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Transcending the Westphalian sovereignty system: reevaluating religion in the international system

By Niu Song | 2013-07-25 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)
The Holy See signed the Lateran Treaty with Italy in 1929
Transforming the international system has been an important topic in the academic study of international relations. To a large extent, the current international system is the continuation of the system of nation-states with territorial sovereignty established in Europe by the Peace of Westphalia signed in 1648. Following the Cold War, however, the Westphalian system, and the primacy it gives to the sovereign nation-state as its basic unit, has been challenged, as super-state actors and sub-state actors have become more deeply and extensively intertwined in international relations. The absence of a place for religion as an international force in the Westphalian system’s calculus has also been challenged by the global revival of religion as believers, religious groups and international religious organizations have exerted increasingly significant impact on international affairs.
The lack of sovereign legitimacy afforded to religions is one of the reasons why terrorists commit atrocities in the name of religion. The religious revival in current international relations has been met with general apprehension in the international community. International spectators fear scenarios of extreme religious forces establishing theocracy in the name of nation and sovereignty. Ever since its establishment, partial modifications have been made to the Westphalian system. However, viewed against the backdrop of the current religious revival, wholly transcending the limitations of the contemporary international system requires amending its most fundamental vulnerabilities. 
The place of religion: amendments to the Westphalian system
In its expansion and evolution throughout Europe and the world, the Westphalian system has always included exceptions and modifcations for religious elements, and these factors have only become more variable through the centuries. Originally, the papacy was recognized as a sovereign state in the Peace of 1648. In the Unification of Italy in the 19th century, the papal state lost most of its territory except the Vatican. In 1929, the Holy See signed the Lateran Treaty with Italy, enacting the termination of the papal state and the establishment of the Vatican, over which Italy acknowledged the Holy See’s continued sovereign authority (and still does under its current regime). Although the Vatican enjoys sovereignty over its own miniscule territory, it is not a state in the utmost sense, nor is it a nation-state. Owing to its heavy-handed role in continental European politics, the seventeenth century European monarchs regarded the papacy as the source of conflict in Europe, leading the papacy to recognize the territorial sovereignty of nation-states. By the 20th century, the papal state completed its transition to a sovereign state in its reduction to the Vatican. In so doing, the present-day Vatican reflects the embodiment of Westphalian sovereignty norms, and further demonstrates the diminutive place granted to religion in the international system—a product of gradual reductions and modifications to contain what was regarded as the origin of conflict.
As another good example, the sovereign status of the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta (SMOM) has been widely recognized in the international system. Founded in Jerusalem in 1050, SMOM was mainly committed to religious health care and charity. Following its displacement after the Crusades, SMOM operated from Rhodes and later from Malta. After 1789, the Order lost its territory and now merely owns two buildings with extraterritorial status. However, it has still been endowed with sovereign status, given its long commitment to humanitarian rescue and relief. SMOM is a representation of non-territory state in international relations, with which 104 countries have established diplomatic relations. In 1994, it was granted observer status in the UN. SMOM is defined as sovereign state or entity but not an international organization, demonstrating the Westphalian system’s recognition of the international role a neutral religious body has played through its devotion to religious charity and rescue.
Additionally, moderate Islamic nations have been accepted into the Westphalian system–efforts to exclude religion were primarily directed at curtailing Catholicism’s influence. Following its collapse in 1918, the bulk of the Ottoman Empire’s territory was colonized by the United Kingdom and France. After the First World War, the Kingdom of Hejaz (later Hejaz and Nedj) attended the Paris Peace Conference, and the sovereignty of the Arab state was recognized in the international arena, marking the beginning of the Westphalian system’s incorporation of Arabic countries. Strategic decisions made by the United Kingdom helped the Kingdom of Hejaz and Nejd obtain its sovereign status. For one, it managed to gain trust from the United Kingdom through cooperative foreign policy with the West. Secondly, in containing two Islamic Holy Lands within its territory, the Kingdom of Hejaz and Nedj was vital for filling the vacuum left by the collapse of the Ottoman Empire—especially the religious and political vacuum in the Islamic world after the abolition of the Caliphate.
Lastly, communist atheist countries are accepted. The Westphalian system’s tendency to shun or contain religion was mainly in the realm of international relations rather than domestic politics, and so this tendency had no correlation with or favoritism toward atheism. After its founding in 1917, the Russian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic made efforts to abandon the capitalist economic system while resisting western colonialism thorough national self-determination; in religion, the young government promoted atheism. The RSFSR was denied representation in the Paris Peace Conference; curiously, atheism had engendered the cooperation between the Islamic and Christian states for the first time. It was not until the 1930s that the Soviet Union was included in the international system.    
Transformation of the international system should stem from a broader conception of civilization
Despite all the modifications that have been made, the status of religion in international system has yet to be settled; the international system lacks the institutions to resolve trans-national religious issues. For example, there’s been a lack of consistent communication and administration between the Organization of the Islamic Conference, Islamic countries and non-Islamic countries with regards to pilgrimages to Islamic holy sites. In addition, the Justice and Development Party, Hezbollah and the Muslim Brotherhood are considered threats to peace by a substantial portion of the international community, but they have come to power by peaceful means. Lastly, the violence used  to curtail the spread of fundamentalist terrorism tend to simply perpetuate ever graver acts of religiously inspired retaliatory violence.
The Westphalian system was initiated in Europe against the backdrop of the Reformation sweeping the continent, and monarchs were trying to get rid of the papal control in religion and politics. In its expansion to the non-Western world, the Westphalian system has proved both inadequate to address the needs and requirements of international actors outside the European arena, and furthermore is proving insufficient to address the contemporary issues facing a new era of global governance.
A transformed international system, therefore, must encompass the plurality of interests among global religious and political actors in its design. The international system should be aimed at the preservation of the common interests of human beings, and the resolution and avoidance of the conflicts between different actors; it should achieve these aims without neglecting the interests of non-Western countries and non-Christian groups.
Niu Song is from the Middle East Studies Institute at Shanghai International Studies University.
The Chinese version appeared in Chinese Social Sciences Today, No. 355, Sept 12.
Translated by Jiang Hong
Revised by Charles Horne