No truly global “world order” has ever existed. What passes for order in our time was devised in Western Europe nearly four centuries ago, at a peace conference in the German region of Westphalia, conducted without the involvement or even the awareness of most other continents or civilizations. A century of sectarian conflict and political upheaval across Central Europe had culminated in the Thirty Years’ War of 1618—a conflagration in which political and religious disputes commingled, combatants resorted to “total war” against population centers, and nearly a quarter of the population of Central Europe died from combat, disease, or starvation. The exhausted participants met to define a set of arrangements that would stanch the bloodletting. Religious unity had fractured with the survival and spread of Protestantism; political diversity was inherent in the number of autonomous political units that had fought to a draw. So it was that in Europe the conditions of the contemporary world were approximated: a multiplicity of political units, none powerful enough to defeat all others, many adhering to contradictory philosophies and internal practices, in search of neutral rules to regulate their conduct and mitigate conflict.
The Westphalian peace reflected a practical accommodation to reality, not a unique moral insight. It relied on a system of independent states refraining from interference in each other’s domestic affairs and checking each other’s ambitions through a general equilibrium of power. No single claim to truth or universal rule had prevailed in Europe’s contests. Instead, each state was assigned the attribute of sovereign power over its territory. Each would acknowledge the domestic structures and religious vocations of its fellow states as realities and refrain from challenging their existence. With a balance of power now perceived as natural and desirable, the ambitions of rulers would be set in counterpoise against each other, at least in theory curtailing the scope of conflicts. Division and multiplicity, an accident of Europe’s history, became the hallmarks of a new system of international order with its own distinct philosophical outlook. In this sense the European effort to end its conflagration shaped and prefigured the modern sensibility: it reserved judgment on the absolute in favor of the practical and ecumenical; it sought to distill order from multiplicity and restraint.
The seventeenth-century negotiators who crafted the Peace of Westphalia did not think they were laying the foundation for a globally applicable system. They made no attempt to include neighboring Russia, which was then reconsolidating its own order after the nightmarish “Time of Troubles” by enshrining principles distinctly at odds with Westphalian balance: a single absolute ruler, a unified religious orthodoxy, and a program of territorial expansion in all directions. Nor did the other major power centers regard the Westphalian settlement (to the extent they learned of it at all) as relevant to their own regions.
The idea of world order was applied to the geographic extent known to the statesmen of the time—a pattern repeated in other regions. This was largely because the then-prevailing technology did not encourage or even permit the operation of a single global system. With no means of interacting with each other on a sustained basis and no framework for measuring the power of one region against another, each region viewed its own order as unique and defined the others as “barbarians”—governed in a manner incomprehensible to the established system and irrelevant to its designs except as a threat. Each defined itself as a template for the legitimate organization of all humanity, imagining that in governing what lay before it, it was ordering the world.
At the opposite end of the Eurasian landmass from Europe, China was the center of its own hierarchical and theoretically universal concept of order. This system had operated for millennia—it had been in place when the Roman Empire governed Europe as a unity—basing itself not on the sovereign equality of states but on the presumed boundlessness of the Emperor’s reach. In this concept, sovereignty in the European sense did not exist, because the Emperor held sway over “All Under Heaven.” He was the pinnacle of a political and cultural hierarchy, distinct and universal, radiating from the center of the world in the Chinese capital outward to all the rest of humankind. The latter were classified as various degrees of barbarians depending in part on their mastery of Chinese writing and cultural institutions (a cosmography that endured well into the modern era). China, in this view, would order the world primarily by awing other societies with its cultural magnificence and economic bounty, drawing them into relationships that could be managed to produce the aim of “harmony under heaven.”
In much of the region between Europe and China, Islam’s different universal concept of world order held sway, with its own vision of a single divinely sanctioned governance uniting and pacifying the world. In the seventh century, Islam had launched itself across three continents in an unprecedented wave of religious exaltation and imperial expansion. After unifying the Arab world, taking over remnants of the Roman Empire, and subsuming the Persian Empire, Islam came to govern the Middle East, North Africa, large swaths of Asia, and portions of Europe. Its version of universal order considered Islam destined to expand over the “realm of war,” as it called all regions populated by unbelievers, until the whole world was a unitary system brought into harmony by the message of the Prophet Muhammad. As Europe built its multistate order, the Turkish-based Ottoman Empire revived this claim to a single legitimate governance and spread its supremacy through the Arab heartland, the Mediterranean, the Balkans, and Eastern Europe. It was aware of Europe’s nascent interstate order; it considered it not a model but a source of division to be exploited for westward Ottoman expansion. As Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror admonished the Italian city-states practicing an early version of multipolarity in the fifteenth century, “You are 20 states… you are in disagreement among yourselves… There must be only one empire, one faith, and one sovereignty in the world.”
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic the foundations of a distinct vision of world order were being laid in the “New World.” As Europe’s seventeenth-century political and sectarian conflicts raged, Puritan settlers had set out to redeem God’s plan with an “errand in the wilderness” that would free them from adherence to established (and in their view corrupted) structures of authority. There they would build, as Governor John Winthrop preached in 1630 aboard a ship bound for the Massachusetts settlement, a “city upon a hill,” inspiring the world through the justness of its principles and the power of its example. In the American view of world order, peace and balance would occur naturally, and ancient enmities would be set aside—once other nations were given the same principled say in their own governance that Americans had in theirs. The task of foreign policy was thus not so much the pursuit of a specifically American interest as the cultivation of shared principles. In time, the United States would become the indispensable defender of the order Europe designed. Yet even as the United States lent its weight to the effort, an ambivalence endured—for the American vision rested not on an embrace of the European balance-of-power system but on the achievement of peace through the spread of democratic principles.