According to a recent article in “War on the Rocks”, the so-called Wesphalian system is placed at great risk from collapsing due to the work of two major factors in contemporary international affairs – the existence and growth of ISIS and the development of China as a claimant to a super-power status and its claim to be, again, upholding the principle of the Mandate of Heaven as stipulated by Xi Jinping’s recent political agendas. In order to understand how and why such a theoretical construct is false, we need first define the three main segments of this thesis – the ISIS-proclaimed “caliphate”, the Westphalian system and the notion of Sinocentrism.
According to Muslim tradition, all Muslims in the world constitute the so called “Dar al Islam” (the House of Islam) – a supra-national, world-dimensional diaspora of believers, united by their faith and basic religious principles. In a perfect Islamic version of the world, this religious confederation should be headed by a Khalifa – Allah’s representative on Earth, who is to guide the faithful into conquering and converting the entire world into the one true Faith. It is precisely this theoretic notion that stands in the center of the jihadists’ idea of how the world should develop. However, ISIS’ perception of the whole process is twisted and perverted by a pseudo-Islamic interpretation of the Quran which has nothing to do with the original idea of how Muhammad’s teachings should spread across the Globe. Thus, from an official, canonical point of perspective, the “teachings” of ISIS have nothing to do with any legal claim on the establishment of a world order, especially in the context of foreign policy and international affairs. Apart from ISIS’ lack of credibility and legitimacy, Islam has long ago forfeited the idea of a single Muslim world-state that should single-handedly dictate the course of foreign relations and define sovereignty. Yes, Pan-Arabism did exist in 20th century, but it was only limited to the Arab element of the Dar al Islam and never stipulated a clear vision of unifying other Muslims outside the limits of the Arabian areal. The breakdown of overall Muslim sovereignty came in existence already in 750 A.D. when the Umayyad and Abbasid dynasties split the Dar al Islam in two. This disintegration would continue to unravel during the Middle Ages and by the time the Mongols sacked Baghdad in 1258, no trace was left of the notion that a single Muslim ruler could define the sovereign rights of the entire umma (the community of Faithful). Furthermore, division between sects led to additional disintegration of the notion of sovereignty in the Muslim world. Thus, a Shi’a ruler could never be fully legitimized regarding Sunni subjects and vice versa. So, already in the XIII century, the Muslim world had accepted the notion that each separate Muslim state had its own right to sovereignty which could only be limited by practical dependence to a greater local power.
The second crucial element of the above quoted thesis is the Sinocentrism, formulated in the concept of the Mandate of Heaven, the guiding principle of governance during almost 3,000 years of Chinese history. Basically, the Mandate stipulates, that the gods have bestowed the crown of the Celestial Empire over to the most able candidate for the throne and that this figure has the obligation of ruling the state that lies in the center of the world – that is China. While there is no place for gods in the Socialism with a Chinese face, promoted by Xi Jinping, there certainly is a place for the concept of a China-centered world. The problem here is not that this notion is challenging international relations – it is. However, China’s pretense is most certainly not the only one to do so. In fact, the Mandate of Heaven has a lot in common with the so called Manifest Destiny that has driven US foreign and domestic policy since XIX century. Russia’s Third Rome concept has a lot in common to both, emphasizing on the sacred origin of Moscow’s authority, dating back to at least since the time of emperor Constantine I (310-337 A.D.) Divine calling and purpose also guide other state across the world in the conduct of their foreign affairs naming the Vatican, Iran and Saudi Arabia as but a few examples. Thus, the concept of divine primacy among states is something, with which the international political scene has dealt repeatedly for centuries. Assuming that a recent outcry for primacy and Sinocentrism can tumble down the existing order of international affairs would be an overstatement to say the least.
The final segment of the whole thesis of Sino-Muslim challenge to the world international order is the existence of such a fixed, Westphalian order what so ever. According to political science and history, the Westphalian system was the first political definition of sovereignty and freedom of conducting independent foreign policy by each legitimate government – initially in Europe, and later throughout the world. While this definition is, essentially correct, it is incomplete. For the Westphalian treaty system only regarded the rights and freedoms of the Germanic states of the Holy Roman Empire. These states had, before 1648, been subjected to the suzerainty of the Holy Roman emperor-elect, who since 1509, was always a member of the House of Austria (the Habsburgs). The need for political emancipation in Germany, which lead to the Thirty Years war (1618-1648), was an internal issue of the Empire an it, by no means, meant that other European states (or any other states across the world for that matter) had any doubt that a sovereign state had the legal right of implementing its internal and external policy without the meddling of foreign powers.
The notion of secular sovereignty has developed progressively around the world since the dawn of civilization, when the first oligarchical systems would rise to challenge the old shamanic/religious hierarchy and begin to construct the State as a form of political organization. It is true that at certain periods of time single secular or ecclesiastical authority has tried to achieve supremacy and suzerainty over individual political entities, but such cases were always regional and never long-lived by the standards of history.
Basically, for a global international order to exist, there should be some sort of overpowering force, able to impose its will and model over the world. The Concert of Europe during the XIX century was the closest thing to such a model, but even the collective will of the Great Powers was unable to implement a single, Euro-centric version of international relations across the Globe. European diplomatic norms were, of course, accepted as a benchmark for political interaction, but the notion of sovereignty was always an elusive phenomenon, since there was no standard to calculate which state had to be regarded as sovereign and which not to. The problem persists to this very day and there are many cases currently present, who can illustrate the uncertain nature of political sovereignty. States like Taiwan, Palestine, Abkhazia, North Cyprus, the Pridnestrovia republic and Somaliland are all examples of the competing standards of sovereignty, applied by different political entities – whether part of the G7 or not.
To conclude – the general development of foreign relations throughout history has prevented the establishment of a single, ordeal notion of sovereignty as implied by the concept of a ‘Westphalian order’. The fact that sovereignty is a matter of state perspective means, that the only way to impose a singular standard of political jurisdiction is for a Power or an alliance of Powers to establish a global diplomatic pattern of their doing after achieving suzerainty over all other political entities, present on the world map. So, apart from the fact that ISIS has no legitimacy to challenge the international political establishment and China is just one of the many self-centered Great Powers of History, the Westphalian order cannot be challenged by either Xi Jinping or Al Baghdadi, because it does not exist.
This does not, however, mean that there is no working order of international affairs. On the contrary, it is alive and berthing. The thing about it, is that it is based not on some outdated notion of Westphalian principle, but on the compromise of the diverse political player, whose actions shape the face of modern-day foreign affairs. Each player follows the general rules only if unable to cheat or circumvent them. Each Great or lesser power has its own political agenda and understanding of sovereignty and accepting the others’ perspective is a matter of a state’s choice, rather than a condition of a non-existing world system.