Monday, November 29, 2004

Westphalia and San Francisco

Another change in our thinking since 1945 concerns the nature of national sovereignty. Many commentators consider the iconic status of the nation-state in international affairs to date from the treaty of Westphalia in 1648, at the end of the Thirty Years' War in which one third of the German people had perished. Here was established the principle of fixed national borders, whose violation was illegal and a cause for war.

If you've worked in a large organisation, you will know that there is a right way to do things and an ad hoc way to do things. The right way can be to follow standard operating procedures, or it can be to set up and carry out a project that cuts across ordinary boundaries. Either way, processes are in place, money is budgeted, resources are allocated and so on.

For the purposes of this discussion, the right way to do things in terms of national sovereignty is to follow existing treaties, from that of Westphalia onwards.

In an organisation, the ad hoc way to do things is for a bunch of people to come together in a meeting. (At least one of them should have some money, to pay for peoples' time if nothing else.) The meeting decides what it is that people are doing, and the participants report back to the next meeting on progress, issues and the like. There is usually an expectation that this meeting-driven activity will produce a programme of work which can then go forward for approval and become a body of projects in the normal fashion, but that often depends on how fast outside events are moving and on the paradigm of change.

The danger to organisations is that the meeting will be seen as a more powerful and direct form of activity assignment and existing processes will be superseded.

To continue the metaphor in international terms, the resort to meetings is the equivalent of resorting to the UN Security Council to resolve the issue of when might national sovereignty be violated.

Thus there is the old paradigm, where the origins of national sovereignty may remain obscure, and the details are a matter of history, and the new paradigm where national sovereignty is sustained by the agency of the UN. From being sustained it is an easy step to imply that sovereignty is now something like human rights, something that people grant to each other at a big world meeting. This is not quite what was envisaged by the founding of the UN, and it has no standing in international law, but just the existence of the UN nevertheless means that it is a change that is occurring.


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