19 November 2004

Postmodern mediaevalism?

What will international politics look like in the future? Jonathan Edelstein and Gideon Strauss offer their opinions on the subject. Edelstein believes that the current accepted legal definition of sovereign statehood, enshrined in the Montevideo Convention of 1934, is gradually being supplanted by a plethora of international actors which will effectively resurrect much of the untidiness of the western middle ages. Gideon confesses that he is still attached to a world defined by Montevideo, or perhaps the Treaty of Westphalia of 1648, with its clear boundaries and institutional symmetry.

Which is more likely to do public justice? My own view is that, in a world boasting "tens of thousands of international actors rather than hundreds", conflicts are far more likely to arise without a clear avenue of appeal for peaceful resolution. Although I have never been an aficionado of the modern concept of sovereignty, it is nevertheless true that its principal architects, Jean Bodin and Thomas Hobbes, saw it as a way of ending the sorts of civil wars that had plagued France and England in the late middle ages and early modern era. If it is unclear who is the final political authority within a given territory, the possibilities of actual bloodshed would seem to increase.

Yet, as Edelstein points out, there have always been exceptions to the Montevideo/Westphalian international order, even during modernity's heyday. For example, the Order of Malta possesses sovereign status in international law, despite possessing no territory of its own for just over two centuries. Moreover, my own sense of the matter is that holding citizenship in more than one country is far more common today than it was a few decades ago. Perhaps I am simply more aware of this phenomenon because I myself am now a citizen of two countries, with the right to claim two and possibly three additional citizenships. In principle, given that the ordinary person's loyalties are already manifold in a complex, differentiated society, it should be possible to maintain multiple political allegiances as well, particularly when the states at issue enjoy friendly relations.

If the international realm is in fact becoming less tidy and if the classic modern definition of sovereignty is becoming less relevant to global realities, then we would do well to seek international conventions and institutions capable of bringing some order to all of this. In the meantime, I am encouraging my better students to continue their studies in political science with a focus on international relations. For three decades now I have found the neocalvinist school, associated with the likes of Kuyper and Dooyeweerd, exceedingly fruitful for understanding the place of politics in God's world. Unfortunately there is among followers of this school a real dearth of reflection on the international realm. To some extent James W. Skillen has sought to rectify this lack in his own works. But much more remains to be done.

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