Ed Morrissey makes an interesting argument that the declaration of Kosovar independence signals a major shift in the international order. He argues:
The breakup of Serbia calls into question whether the concept of Westphalian sovereignty remains extant. Shall Burgundy go back to the Burgundians, if they so desire? Will Wales and Cornwall exit from Great Britain? Can Texas declare its independence? More pragmatically, are we seeing a return to the micronationalism that generated numerous wars on the European continent over the centuries before Westphalia?
This occurs in the shadow of the struggles in Africa and the Middle East over nationalism, sovereignty, and statehood. Just as we want to solidify the boundaries between nations in these regions to produce more stability, we seem to be supporting the breakdown of the exact same system in Europe. The end of the Age of Empire has left civilization struggling for a new model of political stability for almost a century — and the struggle continues today in Kosovo.
In 1647, after decades of brutal warfare during the Thirty Years War, the kings of Europe entered into the The Treaty of Westphalia, a document that essentially created the modern concept of the nation-state and settled long-running disputes over the religious and political makeup of Europe.
The Westphalian model shaped what we call “realism” today. States were sovereign entities that could apply their own laws to their people. They were equal to other states, and the principle of non-intervention between states was upheld as a goal (if not in practice). This model still exists today, although the trends towards globalization have started to diminish the concept of absolute sovereignty.
Putting aside the issue of Kosovo itself away for the moment, Mr. Morrissey’s question is a strong one. In Europe, there has been a trend towards regional devolution. Scotland has its own Parliament. Wales has recently been granted its own National Assembly. Belgium may yet split between its Flemish and French territories. It seems like everywhere in Europe, instead of the integration that the European Union was supposed to have brought, the seeds of division keep growing.
The Brussels Journal has a fascinating piece looking at the idea that the nation-state may be obsolete. Yet the problem is no one knows what should replace it: how can one have democracy without a demos? The paradox of European integration is that it’s empowering disparate interest groups to move away from each other rather than harmonizing them.
Ultimately, the Peace of Westphalia worked because it was the right compromise, and the European Union’s rash attempts to remake Europe in a new image—even if beneficial in some respects—is far too audacious for the good of Europe.
The crisis in Kosovo demonstrates that when you try to play games with national borders, the results are not always pretty. The breakup of Yugoslavia into ethnic enclaves has only partially reduced tensions. Serbia has longstanding historical claims on that region, and instead of successfully arbitrating those claims, the United Nations has spend over a decade without making much headway. Meanwhile, radical Saudi clerics have been steading radicalizing the Muslim majority in Kosovo, human traffickers have turned the region into a major center of the slave trade and smugglers of everything from arms to drugs are profiting from the chaos.
The Westphalian system may have its flaws, but the idea that some vague supranational system can supplant it has even deeper problems. We currently live in a world where another bloody European war seems impossible—the decimation of Europe in two world wars has had profound and lasting consequences. At the same time, the root causes of the last great European wars have not gone away. Those who would seek to redraw Europe’s borders should consider whether creating ethic states will lead Europe into the future or only open ancient wounds.