May 2023

The Death of Westphalia

Looking back at the history of East and West, Brian Patrick Bolger charts Beijing’s plans to break the international liberal world through its adherence to Tianxia

The world stands at a paradigm shift; a thunder of meeting, fighting tectonic plates. Vaclav Klaus, in his latest article in The Hungarian Conservative, laments the passing of an old order. The move from one epoch to another is reminiscent of Mathew Arnold’s poem ‘Dover Beach’ where the ebbing of the sea of faith had ceased caressing the shores of the world. Now is ‘the melancholy, long, withdrawing roar, retreating, to the breath of the night-wind’1. Likewise, the thunder of change beckons in the dismantling of Westphalia and the end of a unipolar liberal world.

The Peace of Westphalia of 1648 ended the Thirty Years War, ostensibly between Catholic and Protestant Europe; a war in which approximately eight million people had died. The Peace gave birth to the idea of ‘Westphalian Sovereignty’ –from the ruins of the certainty of the Holy Roman Empire. For our purposes, although Westphalia was not tantamount to the birth of nation states, it did establish a conception of the sacrosanct nature of borders and a right to self-determination. This type of sovereignty has now faced challenges from two fronts after 300 years of its principled acceptance, although not ‘rigorous’ application.  Firstly, there came the tsunami of globalisation– and, like its predecessor, ‘Bretton Woods’, it toppled national frontiers in its ebullient energy. This was the self-satisfied 1990s, that sad decade when ‘The End of (Insert Idea)’ followed one after another, when historians, in true Hegelian hysteria, competed to forecast the end of something or other. The ‘End of History’ was here; it was a triumph of Enlightenment virtues, a liberal democratic mission to be exported, of capitalism and Coca Cola.  

That era of Occidental thinking is drawing to a close. When the ‘New World’ discoveries and Britain’s maritime ascendancy set in motion the modern ‘Nomos’ of the world from the 15th century onwards, that also appeared fixed and certain. Each epoch believes the permanence of its ideal, its territory and ‘nomos’. Nomos was the Greek phrase Carl Schmitt used to describe these lurching, giant states (or civilisational states) and their remit to conquer the world, from the Roman Empire onwards. ‘Nomos’ derives from a state’s geographical, cultural and resource domination. The jus publicum Europaeum which came out of the end of the Holy Roman Empire formed the basis for European hegemony. The curse of progress, its Achilles heel is to believe in the eternity of the present.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Y
TRANSFORMATIVE: Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has spoken of Xi’s attempts to alter the structure of international relations

The new ‘Nomos’ of the earth is not globalisation or liberal democracy. It is not Islam. In fact, it is something fed and nurtured by all empires or civilisations once they lose the spirit of their early hegemony and hand over the keys to a competitor; it is a type of complacency. They wave goodbye to the ethos which made them successful in the first place. Homogeneity is a key to successful empire.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi speaks of how Xi Jinping has strived to transform the present structure of International Relations. Xi has ‘made innovations on and transcended the traditional Western theories of international relations for the past 300 years’2, with a striking iconoclastic reference to Westphalia. This again is at odds with the, up to now,
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1 Middlebrook, J. (1970). Matthew Arnold: Dover Beach.

2 Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “Forge Ahead under the Guidance of General Secretary Xi Jinping’s Thought on Diplomacy,” September 1,2017, http://www.fmprc.gov.cn/ mfa_eng/zxxx_662805/t1489143.shtml. and

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For the Russians, war is a means to disrupt the flow of geopolitics

prevalent view of China as the distant, insular Silk Road repository of Confucian splendid isolation. The Occident, wearing its ‘Kulturbrille’, only sees what it wants to see, a benevolent world of liberal democratic norms.

As Gloucester warns in King Lear, ‘Tis the times plague, when madmen lead the blind.’ The Faustian pact between Russia and China is not a causal necessity of the Ukraine conflict but an alliance to systemically rewrite the Nomos of the world. The Chinese have a phrase, Tianxia–‘All Under Heaven’ – which places order and conformity above all else. The emperor was always, not merely the Emperor of China, but of the world. Chinese thinking equates the existence of one sun to one earthly ruler. The emperor was akin to the divine right of European kings. The Qin Han dynasty, from the third century BC, saw a Confucian Legalism which ruled for more than two millennia in Eastern Eurasia, until the end of the 19th century.  

Modern China is resurrecting this dynasty of tributary taxation through economic dependence, soft loans and creating a Chinese diaspora throughout Asia and Africa. The Occident, like Oedipus, has gouged out its eyes of perception, a willing blindfolding for the outsourcing of manufacturing capacity and cheap imports.  Yet in China, according to Wang Fei Ling, ‘foreign policy analysts have presented the rejuvenated Tianxia idea as a legitimate or superior alternative to and powerful critique of the Westphalia world order’3.

Collective punishment is used to silence dissent

The curse of progress is to believe in the eternity of the present

It is a mythical, easy sell to the Chinese population, with a hereditary view of other Asian states as tributary, ideas-based, civilisational states, like China and Russia, which utilise narratives of historic destiny, like the ‘conservative revolution’ thinkers of Weimar. These states see their goals as long term and historic, divinely ratified. They see beyond the short-termism of representative democracy. Economic growth is just one aspect of a destiny. Western notions of ‘progress’ are aligned to a colonial view of globalisation. It is a Westphalia 2.0: nation states and FDI-driven global capital. The winner of this race is able to utilise resources, investment and labour. China has arrived late at the party; but they have arrived.  

Not surprising that the pushback by Russia also focuses on this perceived imbalance. The war in Ukraine was not a sudden vision by Putin. The Russians use planning trajectories for their economy and geopolitical forecasting. In 2022 the RAND Corporation4 published ‘Russian Military Forecasting and Planning’ based on research since 2019. The main weakness of the Occident is short termism with regard to forecasting and planning. It is endemic to the West’s government. This works in two ways. It reduces the ability to see long term, beyond the next election. The western focus on liberal norms, rights and global democracy only works in a game played by everyone. Once the Westphalian system of nation states became consumed by empire building and now, globalisation, the ‘quid pro quo’, the balance, was gone.  

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“China Says Xi Transcends West as a Diplomatic ‘Pioneer,’” Reuters, September 1, 2017, https://www.reuters.com/article/

3 Wang, Fei Ling. (2018). China Order: Centralia, World Empire, and the Nature of Chinese Power. State University of New York PR.

4 https://www.rand.org/pubs/research reports/RRA198-4.html

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The Rand report postulates that Russia sees the geopolitical dynamic as having two possible paths. One is the continuance of a unipolar world of liberal governance, globalisation based on a western financial system and US dominance in foreign policy. The second alternative is a Russia probing and attempting to dismantle this hegemony. This is due to their perceived inability to achieve economic goals, access to capital and technology. An axis consisting of China and Russia makes this much more likely. The Ukraine war is not about Ukraine. It is this vying for position; it is this intrinsic planning, what the Russians call a ‘VPO’ analysis, which sees its strategy as a long game. Underlying all of this is a military perspective which needs to match adversaries. The Russians forecast5 that, under existing trajectories of globalisation, by 2040, the US will be 60% stronger in military capacity. Globalisation is a Janus-faced chalice for Russia; at once a source of oil revenue, yet potentially debilitating. Economic sanctions compound the problem, and restrict access to technologies and capital. For the Russians, war is a means to disrupt the flow of geopolitics. The second alternative sees a VPO of a reformed military balance in which China, by 2040, equals the US in military capability and the Russian deficit is reduced to 20%.  

This vision, called ‘Bipolarity 2.0’ now drives Russian and Chinese policy. It aims to create favourable blocs in BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) and the SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organisation). Yet, faced with losses of weapons and manpower in the Ukraine, the Russian game is spluttering. The technological boycott could be brutal for Russia. Hence the Russian ‘soft’ policy of building alliances with western dissidence in the parties of a ‘cultural’ diaspora who see the negative dynamic of globalisation culture; Hungary, Serbia, Italy and the US have a populist groundswell of democratic resistance to liberalism. This may be a fertile ground for Russia as Western norms deracinate their own societies from the inside. The oft quoted ‘liberal democracy’ is fraught with contradiction. Representative democracy is a miasma of democracy; it is a system to regulate and administer an international system of capital flows dependent on migratory cheap labour and resources. Elite manipulation is now noticing pushback in liberal democracies as a working class, culturally disenfranchised bloc supports more nationalist, indigenous populism. This may be a bigger threat than the external great power game.  

Globalisation is a Janus-faced chalice for Russia

For the Chinese, Tianxia is back on the agenda after the hiatus of communism. China, according to Kissinger,‘considered itself, in a sense, the sole sovereign government of the world’6. For Xi Jinping, China becomes a middle kingdom of tributary vassal states.Tianxia brings order to the chaos of Westphalia. It is this fusion of idealised myth and realpolitik which drives China and Russia. The borderless tributary empire of the Chinese Emperors and the endless steppe of Dostoyevsky’s Russia. The rhetoric of China’s ‘Global Security Initiative’ of April 2022 continued the underlying vogue of expansive dominance. It was ‘security for all in the worldand oppose the pursuit of one’s own security at the expense of others’7. There is also a rebuffing against the internal damage of globalisation to core Chinesecultural values, ‘Geliguojia’ or ‘separated country’ of the emperors. It is the best of

5 https://www.rand.org/pubs/research reports/RRA198-5.html

6 Kissinger, H.(2015). World Order: Reflections on the character of nations and the course of history. Penguin Books

7 Xi Jinping,’Risingto Challenges and Building a Bright Future through Cooperation’. Boao Forum for Asia Annual Conference 2022, April 21 2022,
http://english.www. gov.cn/news/topnews/202204/21/content_WS62616c3bc6d02e5335329c22.html

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both worlds for Xi Jinping and a continuation of Mao’s vision of communism on a world scale.

Therefore, two suns are setting on the world: the Westphalian one of 300 years ago and the Chinese one of the ‘Qin Han’ dynasties. Yet for the Chinese there is only the one sun in heaven and they refuse to play second fiddle to the West. In part ‘revanchist’, a settling of scores from the days of colonial powers, and an assault on the weakness of Western liberal cultures. It is a sore test for the sons of the Enlightenment and for the architects of Westphalia who ditched the civilisational state of the ‘Holy Roman Empire’ for the solace of independent states. Nevertheless, the weakness of authoritarian, top-down states such as Russia and China is their increasing reliance on a type of expansive nationalism. Civilisations are eclipsed, not by external threat, but by internal incoherence. In this, both the Occident and the Orient are obscured by haze; a lack of a moral teleology hinders both. Resources and geopolitics signify a lack of Plato’s ‘care for the soul’. Bound to the wall of Plato’s cave, it will take an epoch-shifting Spenglerian change to drag humanity from the cave of its own making and into the blinding sunlight.

Brian Patrick Bolger studied at the LSE. He has taught political philosophy and applied linguistics in Universities across Europe. His articles have appeared internationally in magazines including National Interest, GeoPolitical and The Village. His book, Coronavirus and the Strange Death of Truth, is now available ,in the UK and US. His new book, Nowhere Fast: The Decline of Liberal Democracy, will be published soon by Ethics International Press