I don’t know, maybe I’m just really into the Peace of Westphalia. If it’s not the greatest of all treaties, it must be at least top ten.
It was multiple treaties, actually, as many as it took to end, in 1648, both the Thirty and Eighty Years’ wars. The combatants were many and messy. They included the Habsburgs’ Holy Roman Emperor, the empire’s princes, France, Spain, the Dutch Republic, Sweden and the lords of the “free cities.” What followed was not peace. And many of the treaties’ principles had been true in practice for some time; others wouldn’t settle into place until after Napoleon.
Nonetheless, there was a previously unknown arrangement on the face of Europe: the Westphalian Interstate System, underwritten not by the promises of rulers but a newly configured balance of power. Its basic structure held at least through the world wars of the twentieth century if not into the present. Among other things, it provided enabling conditions for the development of capitalism and the liberal democratic state of which the West is so terribly proud.
I’m not saying this was a good thing. It happened. Within the realm of politics, Westphalia refashioned the world, especially if by “the world” you mean the world as it appears to white people. You would think it deserved its own television show.
And indeed, it has one, shortly to enter its fourth season. We may watch Game of Thrones for the courtly drag, swords and sorcerers, the dragons capable of vaporizing all narrative problems. This is delightful paraphernalia, modulated from the George R.R. Martin novels known collectively as A Song of Ice and Fire. None of these trappings are as telling as the improbably extended opening sequence, which sets forth all the embattled fiefdoms of Westeros, locked in the War of Five Kings.
For three full minutes, we swoop down and through an animated map which itself transforms and develops according to the churning of various clockwork gears, acquainting us with the array of powers scattered across the territory. Castles and keeps rise and fall. As one character has it, “The Seven Kingdoms are at war with one another…false kings destroying the country…the Usurper is dead. The Starks fight the Lannisters, the Baratheons fight each other.” For all the faux-medieval niceties of production design, the world on offer most resembles the pre-Westphalian moment with its kings and courts and pretenders locked in complex interrelations and shifting allegiances; with its many-armied cascade of battles; with its elaborately districted land mass of ceaseless volatility verging on chaos and in considerable need of an ordering principle.