Losing the International Order: Westphalia, Liberalism and Current World Crises

The war in Syria demonstrates the limits of the Westphalian system—but it's still the best rulebook we have.

Predictably, the United States and its allies look to the liberal aspects of world order when making their arguments about Syria. The West insists that Assad is committing war crimes against his own people, that certain rules must be followed even during the prosecution of warfare, that the outside world has a responsibility to protect civilians from harm and indignity, and that state sovereignty cannot and should not be used as an excuse to literally get away with murder. The Westphalian order is no order whatsoever if its rules permit the mass slaughter of innocent people.

Assad and his backers, however, have no difficulty in mustering rebuttals to such charges. Syria is a sovereign state, they say, and its government thus has a monopoly on the legitimate use of force within its borders. Foreign militaries have no business conducting operations in Syria without the say-so of Damascus. It is up to the Syrian people, not outsiders, to decide upon a form of government and to choose their leaders. And unless national authorities are allowed to maintain order within their own sovereign spaces, there can be no hope of peace anywhere on the globe.

For many in the West, it seems obvious which side is right: strongmen like Assad and Putin clearly are guilty of abject cynicism and ruthless pragmatism. Such rulers use the vocabulary of international rules only when it suits them; they pose as faithful devotees to the strictures of international law because they are desperate for any rationale that might excuse their brutal exercise of power. If these same rules stood in the way of their political ambitions then they would just as easily trample all over them. Who in their right mind would take a lesson on proper international conduct from Bashar al-Assad, a man whose government uses barrel bombs to terrorize civilian populations, or from Vladimir Putin, who brazenly used the language of national self-determination to justify the invasion and annexation of Crimea?

But charges of cynicism and outright hypocrisy can cut both ways. It is true, after all, that war is only justified under international law if waged in national self-defense or if authorized by the UN Security Council. Neither of these conditions would appear to be met with regard to U.S. bombing missions against targets in Syria (not to mention the 2003 invasion of Iraq). Nor is it uncommon for the West to turn its gaze from egregious violations of human rights, or to unevenly apply international rules, such as by backing Kosovo’s declaration of independence while opposing self-rule for other breakaway regions.

The truth is that international order is a messy, contested and often contradictory bundle of purported rules and expectations; it certainly does not provide a clean and clear-cut set of principles that can be applied in an objective fashion by world leaders. Instead, international order offers a variety of normative prescriptions that statesmen can and do use to justify vastly different policies, both liberal and decidedly non-liberal alike. International order is a repository of norms, but it is neither fixed nor agreed upon, and there is nothing inherently liberal about it.

The humanitarian crisis in Syria is the latest in a long line of international disputes that point to the ongoing contest over who will control the international order in the future—that is, who will define its contents and rule on its application. Today’s non-liberal states can be relied upon to vigorously maintain the primacy of Westphalian norms, which appeal to them now just as they once appealed to the monarchical despots and religious bigots of seventeenth century Europe. Ranged against them, liberal states and their domestic publics will continue to try to make the entire world in their own image, rarely pausing to recognize the hubris inherent in their actions.

It is too early to sound the death knell for liberal international order, but what events in Syria and elsewhere do seem to highlight is that the liberal edifices of world order command significantly less respect—both in words and in deeds—than do Westphalian principles when it comes to the application of actual rules. And if this is true today then it will even more true in coming years and decades. The liberal world order is fading. Westphalia, briefly obscured by the shining light of liberalism, is reemerging; ancient and well-worn, perhaps, but still hulking, resilient, and indomitable—and perhaps even irreplaceable.

Peter Harris is an assistant professor of political science at Colorado State University. You can follow him on Twitter: @ipeterharris.

Image: Flickr/United Nations Photo