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The State and International Relations: Is the Westphalian system still relevant?

Author: Margault Lepeytre

Editors: Siddharth G. Khare and Soline Germond


Several global issues such as Covid-19, the conflict in Ukraine, and even the food shortage that annually kills 9 million people, each in their own right highlight how the international order is being contested, notably by the People's Republic of China and the Russian Federation. These events clearly indicate the presence of a 'power transition' at work: the dominant great power is being replaced by another during this transition. However, the idea of great power is still debatable.

In the West, the great powers emerged from the famous Peace of Westphalia in 1648, considered the first international system ever created. A new issue arose with the creation of the state-nation at the beginning of the Renaissance: how does one regulate the circulation between all these states in competition and in a situation of juxtaposition and obedience to no superior rule at a time when sovereignty prevails? Hence the creation of an international system that has lasted centuries and still does to this day.

Emerging states such as China and Russia have not had an interstate history and have therefore never really fit into the Westphalian model. These distinct powers have adapted to the logic of globalisation, making them more difficult to control and organise themselves according to the old Westphalian methods of the West.

This development appears to be a danger for the traditionally dominant powers. The Chinese ascendancy has given rise to an American discourse on the "Chinese threat", against which China has been deploying since 2003 a counter-discourse centred on a "peaceful ascendancy" in which it promotes an alternative worldview to the liberal discourse based on a pluralist international order. This discursive opposition is part of the field of reflection of the "power transition", i.e. the contestation of the hegemonic power by a rising power that is not satisfied with the current functioning of the international order and wishes to modify it according to its interests.

This logic raises a problem with regard to the resolution of global issues. Indeed, as we have seen with current environmental, health or food insecurity issues, these challenges should be treated on a global scale and not a national one. If not, during a global health crisis such as Covid-19, there can be multiple international disagreements, such as on masks, vaccines, borders, data, and statistics...

Thus, the challenge today is not only to avoid war but also to deal with major global issues. However, there is an increasingly significant gap between the almost artificial perpetuation of the old logic of power and the challenges of contemporary security. This scrupulous interstate, together with the legalisation of the power game through the veto right in the Security Council, means that multilateralism is no longer able to deal with major global issues. This is evidenced by the inability of the Security Council, which is the centre of gravity of multilateral action and the main guarantee of peace. The Security Council remains very attached to a very old-fashioned definition of security, i.e. one that is strictly national, politico-military. The Security Council is reluctant to take up, despite the efforts of some, environmental issues, health issues (as we saw during the paralysis of the Council in the spring of 2020 when we tried to produce a resolution on covid-19) or food insecurity issues. We are living in a new world that is being dealt with by old methods.

As long as the dominant power can bear the costs of maintaining the existing order, challenges remain scarce. Difficulties arise when these costs become too high; satisfied secondary powers do not help it, since they benefit from the stability of the system as free riders. The dominant power must then make choices in its interventions, which will sooner or later be interpreted as the beginning of the decline by the revisionist power(s).

Already today, China is seeking to find alternatives to the Westphalian system. Chinese leaders find the logic of interstate competition in the sense that we understand it, i.e. with wars, conflicts, and mobilisation of military power, costly and curious, as they have seen it in action in Vietnam and elsewhere, and find that, unlike the lottery, it is very expensive and does not yield much.

The precise strategies that China will use to change the international order remain an unanswered question. However, the power transition should not lead to an immediate transformation of the international order. It may be gradual and manifest itself in certain areas of the international order (security, economy...), or it may be geographically limited (Asia-Pacific...).



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