Old Wine in New Bottles

Reassessing the Westphalian Order for the 21st Century

The "Peace of Westphalia" (Westfälischer Friede). Woodcut engraving of an original by Karl Hermann (1881).

Publish Date: 29MAR2024
Security & Geopolitical Analyst: TW

Click here to connect with our team and discuss how our Geopolitical and Security Analyst team can enhance your team's safety and keep you informed .


Geopolitics has taken center stage in much analysis in private security as the major threats from revisionist, revanchist, and rising powers can and have disrupted many aspects of people’s everyday lives. Now that the post-Cold War’s unipolar moment is over, the world is seeing a reassertion of the Westphalian order. This previous iteration of international relations returning will require new analytic approaches by security professionals. While the past few decades have focused on globalization, transnational terrorism, internecine conflict, international institutions, human rights, and the spread of democracy, the next few decades will center around nation-states and great power competition along with issues of balance of power, sovereignty, nationalism, trade, and the security dilemma. This white paper will therefore explore the history of geopolitics leading to this reassertion of the Westphalian order, what it means today, and how analysts can apply this paradigm to improve forecasting for clients.

Westphalia and the Realist Paradigm

The Peace of Westphalia occurred in 1648, ending the incredibly complex Thirty Years War between the Catholic Habsburgs (Holy Roman Empire) and a variety of Protestant princes and other states. It started with the Bohemian Revolt, and it would engulf all of central Europe, becoming one of the most destructive wars in European history. Causes of the war are complex, but they deeply relate to the impact of the Reformation and failure of the Peace of Augsburg in 1555 that declared “Cuius regio, eius religio” (Whose realm, their religion). The universalism of the Holy Roman Empire and opposition to Protestant heresies mixed with geopolitical considerations and concepts of sovereignty. During the war, France led in foreign policy by Cardinal Richelieu, would solidify the concept of raison d’etat by siding with the Protestants against the Habsburg to prevent the Holy Roman Empire from dominating the continent. Though Richelieu would die in 1642 before the war was over, his influence would be felt far and wide because the Peace of Westphalia created the modern nation-state system upon which great power politics would be based.

The signing of the Peace of Westphalia

"The Ratification of the Treaty of Münster (Westphalia)" by Gerard ter Borch (1648)

Due to the Westphalian order, modern realism would take hold. The realist tradition went back to Chanakya’ Arthashastra and Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, but the classical strand was descriptive and normative more than analytic. Realpolitik told statesmen how to respond to threats, not a framework of predictive analysis. In the Westphalian order and neorealism, the nation-state is the primary and unitary actor in an anarchic world, and they must take actions to win the security dilemma. In addition, sovereignty reigns supreme in international relations as other countries are not allowed to interfere in the domestic politics of another country. Because universalism was abandoned with Westphalia, countries would need to create develop power projections capabilities and alliances to balance against each other and maintain stability. Most importantly, nation-state actors would make decisions based on the national interest (raison d’etat) to achieve these effects. This system would dominate global politics for the next three centuries till the conflagration of World War II would lead the great powers to seek a new paradigm: neoliberalism.

Triumph of Liberalism and Post-Cold War Politics (1947-2016)

The Westphalian order started cracking after World War I, a deadly conflict caused by the failures of the balance of power in Europe. President Woodrow Wilson’s ideological crusade challenged a world order based on realist principles, and his campaign to create the League of Nations was intended to establish a neoliberal order. Of course, the League of Nations was impotent and grossly incompetent (e.g., the handling of the Abyssinia Crisis), and the US Congress refused to let America join, all of which would lead to its inevitable collapse after World War II. Even Wilson’s justification for entering World War I was not based on power politics as for him it was an attempt to fight autocracy and militarism because the “world must be made safe for democracy.” Yet this first attempt at a neoliberal order would collapse with the rise of Nazi Germany and their genocidal pursuits of global domination. World War II would be different, though, and actually lead to institution building for that neoliberal order. This is because World War II was the deadliest conflict in history (depending on the estimate approximately 3-4% of the world population died in the war).

Global powers would form several multilateral institutions to spread market capitalism (World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) and reduce conflict through collective security and diplomacy (UN, NATO). There have been a number of benefits from this neoliberal order. According to the World Bank, “there was a gradual decline in global extreme poverty—that is, those living below the $2.15 poverty threshold in 2017 PPP—in the period from 1950 to 1990. Global poverty declined by about twenty percentage points over those 40 years.” Over the next three decades, the global extreme poverty rate would drop another thirty percentage points. Open markets were also incredibly important in developing semiconductors necessary for the modern world as it ended the trade friction between the United States and Japan. In addition, there was a significant decline in interstate wars with only a handful occurring after the end of the Cold War (see here and here). These benefits, however, came with costs that would drive many people to oppose globalization, international institutions, and the neoliberalism generally.

Global extreme poverty, 1950-2020 (World Bank Report)

Breaking the Neoliberal Illusion (2016-Present)

Trends in global politics rarely fit neatly into determined beginning and end points, but the year 2016 represents the breaking of the neoliberal illusion because of the number of major political events challenging international institutions, economic interdependence, and spread of liberal democracy. The major events in this year include: Britain’s referendum on the EU, election of Donald Trump in the US and Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, Russia’s interference in the US election, ending of US involvement in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TTP), and removal of the majority of troops in Afghanistan. The referendum in the UK and elections in the US and Philippines demonstrated the return of populism and nationalism in rejection of the neoliberal project. EU unity shattered, Trump advocated against immigration and using force to protect interests, and Duterte shifted the balance in the Pacific against the US. Russia’s interference in the US election showed that great powers would once again blatantly push their interests. Finally, America’s withdrawal from the TTP and majority of troops in Afghanistan showed the global hegemon no longer sought integrated markets or power projection in Asia.

Why did 2016 mark the end of the neoliberal order? It was the culmination of several long-term trends explained by Ted Robert Gurr’s concept of relative deprivation (Why Men Rebel, 1970). Relative deprivation is when a person or group of people are incapable of having the lifestyle (economically, politically, socially) to which they have become accustomed or believe they deserve. Globalization promised a quixotic utopia of peace, economic growth, and innovation, but the costs that came with economic and political liberalism influenced some groups to oppose neoliberal order. Issues like job losses and rising costs of certain goods drove some towards populism because they blamed economic elites for their troubles. However, material motivations were not the only driving factors in relative deprivation. As Samuel Huntington pointed out in The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (1996), culture and identity also play an important role in the sense of self and community, and that people will use force to defend culture and identity. The neoliberal order threatened many people’s idea if self, community, and nation, such as large-scale immigration to the West, decline of religiosity, and belief in self-determination of communal interests over universalist appeals to human rights. Ultimately, these groups experiencing relative deprivation everywhere from the United States to the Philippines to the United Kingdom wanted to take back control, and they chose leaders who would essentially challenge the neoliberal order and revert to the Westphalian one.

Strategic Competitors and the Balancing of Power

The Trump administration took several steps towards a foreign policy based on realism, balance of power, and the national interest. To start, the 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS) markedly shifted the paradigm by explicitly referring to balances of power and the need to challenge China. In the Department of Defense’s (DOD) summary of the NDS, they noted, “Inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in U.S. national security.” Trump furthered this thesis in his speech to the United Nation by declaring, “Wise leaders always put the good of their own people and their own country first.” While this showed at least an intellectual change back to the Westphalian order, the Trump administration took several actions in this direction. For example, protectionist economic measures were used punitively and to contain China, such as with manufacturing and technology. Attempting to balance against China further, the Trump administration restarted the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (the Quad) between the United States, Japan, Australia, and India. Then there was the Abraham Accords to rebalance power in the Middle East, bringing together previous enemies (Israel, UAE, and Bahrain) in an agreement to normalize relations and improve economic investment.

The United States is not the only great power to move in the direction of bringing back the Westphalian system. As previously mentioned, Russia’s election interference showed the pursuit of interests in challenging Western democracies (Russia would interfere in several European elections as well and support environmental groups to cause divisions in the EU). Russia would also use force to expand its territorial interests in Georgia and Ukraine (2014, 2022) because Vladimir Putin believed doing so would create a bulwark against Western “aggression.” China has taken several steps to increase its power projection and force smaller powers to accede to its demands. In 2016, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) established its first overseas military base in Djibouti, meant to increase the PLAN’s blue water capabilities; China is planning further bases in Africa to support power projection globally. They want to counter America’s naval capabilities and promote their interests abroad, balancing against the current global power.

India is also taking steps towards being a great power and using force as needed. Over the past few years, India and China have had several border skirmishes in the Ladakh region, which represents competing needs for sovereignty and power projection abroad. Beyond border disputes, India has countered China more by crafting an arms deal with Vietnam and siding with the Philippines over sovereignty issues, and improving defense cooperation with Indonesia. Similarly, India has started deploying its navy into southeast Asia, the South China Sea, and the Pacific. All of this is to balance against China, a regional power that threatens the stability of the region. While India maintained a non-aligned position during the Cold War, its current position is trending towards the behavior of a great power. That is why India likely neutralized a separatist terrorist operating in Canda, though the Modi government denies any involvement. Each of these actions are based on operating in the Westphalian order by balancing against strategic competitors that threaten India due to the security dilemma.

Operationalizing Geopolitical Analysis: Understanding the Westphalian Order

The reversion to the Westphalian order of nation-states pursuing foreign policies based on the national interest, balancing against strategic competitors, and actively engaging in deglobalization is a broad trend that the private security world needs to understand. This is not just an intellectual exercise in academic international relations. Rather, it is foundational for multiple aspects of the security profession that build upon each other.

First, the new (old) paradigm will help analysts more accurately forecast geopolitical situations over the long term. Decision making by political leaders does not happen in a vacuum, and these leaders will have to respond to the return of great power politics. Although there will be more variables needed to forecast behavior, this will be a foundational variable from which to include others.

Second, the return of the Westphalian order will lead to new and different threats to clients. For example, security programs during the 2000s focused heavily on transnational terrorism because threats from Islamists were prevalent. Now, analysts will need to look at great power politics to determine the primary, secondary, and tertiary threats that come from nation-states seeking to protect their interests. 

Third, the more accurate forecasting should form the basis on allocation of resources for security firms and teams. Security operates on extremely limited budgets, and teams need to prioritize risks, threats, and vulnerabilities. Knowing the operational paradigm of the international arena will allow security teams to better allocate their limited resources to better protect clients. 

Finally, the Westphalian order will impact clients and business operations, which will determine what security teams will need to support. Everything from trade routes to supply chains to data centers will be impacted by the resurgence of this order. While security teams may have focused on certain areas in the past, changing geopolitics will mean businesses change how they operate. This will subsequently impact where and how security teams operate.


Our RileySENTINEL global, regional and country situation reporting and analysis, developed and provided by Riley Risk resources in strategically positioned locations, provides comprehensive updates and in-depth analysis of high-risk environments and events. This enables our clients to access timely and pertinent on-the-ground information, bolstering their decision-making capabilities in volatile operational contexts.

Our reporting services are meticulously crafted to empower clients with the proactive knowledge they need to stay informed and navigate challenging operational environments effectively.

Reach out to us today using the engagement meeting link here to learn more about how our risk advisory services can bolster your business operations and help you accomplish more.