The Peace of Westphalia
I had understood the “Treaty of Westphalia” in 1648 had established the
notion of sovereignty of national states
and that this concept still informs international relations 370 years later.
The latter point is true—sovereignty is
still a key element in international law.
Sovereign states are not supposed to interfere in the domestic affairs of other
states. However, as I opened the books
from 1648 in the Library on the Treaty, I
discovered how little I really knew about
this remarkable event. First, the proper
reference is the Peace of Westphalia,a
as there were three distinct agreements
concluded between May and October of
1648 among several parties ending not
only the “ 30 Years War” (1618–1648),
but also the “ 80 Years War” (1568–1648)
between Spain and the Dutch Republic.
The Peace of Münster ended the
conflict between Spain and the Dutch
Republic. The Treaty of Mûnster ended
the conflict between the Holy Roman
Empire and France and its allies. The
Treaty of Osnabrück ended the conflict
between the Holy Roman Empire and
Sweden along with their respective allies. Some 109 delegations (!) were involved in the settlement talks that took
place in either Münster or Osnabrück,
which were both declared neutral zones
for the duration of the negotiations.
Among the many elements of these
treaties, official religions (Catholicism,
Lutheranism and Calvinism) and, in
some cases such as in the Dutch Republic, religious freedoms were determined.
In all states, private practice of a non-of-
ficial state religion was to be permitted.
Moreover, it was recognized that sover-
eign states had exclusive authority over
their lands and people as well as ambas-
sadors abroad. States took responsibility
for any warlike acts of its citizens against
other states and unlimited letters of
Marque and Reprisalb were forbidden.
Intervention in the domestic matters of sovereign states by other sovereign states was explicitly forbidden.
A look at today’s headlines suggests
the transnational Internet and World
Wide Web have become avenues
through which this agreement is regularly violated. This suggests that in the
21st century, it might be timely to revisit
the principles of the Peace of Westphalia
and to consider whether they are still a viable basis for international relations and,
if so, how these principles might be reinforced in the presence of transnational
elements that embrace not only the Internet and its applications including the
Worldwide Web, but also the presence
of transnational corporations whose annual revenues exceed that of many states
in some cases.
Speaking generally, I believe the Rule
of Law to be preferable to Rule by Fiat.
In the context of transnational rela-
tions, state sovereignty still seems to be
a strong principle (“good fences make
good neighbors”), but transnational
corporations are faced with operat-
ing under distinct and often different
and even conflicting state regulations.
A bold and perhaps completely unre-
b Such letters had authorized privateers to at-
tack the ships of other states.
alistic question is whether global nego-
tiation of all 193 countries (at present)
could lead to a framework for common
and more compatible transnational
practices. While this sounds infeasible
on the face of it, I wonder what many
might have thought during the negotia-
tions leading to the Peace of Westphalia
with over 100 delegations bringing their
special interests to the table.
Considering the benefits the Internet has so far conferred and the harms
we are starting to see in this medium
(social media unrest, misinformation,
identity theft, fraud, among others),
one wonders how to preserve the benefits while also preserving the rights
cited in the UN Declaration of Human
Rights,c of 1948—exactly 300 years after
the Peace of Westphalia. In an earlier
Cerf’s Up column,d I alluded to a recent
conference sponsored by the Ditchley
Foundation on exactly this topic.e One
of the concepts explored at that conference was what I called differential traceability by which I mean the ability to
discover, under appropriate conditions,
individual identity despite surface anonymity (that is, Within the Rule of Law).
Perhaps now it is timely to imagine a
Digital Peace of Westphalia.
d V. Cerf, Traceability. Commun. ACM 61, 8 (Aug.
2018), p. 7.
Vinton G. Cerf is vice president and Chief Internet Evangelist
at Google. He served as ACM president from 2012–2014.
Copyright held by author.
DOI: 10.1145/3242093 Vinton G. Cerf
In early June, I had the privilege of visiting
the UN Library on International Law in Geneva.
As I understand it, this is the largest collection
on this subject anywhere. For many years