ceding sovereignty upwards, the state in both cases should be ceding it downwards.

As noted previously, states became the aspiration of stateless nations because they constituted a vast improvement over feudalism as well providing the presiding political authority with complex bureaucracies for overseeing the country’s affairs. A state could alternatively be a monarchy, an aristocracy, a dictatorship, a democracy; its economy could be closed, open, or mixed. Whatever the presiding authority chose, the international system would accommodate.

In the present day, however, the international political economy, buffeted by increasingly powerful and internetted information technologies, has narrowed the sovereign scope of a state, and thus, the latitude of the presiding authority.

According to American scholar Philip G. Cerny, the international system is now evolving beyond Westphalianism to an international political economy increasingly characterized by a plural and composite structure, or “plurilateralism,” where the state now shares space with transnational and non-national non-state actors equally (if not more) capable of providing public goods, once the sole domain of states, more efficiently.

Amid plurilateralism, states will remain, but only if they conform.

To flourish, “competition states” will have to retreat from the economy and focus on enhancing their population’s global competitiveness – namely by unwinding dysfunctional entitlement systems and by improving the country’s human capital and infrastructure.

Conversely, states insistent on continued intervention in the economy will only undermine their population’s competitiveness.

Or rekindle tribal passions over the identity.

The European debt crisis stoked nationalist sentiments as industrious Germans voiced their resentment at having to expend hard earned euros to bailout their lackadaisical Greek brethren. In May 2014, anti-integration and far right political parties surged in European Parliament elections.

Or worse, arouse enthusiasm for illiberal alternatives.

Around the world, “competing capitalisms” have emerged in which variations on state authority are paired with differing flavors of capitalism. As depicted by American scholar David Rothkopf, national leaders can now choose among democratic development capitalism (e.g. India, Brazil), entitlement capitalism (e.g. Sweden), authoritarian capitalism (e.g. China), or even “countries behaving like companies” (Singapore, United Arab Emirates). The latter two variants are increasingly seen as respectable alternatives to democratic capitalism. Unfettered American capitalism, once the envy of the world, seems moribund.

If the United States is to prevail in a post-Westphalian plurilateral world, then the proper course is to dismantle the entitlement state and simply get out of its citizens’ way.

The Westphalian Moment

Ultimately, the latest round in sectarian conflict in the Middle East and the continued malaise in Europe underscores the imperative for American leadership to disregard the false choice between being a hyperpower or a fortress.

Contemporary international challenges do not call for aspirational imperialism or all-encompassing collectivism – they demand restraint in all realms.

Restraint on the international stage – in the name of conserving power for genuine crises.

Restraint on the domestic front – in the name of unleashing its citizens’ potential.

Restraint in the name of ceding sovereignty to the individual – the true purpose of the American Republic.

Going forward, America should strive to be a Platform.

A Platform from which American power is launched only in extremis, from which Americans can compete and prosper.