Between May and October 1648, a series of treaties were signed in Osnabruck and Munster respectively which ended the Thirty Years’ War in the Holy Roman Empire and the Eighty Years’ War between Spain and the Dutch Republic. What made the treaties of Westphalia important and notable was the establishment of the concept of a territorial sovereignty.

The introduction of the sovereign state signaled the end of perennial warfare in mainland Europe but also the triumph of sovereignty over empire. These set of treaties would lay the foundations for a large of modern international law. If one distills the fundamental change brought about from the Westphalia treaty to governance, one can see the coalescence of power as defined according to geographical bounds. In essence, Westphalia was a key force in demarcating the various peoples of Europe into territorial regions. It transferred governance from sovereignty over all those whom share similar ethnic traits to a more rigid system bound by defined geographical boundaries. Citizenship was no longer necessarily decreed based on ethnic lines, but now also in terms of the geographical location of the individuals.

Pre-Westphalia: Fluid territories and national boundaries defined as a function of settlement areas

Pre-Westphalia: Fluid territories and national boundaries defined as a function of settlement areas

The centralized power held by various ethnic rulers and emperors over all subjects of the same ethnic group was now controlled and tightly bound by pre-determined geographical bounds. Thus, Westphalia brought about a relative decentralization of the power held by rulers. As a result individuals free to determine the system of power and control they were subjected to, because mobility and emigration was made possible under the sovereign state framework.

Fast forward to today, the right to self-determination of the set of laws one is subjected to is all around us. Globalization and modern interracial societies (United States, United Kingdom) arguably trace their roots back to this legal framework. In paving the way for greater human mobility, Westphalia brought about a massive decentralization of political power, shifting it from traditional high priests and hereditary rulers to the general population.

Post-Westphalia: Concept of sovereign state established, fixed boundaries. More conducive for immigration

Post-Westphalia: Concept of sovereign state established, fixed boundaries. More conducive for immigration

A clear analogue to the decentralization of power by brought about by the Peace of Westphalia is the internet today. Traditional industries such as media which had held a monopoly on information are now being disrupted one by one by the power of the internet to connect and leverage the collective resources of a vast number of individuals. Think for a moment about the way in which the news industry has changed. Twenty years ago, news was very much top down. Breaking events were covered by news outlets, edited and then delivered to individual consumers. The power to collect and disseminate information lay in the hands of a small group of individuals. These individuals should they choose to had the ability to censor and manipulate given the lack of competition. Today, the advent of social platforms like Twitter and Facebook has given everyday users a channel to voice their opinions and their own observations of the world around them. The proliferation of mobile devices coupled with software and internet solutions has enabled many more individuals to publish and share their stories. By harnessing the collective power of localized reporters, the beauty in the current internet structure is the way in which it has created far more competition to the traditional news agencies.

The vast wealth of information stored online and the ability to connect with another individual across the world is hugely empowering. A couple of decades ago, formal education was largely the domain of the government and private universities, but the rise of MOOCs today threatens this traditional top-down one-size fits all structure of instruction. Whereas previous generation had a much more localized social experience, today we are able to connect and befriend individuals from the across the world. It is also a safe bet that we know someone half way across the world better than we know our neighbors.

It has been more than three centuries since the Peace of Westphalia. The internet today draws many parallels to the ways in which the peace treaty shaped civil liberties and individual freedoms. The internet has and will continue to chip away at the hegemony of traditional power structures in many areas from media to education.

At the core of the internet is its ability to decentralize power and offer tailored experiences to the individual. As more of the world comes online, the internet’s ability to connect and share ideas is incredibly exciting as a framework for how we should be re-evaluating the current legal framework that governs us. What does the ability to define identity and create groups of association via the web mean for definitions of citizenship? Could our current legal framework simply be a model for interfacing with the physical world, whilst a parallel framework develops on the internet? Or could the current legal framework be completely revamped?

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