International Organization


Sovereignty, International Relations, and the Westphalian Myth

Andreas Osiander


The 350th anniversary of the Peace of Westphalia in 1998 was largely ignored by the discipline of international relations (IR), despite the fact that it regards that event as the beginning of the international system with which it has traditionally dealt. By contrast, there has recently been much debate about whether the “Westphalian system” is about to end. This debate necessitates, or at least implies, historical comparisons. I contend that IR, unwittingly, in fact judges current trends against the backdrop of a past that is largely imaginary, a product of the nineteenth- and twentieth-century fixation on the concept of sovereignty. I discuss how what I call the ideology of sovereignty has hampered the development of IR theory. I suggest that the historical phenomena I analyze in this article—the Thirty Years' War and the 1648 peace treaties as well as the post–1648 Holy Roman Empire and the European system in which it was embedded—may help us to gain a better understanding of contemporary international politics.

Andreas Osiander is a government-funded researcher at the Institut für Sozialwissenschaften, Humboldt University, Berlin, Germany. He can be reached at