When Westphalia Fades

What is wrong with America? It does not seem to work anymore. Low employment, static wages, burdened business, persistent poverty, destructive lifestyles, exploding debt, threatened entitlement bankruptcy, and stagnation generally seem to be its future, following the path to decline set by Old Europe the century before.

It may seem peculiar that a peace treaty signed in 1648 might hold the answer.

The Ratification of the Treaty at Münster in Westphalia

The Ratification of the Treaty at Münster in Westphalia

It all starts from the Treaty of Westphalia’s legitimization of the divine right monarchs’ forced centralization of dispersed principalities, towns, and interests into their powerful new nation-states. Church and state were unified dramatically as these kings—whose rule was allegedly God-chosen— even specified their subjects’ religions, which according to modern progressive history somehow led Europe and the whole world to modern order, rationalism, enlightenment, secularism, tolerance, freedom and peace.

The prevalence of this belief that the state could determine everyone’s fundamental value preferences yet also promote freedom and tolerance requires explanation. It follows Rousseau in assuming that the state can fashion neutral morals to promote order and justice, at least after rationalizing its established religion. Rousseau himself presented as his solution a more heroic code of Christian morality without Christianity’s God. Not being very interested in moral codes, the prevailing monarchs and parliaments pretty much accepted the existing religions for their moral order. But something had to redirect emotional attachment to the state. Monarchy proved inadequate so every European state adopted some form of nationalism, perfected by Napoleon.

As mention of the Corsican brigadier general implies, peace was not the prevailing consequence. From the Treaty’s very ratification, the following two centuries were littered with dynastic wars to decide who would exercise the new centralized power right up to 1815 and the famous defeat at Waterloo. The victor of that protracted contest was Prussia, whose power consolidated Germany, eclipsed France, and fomented the First and Second World Wars.

Unification, war, and demands for order and conformity built a strong sense of nationalism. As historian John Lukacs noted, by 1850 the “ancient states had become nations” that then came “to dominate everything else.” The world Johannes Althusius described in his Politica Methodice Digesta, of a covenanted arrangement between his Calvinist city Emden, his Lutheran regional prince, and the Catholic emperor, each of which held historically agreed-upon mutual rights and responsibilities, was soon gone. Scots became British, Catalonians became Spanish, Lombards became Italian, Basques became French, Azeris later became Iranian, Kurds became Iraqis, Ukrainians became Soviets, Alawites became Syrians.

That list of absorbed minorities is not all-inclusive but it does betray the world’s current problem. Every minority on the list is restive today, many actively pursuing independence, and some even at substantial economic cost. Centralizing forces notwithstanding, the local identities have survived. It is not so much that localism has strengthened, but that the nation-states carved by political power have lost their mystique and peoples are turning to any alternative. At the same time, religious identities have been weakened; but even these provided some refuge, especially outside the West, as the empowered bureaucratic states forced more and more standardized rules treating their different peoples equally in all areas of social life. As Aristotle warned long ago, treating different things equally is unjust and causes resentment. Machiavelli taught the wise ruler that the solution was not equality, except in obeying the law, but being adept at finding unique solutions for different situations.

While the United States has been multi-ethnic and multi-denominational from colonial times and the perceptive Alexis de Tocqueville found it more decentralized than medieval Europe, he found it had a sense of nation even so. To be sure, it was a strange sort of nationalism—the result of the fact that the central government was mostly an ideal, its limited scope demanding very little and thus generating little resentment. As the equalizing ethos in the United States became nationalized, however, its union became more demanding, cumulating in a Civil War costing near a million lives to form a deeper cultural nationalism. World War II rallied the nation and turned it into the dominant world power, consolidating the transformation.

Prosperity and a dominant progressive spirit moved national government deeply into setting national moral codes on welfare, race, sex, food, drugs, health, retirement, and most commercial activities. Increasingly nationalized politics spawned two ideological parties for or against such progress, undermining national consensus. The Protestant mainline denominations that were the de facto cultural and moral fibers of its nationalism then lost their sense of moral mission, assimilating into a new consensus on a “social gospel without the gospel,” as Joseph Bottum describes it in his book An Anxious Age. The new gospel was rooted in a sense of moral wrath against bigotry, authority, and parochial thinking generally as the new moral evils, and a new mission of enlightening and politically reforming those clinging to the old traditions, including nationalism.

For a while after World War II, foreign policy still provided some last strong sense of nationalism for Americans.When the Soviet Union declared that its purpose was to make the world communist and seemed to have the weaponry to do it, it was generally opposed by liberals and conservatives alike. But when the old enemy fell and a new one attacked on 9/11 the enemy became an amorphous “terrorism” and the goal expanded to turning the world to freedom and democracy. Expensive, prolonged and brutal wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere proved divisive rather unifying.

Nationalism has been the glue that has held the post-Westphalian world together. But its power is waning. This is true even in the United States, whose mainstream Protestantism, the adhering element, is spent. As Bottum concluded, the alternatives are too weak to replace it. The result is progressives and conservatives confronting each other across a divided America, split into Red and Blue state enclaves no nationalism can bring together. Congress is stalemated by this division and President Obama, as in a Third World nation, rules by executive decree.

The United States worked when it was free and decentralized, when the 10th Amendment narrowed the scope of nationalism. Its European colonists had escaped the Old World before its nationalist ideological centralization and, in their innocence, were able to create the economic and socially free wonder of the world. But progressivism opened Pandora’s box and substituted bureaucracy for America’s free markets, vital local communities, and voluntary associations, producing ossified government and the present discontent. To break free from the dependency of the centralized welfare state and reestablish self-government and voluntary community in its place, the earlier vital federalism would need to be recreated. Welfare reform should be the model. It will be a long and difficult journey back; but it is the only way.

Centralization can force a single nationalism for a while but it has its limits. The power of the administrative state debilitates the energy and creativity required to succeed. Ask Old Europe. Ask Gorbechev. Ask Ukraine’s Yanukovych. Someday, ask Putin or even, perhaps, Obama.

Donald Devine

Donald Devine, senior scholar at the Fund for American Studies, and the author of America’s Way Back: Reconciling Freedom, Tradition and Constitution, was director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management during Ronald Reagan's first term.

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  1. R Richard Schweitzer says

    Dear Reader,

    “The Evolution of Civilizations” by Carroll Quigley (1961) Liberty Fund reprint (1975) (in particular Chapter 10) will provide a broader context for assay of the above, and of forces shaping the formation of “nationalism.”

    There is more to be said about comparisons of those “States” (Sovereignties) as embodiments of Authority imposed by physical and ideological force to the Federal Administrative State which has arisen by the consent of sufficient of the electorate seeking advancements of particular interests, and benefits and
    of burdens that were not provided for in the constitutionally delineated mechanisms for the government of a union of several states and commonwealths, each with their own constitutional structures.

    While many results and conditions may be comparable the originating forces differ.

    What has “gone wrong” is the acceptance and consent to (perhaps the desire for) the embodiment of Authority that is the Federal Administrative State by so large a segment of the “public” in exchange for such things as Social Security, Medicare &Medicaid, Education Programs, Student Loans, Housing Programs, etc., etc.; all of which require the diversion of the use of the functions of that constitutionally delineated government, warping those functions, straining the resources (human and material) – now to a fiscal breaking point; other fractures to come.

    Coming generations may find ways to “phase out” of those now so popularly accepted Authorities. The present generations do not seem to be aware of their effects.

  2. Kevin R. Hardwick says

    This is a wide sweeping essay, and thought provoking. I want to quarrel with one minor point, one that I am fairly certain is not foundational to the argument. So, while I think there is potentially an interesting conversation to be had about it, I want to signal at the outset that it is something of a sidebar to Devine’s argument above.

    Devine suggests that American nationalism developed as something of a tabula rasa. Colonists in the English colonies arrived prior to a full blown English or British nationalism, and thus American national identity developed in a kind of vacuum, with little competition with prior emotional commitments to the state. He writes, “European colonists had escaped the Old World before its nationalist ideological centralization and, in their innocence, were able to create the economic and socially free wonder of the world.”

    There is, however, considerable evidence that by the mid eighteenth century, there was powerful emotional commitment to British national identity across much of the North American Atlantic littoral. The literature treating this development is diverse, and does not fully agree on just what it means. For example, one fine study, Brendan McConvilles’s THE KING’S THREE FACES: THE RISE AND FALL OF ROYAL AMERICA, 1688-1776, argues plausibly that national identity prior to 1776 emerged from loyalty to the monarch. Other studies stress reformed Christianity as the basis of national identity, formed from opposition to French Catholic absolutism after the glorious revolution. Recent studies of the constitutional history of the American revolution, most prominently by John Philip Reid and Jack P. Greene, emphasize the degree of allegiance in the colonies to the British constitution, one important locus of national identity. All of these studies, despite their differences, stress a vibrant British nationalism present in the colonies well prior to 1776.

    All best wishes,

    • R Richard Schweitzer says

      Bulls Eye!

      The great unifying force of the disparate colonial regions, with their intense, predominant, individualities was the sense of their “entitlements to the rights of Englishmen.”

      Why else would Trenchard’s and Gordon’s papers have had such popularity and effect?

  3. gabe says


    Interesting essay and excellent comments.

    Kevin: I am not so certain that your qualification of your critique is correct.
    Perhaps, the “nascent” nationalism of which you speak is somewhat more crucial to the argument than you would suggest.
    I agree that there certainly was an “affection” for and an adherence to the “rights of Englishmen” present in the pre-Revolutionary period. However, was this sentiment not also shared by the German, French and Scot inhabitants of the Colonies as well.
    What this signifies to me is this: That an effective (and unobtrusive) nationalism (nascent in the Colonists Pre-independence case) can, in fact, meld and mold a peoples consciousness into a consistent whole.
    Mr Devine would have us believe that such a consensus was forced upon the people and there is some measure of truth in this. Yet these were different circumstances in Europe with a markedly different history (see religious war, etc) than that present in the Colonies.
    It is not until the Civil War (and its prelude) that the “sectional differences” resulting from the slavery issue can be said to have exposed any latent vestiges of the type of societal disorder of which Mr Devine speaks may be said to come to the fore. Yet, again, there is a distinct difference between the US and Old Europe – it is slavery! In some sense, it may be said that slavery was used to forge sectional cohesion for the South AND the North rather than a failure of a nation state to maintain social cohesion. The inevitable conflict should not be placed upon the “nation state” but rather upon a conflicting moral visions.
    It is true that the post-bellum US did impose by force of arms a settlement upon the Southern states. Yet over time, there did appear to be a sense of nationhood among all sections of the nation – that is both Northerners, southerners, etc viewed themselves as Americans.

    Mr Devine is correct when he places responsibility for our current woes upon the Progressives. There “feed all, free all, provide all” policies have caused much consternation and confusion as well as damage to us all.
    However, his thesis that centralization, in and of itself, causes such social fragmentation may not be correct.
    We must ask, would we be in these straits had we, as a nation not created the Behemoth that is the Federal State, but rather had left a somewhat more unobtrusive government apparatus in place. As Richard rightly points out, in the Progressives efforts to capitalize upon human frailty and envy, we have changed the nature of citizenship AND the citizen’s expectation of government and its proper role. This has led to (read: created by the Proggies) deep divisions between those on the receiving end of government largesse, those expecting or hoping for the same and those who are paying for it. The divide and conquer strategy has worked well for the Proggies these past 80+ years. While centralization may have enabled the success of the Proggies – it is not centralization itself that has perpetuated this dysfunction, but rather a corrupt (both morally and financially) political party and the “corrupted” constituencies they have created, developed and “cared for” that shoulder the blame.

    take care

    • Kevin R. Hardwick says


      I am passing a kidney stone, flying on Percocet, and not at my best. But I don’t wish to permit your fine and subtle narrative of American nationalism pass without comment. This is very nicely done. I am saving it to ponder when my mind is less clouded. Many, many thanks for composing and sharing it.

      Well wishes,

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