Next year we observe – perhaps “celebrate” doesn’t entirely fit – the 370th anniversary of the modern state, which is generally said to have resulted from the Treaty of Westphalia that ended the devastating Thirty Years War and reshaped the map of Europe. According to this agreement, the European powers would henceforth accept the principle of state sovereignty, namely, that the state is sovereign within its own territory and exempt from interference from its neighbours. This new international order would replace the messy patchwork of feudal fiefdoms that had lasted for centuries in the western part of the continent.
Since that time we have come to see the state, not as a domain of a particular ruler, but as a community of citizens led by their government. But settling its territorial boundaries has been the tricky part. Where does France end and Germany begin? And what of the German lands where, say, Polish is the majority language? For as long as the modern state has existed there have been quarrels over its jurisdiction. Attempts to settle these quarrels have not always succeeded, with the two world wars of the last century among the most tragic of the failures.
U.S. President Woodrow Wilson thought it possible to establish a postwar order based on the principle of national self-determination, which would grant all nations the right to decide their own fates. If the Czechs no longer wished to be part of Austria-Hungary, they would be permitted to go it alone. If the Poles wished to recover their ancient independence, then Russians, Germans and Austrians should allow this.
However, Wilson, ever the political idealist, underestimated the lethal consequences of what he had unleashed, as competing claims to nationhood set the stage for the resumption of armed conflict only two decades after the Treaty of Versailles had ended the first war. We are still living with the consequences today.
First, the Middle East. The Kurds are an ethnic group speaking an Indo-European language and straddling the borders of Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran. At the close of the Great War, the Kurds were promised an independent Kurdistan, something the Kurds are still awaiting a century later. With the defeat of Saddam Hussein in Iraq more than 25 years ago, the Kurds established a Kurdistan Regional Government, currently led by President Massoud Barzani. With the seemingly inevitable breakup of Iraq, the Kurds hoped finally to have their own state – something understandably opposed by Damascus, Ankara and Tehran.
However, as the Iraqi military has been fighting to defeat the Islamic State and other insurgents, it has pushed well into Kurdish territory, ousting the Peshmerga, the Kurdish armed forces, from the key city of Kirkuk last month. Does this spell the end of Kurdish hopes for independent statehood in the region? Possibly, though the U.S. has called for dialogue between the disputing parties.
On the far western end of Europe, the territorial integrity of another state is threatened by secessionists, this time in the Spanish autonomous region of Catalunya, whose citizens voted overwhelmingly in favour of independence. After the vote, Catalan President Carles Puigdemont stopped just short of declaring full independence. As I write, Madrid is acting quickly to disband the regional government in Barcelona and impose direct rule before independence can be asserted. Readers will have the benefit of hindsight that I currently lack, but historical precedents compel us to recognize that this is a potentially dangerous situation. No state can acquiesce in its own dismemberment. At the same time, it seems unwise – possibly even unjust – to force Catalonians to remain part of Spain.
What does justice require in such situations? State borders are not sacrosanct, yet dismembering an existing state is a messy business fraught with great potential for injustice. True, the modern state has its flaws, but at its best it has managed to create a secure public zone of peace, justice and prosperity within its jurisdiction – something we take for granted until it’s gone. If we are unlikely to see many celebratory events next year, we can nevertheless be grateful to God for the admittedly imperfect blessing of the state.
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