Sovereignty: The UN and the Westphalian Legacy

  • Laurence Peters


The 50 international delegates who assembled in 1945 in San Francisco to vote on the UN Charter recognized that there the international system that had produced two world wars in the space of 30 years needed to be radically rethought. What they were not sure about was what type of governing body would emerge—would it be a dictatorship of the big five who would run roughshod over the small powers’ hard-won efforts to establish their own independence, or would it be another global debating chamber, as impotent in the face of crisis as the discredited League of Nations?


Unite Nation Security Council French Revolution Peace Treaty National Sovereignty 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 1.
    See D. Bosco, Five to Rule Them All: The US Security Council and the Making of the Modern World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), pp. 32–35.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    As some commentators have pointed out, Westphalia did not create a system of sovereign states—since 1300 several states, particularly France and England, could be termed “sovereign” in the Westphalian sense. However, 1648 could mark their entry into the world of interdependent and legally sanctified state powers with a right to defend themselves against claims from the Holy Roman Empire. See D. Philpott, “Sovereignty,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Summer 2014 ed., ed. E. N. Zalta, Scholar
  3. 3.
    Although, as some commentators have pointed out, the significance of the Peace of Westphalia has been exaggerated (states, for example, within the Holy Roman Empire had established many of the rights attaching to sovereignty prior to 1648, such as the ability to determine their own foreign policy), the German agreement changed the basis for how states coexisted. See A. Osiander, Sovereignty, International Relations, and the Westphalian Myth from Jus ad Bellum to Jus contra Bellum (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001).Google Scholar
  4. 7.
    Bring recounts a series of wars that occurred within years of the treaty being signed, including the following: “The first trade war between the Netherlands and Britain was fought between 1652– 54. During the same decade, Spanish troops recaptured Barcelona from French occupation, Sweden intervened in the Polish, Russian war, Denmark attacked Sweden’s territories in northern Germany, Britain and France jointly attacked Spain, etc.” See M. N. Schmitt (ed.), “The Westphalian Peace Tradition in International Law,” International Law Across the Spectrum of Conflict: Essays in Honour of Professor L. C. Green on the Occasion of His Eightieth Birthday , vol. 75 (New Port, RI: International Law Studies, 2000), p. 62.Google Scholar
  5. 10.
    The powers that countered French power called themselves the “Grand Alliance,” a coalition of the Netherlands, Austria, Prussia, and England and a ground force of nearly seventy thousand soldiers; “the Grand Alliance defeated the French at Blenheim in 1704, Ramillies in 1706, and in several successive battles. Eventually, the French were forced to give up their Spanish ambitions and renounce all of their conquests.” See Hayes, E., “Fear and Attraction in Statecraft: Western Multilateralism’s Double-Edged Sword,” Naval Postgraduate School thesis, 2013, p. 36, file:///Users/laurencepeters/Downloads/ADA584081%20(1).pdf.Google Scholar
  6. 11.
    E. Burke, “Thoughts on French Affairs,” quoted in B. Simms and J. Trim, Humanitarian Intervention: A History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), p. 107.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. 12.
    As Koh notes, Kant in particular now argued “not for world government, but for a law-governed international society among sovereign states, in which the strong ties existing among individuals create mutual interests that cut across national lines. Kant believed these transnational ties would create moral interdependence, and lead to greater possibilities for peace through international agreement.” While Bentham put forward a strikingly procedural and positivistic proposal to combat war, which he defined as “A species of procedure by which one nation endeavours to enforce its rights at the expense of another nation.” Bentham recommended “perfecting the style of the laws of all kinds, whether internal or international”; and creating “a common court of judicature” to settle differences of inter-state opinion by circulating rulings” in the dominions of each state. H. H. Koh, “Why Do Nations Obey International Law?” Faculty Scholarship series, paper 2101 (1997), p. 2610, Scholar
  8. 13.
    C. Lynch, “Peace Movements, Civil Society and the Development of International Law,” in The Oxford Handbook of the History of International Law, ed. B. Fassbender and A. Peters (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), p. 106.Google Scholar
  9. 14.
    D. Cortright, Peace: A History of Movements and Ideas (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), p. 35.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. 15.
    J. Gittings, The Glorious Art of Peace (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), p. 132.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. 16.
    M. Janis, International Courts for the Twenty-First Century (The Netherlands: Martinus Nijhoff, 1992), p. 15.Google Scholar
  12. 20.
    A. Adolf, Peace: A World History (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2009), p. 179.Google Scholar
  13. 23.
    As Yearwood writes, the leaders had to reward their people’s sacrifice, had to justify that military victory in 1918 was better than pursuing peace terms in 1916 or 1917. See P. Yearwood, Guarantee of Peace: The League of Nations in British Policy 1914–1925 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), p. 89.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. 25.
    P. Kennedy, The Parliament of Man, the Past, Present and Future of the United Nations (New York: Random House, 2006), p. 24.Google Scholar
  15. 27.
    B. Fassbender. “Sovereignty and Constitutionalism in International Law” in N. Walker (ed.) Sovereignty in Transition, Essays in European Law (Oxford: Hart Publishing, 2003).Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Laurence Peters 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  • Laurence Peters

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations