In responding to the rise of ISIL, many observers focused on the most obvious causes for alarm: sadistic violence, high-profile terror attacks and the destabilization of the Middle East. But some observers identified a more profound threat: that ISIL, like other Islamist movements, was seeking to overturn the Westphalian order.
A little over three and a half centuries ago, representatives of the Holy Roman Empire formally agreed to let German princes force their subjects to be Protestant – and in doing so made the principle of state sovereignty a bedrock of the international system. Now, by trying to create a global caliphate (with no local princes left to impose Protestantism, presumably), ISIL puts this vital principle at risk.
If this weren’t bad enough, ISIL’s anti-Westphalian crusade has an unexpected ally: the Chinese. “In stark contrast to the Westphalian system,” one international relations expert writes, “Confucian China regarded itself as the sole and central world order” leading modern China to become “a bitter adversary of the international state system for much of the 20th century.” As a result, commentators worry, Beijing might be crafting a “new hegemony” that replaces “the principles of the Westphalian treaties” with an antiquated, Chinese-led tribute system.