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All Negotiating Is Domestic

Is the idea of Westphalian sovereignty hindering the implementation of global solutions to global problems?

September 27, 2012

Credit: Natchapon-L./

We live in a world in which international institutions are weakening. The level (and power) of engagement through the international system at large is shrinking as a result to the global financial crisis. There is no way this situation will substantially change, in my view, for a minimum time horizon of about five years.

The reason is very simple: You need a formidable quantum of political energy to escape what could perhaps best be described as the attractions of the Westphalian system.

Under that legal system, which represented true progress when it came about in the mid-17th century, all nations could regale in the notion of a broad sovereignty.

While that was very necessary at the time to allow nations to keep their distance, and their peace, more recent times have shown that there is a considerable downside to this.

The “Westphalian shield” allows all nations to dismiss any requirements coming from the global system to safeguard humanity’s longer-term survival as acts of interference in their internal, national affairs. The shield of sovereignty was not to be pierced.

Past evidence shows that it was usually only in response to huge crises — mainly wars, including two outright world wars — that the required political energy was generated to focus more on multilateral (read: system-oriented, rather than nation state-oriented) approaches.

That is essentially the system we have been living with for the last 50 or 60 years. But now, there is no denying that this quantum of political energy has evaporated. As such, the economic crisis — particularly the merely domestic management of the crisis — is all-absorbing.

It sucks incredible energies out of decision makers. In fact, as the current crisis in Europe shows, pure crisis management consumes most of the available political energy.

Contrary to what many people believe, international negotiations, international rule making and international engagement are not things conducted just between diplomats. That is a totally artificial view of what international life is about. International life is about an interaction between governance and nations’ own domestic constituencies.

In international negotiations, sovereign nations negotiate with themselves before they negotiate between themselves. Trade negotiations are the prime example of this. Take the European Union: Before coming to the negotiating table at the WTO or at international summits on climate change, lengthy and sometimes heated negotiations have taken place within the EU members states and among them.

In the present situation, there is no capacity for pushing these sorts of domestic constituency trade-offs, without which international cooperation becomes practically impossible.

In a way, it is a vicious cycle. The less we get to do under these constrained, nerve-wracked circumstances, the more the crisis endures. And the more the crisis endures, the more it harms the legitimacy of the national leaders, hence eroding their capacity to accept cross-border compromises, hence prolonging the crisis.

I am afraid that this is the reality with which we have to reckon for years to come. Are there other paths available, like the Club of Rome or other influential civil society groups, that can help re-inject some of the required political energy back into the process?

I am the first to admit that this would represent a peculiar sort of substitution of the old-fashioned way of generating legitimacy for negotiating processes. In the traditional approach, domestic trade-offs were arranged within each country, behind the forever convenient Westphalian shield of sovereignty. They were then offered up — and cross-negotiated — on the international stage.

Going down that route would clearly be a departure from past practice. But, considering the alternative — glacial standstill — it is at least worth trying. It is worth trying building alliances across nations through trans-national actors.

What I have said about global negotiations is also very much true for dealing with regional integration. Regional integration processes are as much of the victim of the crisis as the international system.

I am not just referring to the European example, although it is considered as a quite sophisticated and advanced form of regional integration. If you look at the rest of the planet, other regional integration processes are also suffering, starting with MERCOSUR, which ten years ago was a success. Or ASEAN, which has also been affected by regional geopolitical tensions. Or Western and Central Africa.

Whether Europe, Latin America, Africa or Asia, none of this can come as a surprise to anyone. Any regional cooperation is a sort of mini-international system. This is why the international system cannot be in good shape if national or regional systems are in bad shape.

Editor’s note: This essay was adapted from the author’s presentation at the 2012 Salzburg Trilogue. Hosted by the Bertelsmann Stiftung in Germany, the Salzburg Trilogue facilitates international cultural dialogue by bringing together recognized public figures to consider matters of global importance.


The Westphalian system allows nations to dismiss requirements from the global system as acts of interference in their internal affairs.

The international system cannot be in good shape if national systems are in bad shape. The same is true for regional systems.

As the current crisis in Europe shows, pure crisis management consumes most of the available political energy.