The Westphalian system in crisis: The rise of neo-tribalism

Borders Travel Geography Europe Map Land Germany
Borders Travel Geography Europe Map Land Germany

The relatively stable post-Cold War international order and the steady growth of internationalization and political, economic and social globalization have increasingly led to challenges in the last two decades. The terror attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001 were the opening event to a new era in international politics challenging the foundation our global order rests upon: The Westphalian system. After the peace of Westphalia in 1648, previously unheard principles were developed to govern the relations between different territorial entities. The state became the only legitimate and primary actor in political affairs, defined by sovereignty within clear boundaries. The principle of legality – the belief that all states are equal and only winning war can put one above the other – became the basis of international cooperation and conflict. Based on the Westphalian principles, nations and nationalism became important guiding forces domestically as well as in relations to other states. Populations were perceived as belonging together naturally not only by language or culture, but by birth into a national community.

While states remained the primary actors in international affairs, the Westphalian system did not remain static since its first implementation. The Charter of the United Nations as well as the Charter of Human Rights limit the absolute sovereignty nation states had been granted with. Regional organizations, most notably the European Union, present a voluntary evolution from a focus on individual states only collaborating militarily towards a group of states joined by broader economic, social and ideological considerations. The nation state embedded in supranational entities is still the most important actor and reference point, but the system of global cooperation and internationalization of societies is increasingly challenged practically as well as conceptually by both domestic and international actors. Right-wing populist groups, separatist movements, Brexit, Trump’s ‘make America great again’ movement, the rise of transnational jihadist actors and the resentments against foreigners that became evident during the refugee crisis are symptoms of larger cognitive shifts in parts of the population.

One way to conceptualize the current turmoil within the global system is to see it as a move towards neo-tribalism. Before the rise of nationalism, humans were organized socially along tribal lines consisting of groups united by language, religion, blood and belief. The Westphalian system did not necessarily abolish tribal tendencies but expanded this tribal group to a whole national community. However, the main narrative was still largely one of people united by blood, language, culture and now, national heritage. Over time, however, global mass migration and the resulting multi-cultural societies, globalization of pop culture and shifts towards supra-national governing organizations such as the EU have eroded traditional differentiations between nation states and put traditional modes of identity construction based on us versus them dichotomies under scrutiny.  Migrants are now part of Western societies in large numbers and their children and grandchildren are legally members of the national community. As these developments are threatening traditional identities, some call for and work towards the resurrection of tribal ties, to blood or religion, as a counter force to the globalized world we live in. The tribe, with it’s clear boundaries of who belongs to it and who does not, is an increasingly attractive reference point for those lost in the globalized conglomerate of relations.

In his book Talking to the Enemy, Scott Atran postulates that “people don’t simply kill and die for a cause, they kill and die for each other. The growing number of extremists, whether they are motivated by right-wing or jihadist ideology, attest to this statement. Both religious fundamentalist and right-wing tendencies can be seen as a resurgence of tribalism and exaggerated love for an in-group based on traditional notions of belonging. The survival of the race or nation presents, in essence, a tribal mindset, although it needs to be noted that different right-wing groups are increasingly connected across national boundaries and collaborate with each other. Paradoxically, we increasingly witness a ‘globalized neo-tribalism’, which pays tribute to the modern root of the movement. ISIS, for example, presents a globalized notion of a tribe. The defining characteristic of membership is the Muslim faith, not the nationality, ethnicity, culture or language. It is solely defined by religious belief, which makes it possible to incorporate a diverse group of individuals in the in-group. Islamist neo-tribalism shifts the boundaries of belonging from blood to faith, thereby honoring the globalization that enabled its rise. ISIS is both a boundary-free tribe everyone is free to join and an entity strictly distinguishing itself from every out-group and is therefore a truly neo-tribal movement.

Neo-tribalism presents a systemic challenge to the forces that governed international relations for hundreds of years. It is a symptom of broader shifts in the social, economic and political connections and our increasingly individualized yet international societies devoid of traditional anchor points. The shifts we are currently experiencing are partially based on the human need for stability and clear conceptual boundaries of identity the current political situation is unable to provide. This systemic problem of our globalized community is not something that is likely to resolve itself. Counter-extremism measures aimed at contradicting ideologies and detecting already radicalized individuals will not be enough. Government and civil society actors alike need to not only reactively counter extremist tendencies, but tackle root causes of why these tendencies arise. Practically, we need to ask: How can the feeling of belonging humans crave be developed in diverse societies? How can we buffer the negative psychological effects of individualization? How can collective identities be formed? How can the negative impacts of globalization be lessened? Conceptually, we need to ask: How can we incorporate non-state actors into our understanding of international politics? Can democracy be tribalized? Can we create dual-identities based on the need for tribal security and internationalization? One thing is certain, if the Westphalian system is to survive, it needs to adapt to the current conditions and resist countering extreme and populist attempts with similar narratives.

Linda Schlegel. She holds an MA in Terrorism, Security and Society from King’s College London.

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