June 19, 2002

The Treaties of Munster and Osnabruck: Why Doesn't the UN Guarantee All Members a Constitutional Form of Government?

On October 24, 1648, the warring proto-states of early modern Europe signed the Peace of Westphalia--the treaties of Munster and Osnabruck. In Catholic Munster, the representitives of the King of Spain and the representitives of the United Provinces of the Netherlands signed the first of two treaties of Munster: Spain recognized the independence of the rebelling United Provinces from the King of Spain, whose ancestors 80 years before had ruled the Netherlands as Counts of Holland, Zeeland, et cetera. But the representatives of the King of Sweden would not come to Catholic Munster: his representatives signed their peace treaty with the Holy Roman Emperor, the King of Spain's cousin, at the neighboring Protestant city of Osnabruck. Meanwhile, the representatives of Louis XIII of France signed their treaty with the Holy Roman Emperor back in Munster. No treaty was signed between Spain and France: their war was to continue for another decade or so.

The Peace of Westphalia established, among other things, the principle that a state's internal affairs were its government's business, and nobody else's. I was surprised yesterday to see it endorsed in the Manchester Guardian by the Prominent Americans' Statement on the War on Terror. Particularly the sentence:

We believe that peoples and nations have the right to determine their own destiny, free from military coercion by great powers.

seemed to be a Declaration of the Rights of Thugs--in this case, the rights of the Taliban to remain in undisturbed enjoyment of their rule over Afghanistan. The words "by great powers" that modify the right to be "free from military coercion" seemed to be included to keep the Taliban safe from any intervention aimed at neutralizing an episode of military coercion by a non-great power--in this case, the support provided by the Taliban by Pakistan's ISI during their rise to power. The absence of any qualifying words about just how "peoples and nations" were to determine their own destiny--through elections rather than through submachine guns, say--seemed to be designed to keep the Taliban safe from any intervention aimed at producing a constitutional government.

And now I'm happy to discover that Chris Bertram agrees with me:


...Brad's reaction is surely broadly right: we should be concerned with the rights of individuals above those of states. As I read things, though, international law is on the side of the signatories - though it is odd to see leftists endorsing such a conservative principle. So, to take one source,

Article 2 of the UN Charter: 2(4): All members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.

Add to this the Declaration of Principles of International Law Concerning Friendly Relations and Co-operation among States in Accordance with the Charter of the United Nations (1970):

No State or group of States has the right to intervene, directly or indirectly, for any reason whatever, in the internal or external affairs of other States.

As Darrel Moellendorf (from whose excellent book Cosmopolitan Justice I'm cribbing much of this) writes:

One consequence of this is that persons seeking to change the internal order of their state may not receive help from other states, whereas the state resisting the change may get help if it so wishes.


Although third parties may not aid revolutionary movements within other countries, those countries, being sovereign, may legitimately use force to supress such movements. (p.3)

Brad describes this principle as "A Declaration of the Rights of Thugs". I agree. Interventions are sometimes justified, and justified in the name of protecting human rights, and leftists who endorse such a broad non-interventionist principle are just sawing off the branch they sit on.

Had I been present at the creation of the post-WWII international order--at the San Francisco meeting at which the United Nations was set up, for example--I would have insisted on the inclusion in the United Nations' charter of the provision:

The United Nations guarantees to each member state a constitutional form of government.

Churchill would have signed--for it says not "republican" but " constitutional". Stalin would have laughed and signed, in the same way that Brezhnev laughed and signed the Helsinki final agreement, having no clue of its long-run implications. No one else would have dared stand in the way of the Big Three.

And by now, over time, the bones of this legal provision would have been covered by precedental flesh, and we might well have a better world. We might even have had monitors from India and Britain and Switzerland in Florida in November of 2000 overseeing the count--people interested in ascertaining what the will of Florida's voters actually was, rather than people named Scalia and Rehnquist who had... different objectives.

Posted by DeLong at June 19, 2002 12:43 PM


The past fifty years have shown me that "democracy" is more stable than I would have imagined possible. The passions and insanities of the mob are purged by a host of intermediary institutions that stand between the individual's whim and collective state decisions. But whatever the virtues of "soft" rule as it has been practiced in the industrial democracies over the past fifty years, few of them are the result of democracy or written constitutions--and a U.N. licensed to impose constitutional government could well do enormous damage to societies it doesn't understand, damage that will make the fate of Africa, whipsawed between colonialism, decolonization, and post-colonialism, look like a sunday picnic.

Joseph de Maistre

Posted by: Joseph de Maistre on June 19, 2002 07:06 PM

"We might even have had monitors from India and Britain and Switzerland in Florida in November of 2000 overseeing the count..."

A clarion call for UN oversight of elections in the US? An interesting idea that would need a lot more political support in this country even to be considered "marginal". If, hypothetically, UN oversight was provided by a group that mirrored the UN Human Rights Commission, we would enjoy the benefits of monitors from a group that includes Algeria, China, Cuba, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya, Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, Pakistan, the Russian Federation, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Sudan, the Syrian Arab Republic, Uganda, Venezuela, Viet Nam, and Zambia. None of these nations have the best interests of the US at heart, and many do not wish us well. Americans do not even expect an honest effort from international judges at the Olympics; our country would never accept monitors such as these.

So, if we may cautiously presume that the Professor is not advocating an idea that is utterly bizarre, what is his point? Well, he may simply be identifying a huge obstacle to the reform of international law and modifications to the concept of "sovereignty". The "rights of thugs" are also the rights of the major powers, who will have significant problems with even seemingly minor tinkering with notions of "sovereignty". The US will never allow the UN to oversee its elections or pass judgement on, for example, its treatment of Native Americans. China has issues with Tibet, Hong Kong, and Taiwan which it will prefer to deal with as internal matters; Russia has Chechnya, Britain has separatist movements in Scotland, Wales, and Ireland, the French are the French - and that only covers the UN Security Council.

Presumably, the Professor's point is that, for modifications in international practice to be adopted, changes must be carefully limited by language, as well as precedent, to apply only to obvious "basket cases".

And speaking of basket cases, there is good news for Gore-Lieberman 2000 supporters at this website:


It is a petition keeping the flame alive and embracing Al Gore as the current President of the United States. The first 850 signatures and comments seem quite heartfelt; therafter, there seems to be an unaccountable and deplorable rightward drift.


Posted by: Tom Maguire on June 20, 2002 07:14 AM

A United Nations that guaranteed all its members a constitutional form of government would be a very different United Nations than we currently have: no Algerias, no North Koreas, no Cubas...

Brad DeLong

Posted by: Brad DeLong on June 20, 2002 07:40 AM

Such a pleasant reverie: "no Algerias, no North Koreas, no Cubas..." no George Bush..... I feel as though I should take my bucket of cold water and leave. However, I subtly alluded to the larger problem in your suggeston regarding UN monitors of US elections, and will re-state it for emphasis: None of these nations have the best interests of the US at heart. None. Britain will pursue the interest of Britain; India, of India; Switzerland, of Switzerland. Do we have trade issues, or defense issues, or environmental issues with any of these countries? Might they have a preference for one President in the US over another? To imagine that these countries would set their own interests aside and choose with wisdom solely on behalf of the American people shows a delightful optimism that, I suspect, the American people do not share.

William Safire has an interesting column today on how the multi-lateral quest for justice can go awry. His lead:

" Two weeks before a supernational criminal court opens over strong U.S. objections a U.N. war crimes tribunal is setting a legal precedent for the "globocourt" that will add to the dangers faced by war correspondents from every nation."

Link is: http://www.nytimes.com/2002/06/20/opinion/20SAFI.html


Posted by: Tom Maguire on June 20, 2002 03:45 PM

All right! All right! Uncle! I admit it! It's just a utopian fantasy.

Satisfied? Happy?


Brad DeLong

Posted by: Brad DeLong on June 20, 2002 04:32 PM

Only if you also admit that I am also a bigger knucklehead than you. Or something....


Posted by: Tom Maguire on June 20, 2002 06:48 PM
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