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Reflections on Peace

Pictured is a famous painting of those who signed the Peace of Westphalia.

Our trip has come to an end in Cologne, Germany. The city is part of the larger North Rhine-Westphalia region which includes other cities such as Essen and the regional capital of Düsseldorf. For those who are familiar with international law and political history, this region is extremely pertinent to the foundations of the modern state and international relations.

At the end of the Thirty Years War (1618-1648)- an extremely destructive conflict that engulfed Europe in decades of violent warfare- several leaders met in the region of Westphalia and drafted up treaties that basically established the principle of state sovereignty; meaning that each state in the international system has complete sovereignty over their territory. This radical idea drastically changed international relations and set in motion the path to statehood and nationhood. Consequently, this collection of treaties became known as the Peace of Westphalia.

Being in the North Rhine-Westphalia region has caused me to reflect on this moment in history and to reconsider World War II in the context of the Peace of Westphalia. Just as the Peace of Westphalia brought an end to several decades of European violence and radically changed the international system, the end of World War II brought relative peace to Europe and led to the establishment of several international institutions that have radically altered how the relations between states work. The European nations, relatively balanced in terms of power after World War II, eventually sought greater cooperation through the European Union. Consequently, a region of the world known for horrific violence and terrible wars became one of the most peaceful regions of the world.

The institutions set up after World War II also built upon the principles of the Peace of Westphalia. The influence of the Peace of Westphalia can clearly be seen in post-War documents such as the United Nations Charter in which the principle of state sovereignty is explicitly delineated. Other institutions such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (later the World Trade Organization) fundamentally transformed international relations through the integration of interstate activities in broad, internationalist institutions.

In a way, the end of World War II was like the Peace of Westphalia for the twentieth and, consequently, twenty-first centuries. The end of the bloody conflict brought about significant and world-changing declarations, treaties, documents, and institutions that have fundamentally reshaped our understanding of international relations and have also cemented the principles of Westphalian sovereignty.

Today, as I survey the landscapes of the North Rhine-Westphalia and look out at the Rhine river, I cannot help but think about the richness of history and how two major historical events- the Peace of Westphalia and World War II- have given me the opportunity to travel a peaceful Europe (a strange and new occurrence in world history) and enjoy the international and multicultural fruits of liberal democracy. Hundreds of years ago the idea of peace between states was rather fragile and seemingly nonexistent, but today it is largely the norm. Hopefully Westphalian principles and post-War institutions can survive so that we do not have to reshape the world order after horrifying destruction in the future.