In This Review

Westphalia From Below: Humanitarian Intervention and the Myth of 1648
Westphalia From Below: Humanitarian Intervention and the Myth of 1648
By Thomas Peak
Hurst, 2021, 292 pp

In standard accounts, the Peace of Westphalia, concluded in 1648, was the founding moment of the modern system of nation-states, establishing sovereignty as an absolute right and the principle of nonintervention in the domestic affairs of other countries. That conventional view insists that the imperatives of humanitarian intervention and “the responsibility to protect” did not arise until hundreds of years later, in the last decades of the twentieth century, as a challenge to Westphalian norms. Peak questions this notion in this provocative book by examining the intellectual and humanistic culture of seventeenth-century Europe as it emerged from the chaos and violence of the Thirty Years’ War. The Westphalian settlement, in Peak’s view, wasn’t just an agreement among rulers to leave one another alone inside their own borders. It also captured a deeper aspiration felt by people coming out of the war: that such an order was intended to restore a sense of dignity and shared humanity in the wake of chaos. Peak shows how writers and artists in mid-seventeenth-century Europe broadly shared concerns about human dignity and desired order, justice, and social renewal. The reader, however, is left to search for explicit connections between the humanistic sensibilities of specific historical figures and the principles and architecture of the Westphalian settlement.