Most readers of this website are interested in one way or another in ‘foreign affairs’.

As I have described on different occasions here, the heart of international diplomacy is the state. That idea in its modern form emerged from the Peace of Westphalia. Here are some passages from my 2009 DIPLOMAT article on this subject:

A vital date in the history of the modern world is 1648. That was when the Treaties of Osnabrück and Münster were signed. All readers of DIPLOMAT know these treaties off by heart. They together are more usually known as the Peace of Westphalia, which ended the Thirty Years’ War within the Holy Roman Empire and the even more geriatric Eighty Years’ War between Spain and the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands.

The negotiation of those two treaties invented modern grand scale diplomatic junketing. Haggling meandered on for six years. Over 100 different delegations of states, ‘imperial states’ from the Holy Roman Empire and interest groups (today known as NGOs) jostled for good outcomes, all on generous expenses.

The Two Treaties were mainly about settling Europe’s violent religious differences. But in doing so they set up new principles of sovereignty, under which the rulers of ‘nation states’ agreed to manage their relationships in a peaceful or at least civilised way. As democracy slowly came to qualify the power of those rulers, such sovereignty was seen as lying not with the national leader but rather in the ‘nation’. Which opened the way for ‘nation states’ to emerge as independent actors on the international stage.

Hence two tricky questions, still alive and well today:

·         how does a defined territory join this grand process (ie what is a ‘state’)?

·         which people join this grand process (ie what is a ‘nation’?)?

Meanwhile Yugoslavia too had broken up. That hard question at the heart of Westphalianism – nation or state? – posed itself in acute form

Should the rest of us recognise the former internal borders of the USSR and Yugoslavia as the borders of the new countries concerned? Or should we negotiate border changes in some cases, better to reflect the principle of self-determination? Who or what should be sovereign? 

… The West looked at Slovenia (predominantly Slovene-populated, borders mainly not contested) and decided to have its cake and eat it. Slovenia handily ticked both boxes: internal borders as new international borders, and self-determination.

Which was fine for Slovenia. But not for Croatia, Bosnia, Macedonia, Montenegro or Serbia, the other five republics in communist Yugoslavia each with different ethnic/national identity tensions. Not to mention the sizeable category of ‘Yugoslavs’ – people not identifying themselves with one or other ethnic community...

You know the rest. Calamity. War. Refugee columns.  Ethnic cleansing. War crimes. ICTY. NATO bombing. In today’s Europe! Dayton. Rambouillet. More NATO bombing. Kosovo run by the UN. Milosevic sent to ICTY and dies in prison. Kosovo declares independence in 2008, but is still not recognised by the majority either of countries or of the world’s population.

… Diplomacy. Building on what exists (ie racial, ethnic, religious tensions going back centuries) and accept that Good Fences make Good Neighbours? As we (HMG/West) did in accepting the break-up of what remained of Yugoslavia into Serbia + Kosovo + Montenegro?

Or building towards what we insist has to exist, hoping to compel people to cooperate nicely within single state frameworks which they dislike and distrust, as we (HMG/West) have done in Bosnia?

Two utterly different philosophies and policies, applied to places a few miles apart, which for eighty years were in one country.

Foolish Consistency? Or Foolish Inconsistency?

From Westphalia to West failure?

Now a new book by Norman Davies is coming out: Vanished Kingdoms. It looks at how the ebb and flow of history builds, removes and sometimes (Poland; Montenegro) restores polities.

Here at Browser is a super interview with Professor Davies, who as usual is on lively, challenging form:

People who have their eye on short-term, contemporary events and the world around us tend to forget this. I sometimes think they imagine the world politic to be a chessboard, where you play games, have a crisis, and then you put all the pieces back and have another game. Well it’s not like that. You can have a chessboard, you have players who are either pawns or kings or whatever, but the players themselves are always changing…

At the end of the Roman Empire, in the Byzantine period, the empire shrinks and shrinks until it consists of one city, Constantinople, and the Ottoman Turks can encircle it. There’s a final siege and the Turks go over the wall. The last emperor – number 156 or whatever – disappears in the fray, is killed, and that’s the end of the empire. This is, if you like, the guidebook to this story, to exactly what Rousseau is saying. No matter how powerful they may look, the time will come, as in the lives of men and women, when they die. It’s not a topic that people are eagerly looking at…

And the indigenous population of the region where Glasgow is – Strathclyde, as it’s called now – was Welsh. The chief hero of medieval Scotland was William Wallace. Wallace means Welsh. The Scots don’t tell you that. They had this theory that William Wallace’s family came from Shropshire, which is how they try to explain how a Welshman could be in what they thought of as Scotland. They didn’t know that these Welsh of the north were not intruders from Wales, they were there long before the Scots…

Part of the afterlife of the Soviet Union is, of course, in Putin’s brain. Putin is ex-KGB, an organisation founded to preserve the Soviet state which failed completely. Putin must have a terrible sense of failure. In fact, he has said that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest catastrophe of modern times. So sure, Putin, in the back of his mind, would like to reassemble if not the Soviet Union, then some sort of empire, a broader Russian-dominated grouping which would be a modern version of the Soviet Union. I don’t think he’s got a cat’s chance in hell…

And finally:

Is there a European identity strong enough to overcome the national identities of its member states? It’s touch and go. But I’m an optimist. I think there will be one hell of a crisis. I doubt if the EU will disappear, but it will be severely chastened. And it will have to put its house in order. Otherwise it will become one of the vanished kingdoms. It wouldn’t be unprecedented for that to happen.

Read the whole thing. It’s crackling with wisdom and interest.

Then order the book (on Kindle too):