America Abandons Westphalia

We're undermining a key principle of international peace.

When looking through history's great documents for the one which saved the largest number of lives, 1648's Peace of Westphalia is a strong contender for top honors: it brought an end to thirty years of barbaric total religious warfare, and, aside from the world of Islam, has become such an accepted part of the way the world works that most people hardly think about it.

The Thirty Years War of the early 1600s was brought about by the Protestant Reformation which led to a Europe splintered between Catholics and Protestants.  Both thought the other side was going to Hell and wanted to help send them there poste-haste.  It's not possible to win a war of extermination except by the actual extermination of one side, but this is difficult because people who know that their enemies want to exterminate them tend to fight harder.

Three decades of atrocities left large sections of continental Europe in ruins.  Destruction was limited only by the limits of the technology and logistical capacity of the day.  Even the most fervent fundamentalists on both sides finally started to blanch at the carnage.  Eventually a deal was struck that everybody with any power could agree to: the principle that each sovereign ruler of each independent nation could set whatever religious rules he pleased, and no other nation would attempt to interfere.

In most places, this meant ordinary citizens had to convert to whatever religion their ruler chose, or else.  This had always been standard practice, but prior to the Peace of Westphalia, whenever a ruler changed his religion by death, conquest, or conversion, members of the now-banned religion would appeal to the next prince over who believed the same way they did and beg him to intervene.  More often than not this proved a useful pretext for a war of conquest.

The peace treaty basically said that rulers could still set local religious rules as before, but going forward nations wouldn't interfere in each other's internal affairs.  Thus, if a monarch converted from Protestantism to Catholicism, everybody in his country might be forced to convert, but the neighboring Protestant monarch would not invade to protect them.

Members of the wrong religion were generally welcome to leave, which happened often enough to populate the New World, and with this escape valve, the treaty kept the peace fairly decently.  Over the years, the principle has extended far beyond religion: until the last few decades, a leader could do literally anything to his own citizens no matter how barbaric and no action would be taken by foreign countries as long as he didn't do anything violent outside his borders.

Unfortunately, it looks like America is returning to the pre-Westphalian days of unwinnable religious wars - not just against Islamic terrorism externally, but between ourselves internally.

The End of Religion?

Modern pundits are fond of telling us that America is becoming a non-religious nation.  That statement is clearly nonsense if you properly define "religion" to include phenomena that are found all across the fruited plain.

Traditionally, the term "religion" referred to a belief in God or in the supernatural, but the definition also includes "a pursuit or interest to which someone ascribes supreme importance."  In practice, "religion" can include any set of very important beliefs that cannot be shaken regardless of factual argument.

Consider abortion.  An unborn baby is either not a human being, in which case abortion should be permitted for any reason, or it is a human being, in which case abortion is murder, which most people regard as a serious offense for which sanctions should be applied.  There are no facts which could sway any adherents of either of these beliefs to switch to the other side.  One side of the argument is overtly religious, but the other side believes in their position every bit as devoutly and with the same degree of imperviousness to counter-proofs.

European nations tend to ban abortions after the fetus has developed to the point of being able to feel pain, but American pro-aborts' staunch beliefs in the non-negotiable right to abortion on demand won't let them consider anything that might be used to restrict the right to an abortion any time, any where, for any reason, or for no reason.

The abortion debate is very much a religious conflict which is equally impervious to reason on both sides, but it is far from the only one.  Religion in America, in the sense of fundamental beliefs which are beyond rational argument, isn't fading away at all.  Instead, it's splintering into more and more dissimilar sects, cults, and denominations which want nothing more than for their opponents to die in the most unpleasant ways imaginable.

Consider just a few of the "political" views which are clung to by their supporters with every bit of devotion and emotional attachment as the most devoutly religious believer does his Bible:

The Hot Air of Global Warming

The believe in Anthropogenic (human-caused) Global Warming, aka "climate change," has become a religion which is impervious to facts such as ongoing changes in the amount of heat put out by the sun.  Al Gore predicted long ago that the seas would swamp Manhattan; the list of unfulfilled warmist predictions could fill as many books as unfulfilled prophecies about the end of the world.  The fact that none of the dire consequences predicted ever happened has not affected his disciples' conviction that the heat death of all mankind is just around the corner, requiring immediate overregulation of all corners of the economy, human behavior, and all the trappings of a totalitarian dictatorship in green uniforms.

The religious aspects of environmentalism have not gone unnoticed: in a famous episode, the profane cartoon "South Park" depicted self-satisfied lefties driving "Pious" hybrid cars, which emitted a dense cloud of "smug." 

Despite decades of failed predictions, those who believe in Mr. Gore's apocalyptic vision appear never to question their prophet despite his own habit of merrily consuming as many fossil fuels as his private jets, yachts, SUV convoys, and several mansions can handle.  On the other hand, it's equally rare for an ordinary American to come 'round to true belief in global warming from a previously strong rejectionist position.

Most worrying, some warmists chortled gleefully that Hurricane Harvey was just what Houston deserved because the city is home to the oil industry, and global warming, which supposedly caused the storm, is the fault of the oil industry.  Only a religious nut would wish people dead because of their political beliefs, but a fair few warmists did and do.

Illegal Immigration

Illegal immigration is another religious conflict.  Some cities and states are so convinced that our nation ought to absorb anyone who can manage to cross the border that they break the laws which require local law enforcement agencies to cooperate with federal immigration authorities.  California just passed an anti-law law attempting to make the entire state a sanctuary for illegals by barring any local law enforcement from cooperating with immigration law enforcement.  Journalists are tripping over themselves to praise California's politicians; we haven't heard anything from the relatives of the late Kathryn Steinle, murdered in San Francisco by a wanted illegal immigrant convict whom the city police had released rather than hand over to the Feds.

It wasn't that long ago that a group of states did something very similar, but received a quite different response: in the Civil Rights era, the Jim Crow South issued reams of legislation contrary to Federal law and, indeed, the Constitution itself.  To thunderous applause from the media, Republican President Eisenhower sent in the 101st Airborne to Little Rock to forcibly integrate the Central High School there, after Democrat Gov. Orval Faubus had used the National Guard to enforce segregation.  Over the years, the rest of the South was forced to end legal segregation, and in many cases private, unofficial segregation as well, through overwhelming federal power.

Legally, in what way is California's flipping the bird to Federal law any different from what the Jim Crow South tried to do?  The bigots of the past were determined to strip U.S. citizens of their citizenship rights; the bigots of today are just as determined to strip U.S. citizens of their rights to their own country by illegally importing non-citizens with an alien culture who have no civil rights here, yet are illegitimately granted them by corrupt local governments contrary to law.  The price is paid by citizens who lose their job or are assaulted by people who don't belong here in the first place.

Opinions on immigration are so immune to factual argument that nobody can even agree on how many illegals we have, whether they have jobs, or whether they are a net cost to society or a benefit.  It's manifestly obvious that working immigrants increase the GDP unless you account for the cost of citizens whose jobs they take; it's equally obvious that there are a fair number of violent felons among their number whom we'd be better off without.  At the very least, instant deportation of foreign lawbreakers should be a matter of non-partisan common sense, but as a flashpoint in a religious quarrel, it is anything but.

Gun Rights

The right for individual to own firearms is equally religious. Anti-gunners mix suicide with homicide to claim that "gun deaths" are a critical problem; pro-gunners show statistics which show murder rates declining as more and more citizens own guns.

The Washington Post shows that this particular debate has taken on ominous overtones:

CBS fired a company executive Monday after she criticized some victims of the Las Vegas mass shooting as "Republican gun toters" who did not deserve sympathy.

As with the warmists who believe that people who supply fossil fuels deserve to be killed by hurricanes, there are all too many liberals who feel that people who support gun rights deserve to be shot by terrorists, either foreign or domestic.  Not only is this evil, it's illogical - if the point of wanting to ban guns is to save lives, what on earth are you doing celebrating when innocent people lose their lives to guns?  Only a religious nut could be so deranged, yet this is apparently not an uncommon view on the left.

Sad to say, there are also some on the right who take literally the old saw "You can have my gun when you pry it from my cold, dead fingers."  Most gun owners don't go looking for trouble, but occasionally there is one who does, and generally finds it with bloody consequences.  Like any other tool made by man, a gun can be both useful and dangerous; what matters is the wisdom, skill, and intent with which it is used, and that's where the emphasis needs to lie.

Our Westphalian Constitution

Our founders were keenly aware of the lessons of history.  They knew that any strongly-held beliefs could stir up great conflict.  They wanted to provide safety values within the United States, as the New World had served as a safety valve for people who disagreed with whatever European rulers decreed.

Accordingly, they set up our great "laboratory of Democracy" with an intentionally weak Federal government by the standards of absolute monarchy of the day, with a strictly limited set of powers.  All other powers were reserved to the states or to the people.

There is no Constitutional authorization for the Federal government to pass laws against people using marijuana in-state, for example, nor for them to pass laws restricting firearms or specifying how much money a welfare recipient should receive.  Those powers were reserved to individual states to pass their own laws, just as the treaty of Westphalia argued that individual nations shouldn't mess with other nations.

It should be manifestly obvious that the citizens of New York City wish to be governed in a profoundly different way from the citizens of West Virginia.  Why can't we allow this?  If a West Virginian prefers the governance model of New York City, he has every right to move there, and vice versa, just as French Protestant Huguenots could move to England and German Catholics to France.  Allowing for the maximum diversity between the states lets the residents of each state be mostly happy with the way they're governed, a desirable sithation which is exactly what we do not have today.

How can this careful balance be kept?  Knowing that only a government has the power to check another government, our founders expected Senators to represent the interests of the various state governments in opposition to Federal power.

Unfortunately, in the early 1900s, progressives - today known as liberals - changed the rules so that Senators, like representatives, are elected by voters.  No democracy survives once the electorate finds they can vote themselves benefits from the public treasury.  With Senators competing with Representatives to buy votes, the Federal government has passed more and more laws which shovel money to voters while restricting what states are permitted to do, all the while growing the unitary power of the Federal government and destroying healthy diversity between the states.

How It Was Meant To Be

In our original system, there would be no federal gun control laws: each state would have its own, and they'd be quite different.

Jerry Brown, the ruler of California, is rabidly anti-gun and pro illegal immigrant.  California has very restrictive gun laws and welcomes as many criminal illegals as manage to get there.  This is providing evidence to decide whether these policies are a good idea: the vast numbers of ex-Californians who vote with their feet clearly feel they aren't.

With wider latitude for the states, we would also learn a lot about education.  California locks pupils into a dysfunctional public K-12 education system and makes homeschooling very difficult.  Other states are more liberal, with widespread homeschooling, charter schools, and even vouchers. We're already seeing different results in different states, which provides an opportunity for laggards to learn from the experiences of others.

In like manner, Andrew Cuomo, the emperor of New York, has decreed that fracking will not be tolerated and that no pipelines may carry natural gas across his state from Pennsylvania to states like Massachusetts that need the gas.  His state should have the right to ban fracking and forgo the tax revenues which might help with their vast pension deficits, but the Founders wisely did grant the Federal government power to regulate interstate commerce: no state should have the power to prohibit infrastructure necessary for interstate trade.

We don't expect the rulers of any of our states to change their religious views, but citizens can and do vote with their feet to express their views.  This hasn't changed, so as long as people and commerce cam move around freely, why does our Federal government have to control every other aspect of life?

It's too bad we gave up our Westphalian federal system in 1913.  We've commented on some of the same problems which are showing up in the European Union as their concept of separate nations has broken down.  Unfortunately, independently-governed nations arose for good reasons based on inherent human nature, and if we deny human nature we'll end up back in the bloodbath the Peace of Westphalia was designed to stop.

It remains to be seen whether the progressive "one size fits all" federal system can be made to work everywhere in the United States.  The increasing vehemence of our religious conflicts suggests that it cannot.

Petrarch is a contributing editor for Scragged.  Read other articles by Petrarch or other articles on Foreign Affairs.
Reader Comments

Westphalia requires that each state control its people and prevent them as individuals or non-government entities from engaging in war against the people of any other state. Only the stat is authorized to engage in war, and it must control and be held responsible for any war by its people that ensues.
In much of the world in the international arena and in much of these United States, that ability to control people and prevent them from engaging in war against other people no longer exists.
Muslim terrorists are a simple and obvious example in the international arena. They often operate independently of the state they inhabit, and in some cases do not accept rule by any state, preferring to subordinate themselves only to Islam (Submission) or its universal Caliphate. They operate within the U.S., and seem mostly beyond control at tolerable cost cost in time, effort, and curtailment of traditional liberties.
Specifically in the domestic arena, war in the streets has not yet reached the stage of routine assassination or slaughter, but the distance from demonstrations that essentially are recreational rioting for fun and profit to killing people is not great. The massing of victimhood groups to demand privilege and payment for injuries suffered in times long past, by themselves or their ancestors, a form of psychological warfare, likewise carries a potential for real warfare in response.
Absent state governments that can actually control war by those within their boundaries, be it civil war or war against those of other states, Westphalia is dead.

October 30, 2017 12:10 PM

Thank you for another well thought out and thought provoking article.

The Hard Rock Cafes used to have a God wall where Jesus, money, Elvis, drugs and a few other things people covert or worship were depicted to remind us all of where we and society have changed to. I wonder if LibProgToads have stopped the practice to remove reminders of the false pursuits organized media and elites are distracting us with to keep us in soma- like haze.

October 31, 2017 9:23 PM

As well-stated as anything else I've seen written of the question. Most unfortunate that "liberal" education has worked it's magic on so many levels since the 1960s that only a small minority is capable of discerning the issues.

I was for Rand Paul for President. He came closest to approaching these matters in a rational fashion, though his father was even better (and look what they did to him in the Republican "debates"). There is no one among the Democrats or anything on the "left" side of the spectrum as conventionally defined that would go anywhere near an honest assessment of "state's rights" which are routinely dismissed as "code for racism/segragation/etc." by the same people who turn around and sign up for the New Confederacy of Open Borders.

About the most constructive thing I can suggest is to routinely question "left" and "right". Leaving as much up to the states would fit the bill; the "Convention of the States" idea promoted by Mark Levin looks to be the best focus going. Note that both the corporacrat Republicans and the globalonial Democrats are hysterically against even discussing the matter. There's your problem.

November 3, 2017 8:15 PM
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