A Decolonial View

By students in the Colonial and Postcolonial Master

Mythical Casus Belli


Ejner Pedersen Trenter

The Westphalian state system is very much alive and kicking, at least as a meta-theoretical lens through which we observe the world. However, and here I quote one of Marx’s perhaps most famous lines ‘The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.’ Is this not also the foundation upon which the very idea of decolonisation rests? Not just to observe the effects on colonialism in a postcolonial society, to actively decolonise it! In a sense this is an ongoing academical debate, and to anyone who follows it, it is clearly a heated debate. However, as I write this, there is philosophical current which has been incredibly efficient in not just describing the political world, but to shape it through discursive means. It is the state-oriented Realist school within International Relations.

Allegory of the Peace of Westphalia, by Jacob Jordaens from Wikipedia

The idea that the state-system is one of constant, and often deadly, competition is an old one which rests on centuries of Enlightenment ideals of rationality. It has reigned supreme in its ideologically hegemonic position for so long that we even call it ‘realism’, for they do after all call it the way they see it. And what they see in today’s international system, is a return to the old idea of power-balance and the threat of war. I am of course referring to both Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the ongoing genocide in Gaza. While no school of thought can change the atrocities taking place, the way in which they become codified and articulated by international actors do very much shape the way in which actions become legitimised. I will briefly look at two cases of perceived justifications of violence.

Firstly, the invasion of Ukraine in 2021 greatly helped the former realist concept of balance-of-power to re-enter the mainstream discourse, both in academic terms but also in general media coverage. Consider the way in which NATO has become one of the main political topics of discussion in Europe, and especially Sweden. According to NOVUS which conducts regular surveys on political opinion in Sweden, the support for NATO has increased drastically, with a record of 54% for joining the military alliance and 23% against, measured in May 2022 (Novus, 2022). At the time of writing, the Turkish parliament has voted for Swedish membership, while Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, the last remaining obstacle, expected to do the same.

What does this mean? Well, Orbán, who’s no stranger to bellicose rhetoric, is also one of the few European leaders to maintain a relatively good relation with Russia after the invasion, raising questions of whether the obstruction in the Swedish NATO-matter is a political game (The Guardian, 2024). As has been covered in literature, Orbán’s discourse is often based on the notion of an ethnic Hungarian state which is under threat from a Muslim ‘invasion’ (Kovacs, 2020; Washington Post, 2015). So while the political (Westphalian, if you will) principal of self-defence is applied with regards to Sweden, there is also speculation about whether this is just power-politics and stone-cold state diplomacy. Of course, that would fit very well into the Enlightenment rationale which permeates the international state system based on the ‘realist’ school of thought.

On the other hand, the same rationale, albeit with a twist, is applied to Israel’s invasion of Gaza. Amidst heated UN debate on how to end the ongoing ‘conflict’, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres stressed the importance for a two-state solution, while US spokesperson ‘emphasized Hamas’ role in unleashing the conflict’ (UN, 2024). By now, the utter destruction of Gaza has been widely reported and many call for, if not ceasefire, at least precaution on Israel’s part to avoid humanitarian casualties. What is rarely questioned, however, is the reason for invasion. It is accepted as politically legitimate in a Westphalian state-system, to defend one’s borders. Despite occupying Gaza since 1948, Israel’s response to the October 7 attack is legitimate insofar as it corresponds to a Westphalian rational reaction to transgression of state sovereignty. That the invasion descended into what is widely recognised as genocide is not the important issue here (however harsh that may sound). The issue is that the ontological state-system with ingrained rights and responsibilities is allowed to invade from the very beginning. The October 7 attack is condemned by international actors on almost every level, and so is the horrors perpetrated by Israel, with the difference that the initial invasion by the latter is justified.

Sweden, who’s neutrality as served as a cornerstone of its international identity, now stands to join as a fully-fledged member of NATO. The decision to do so was made on rational grounds, as part of a larger geopolitical logic, in which states seek to protect themselves. Like Sweden, Israel’s to invade Gaza was a fully rational one, after all, their sovereignty was under attack. However, the decision to attack Israel by Hamas is repeatedly seen as an act of terror. Hamas is, in other words, an Other to the state system itself, an actor external but contingent to it. It serves as the irrational Other which, through its difference points to what is rational.

 My aim is not to debate what constitutes acts of ‘legitimate state violence’ and ‘acts of terror’, but to hint at the link between the difference between the two being linked to the production of knowledge attributed to a ‘realist’ school of thought within academia. What scholars have called the meta-theoretical myth of Westphalia which has permeated IR discourse since the field’s conception continues to define the legitimacy of casus belli, well beyond the borders of Europe itself.


Kovács, K (2020) ‘People, sovereignty and citizenship: the ethnonational populists’ constitutional vocabulary’ Statelessness & Citizenship Review, (2:2), p. 389-394

Novus (2022) ‘Majoritet för NATO’, Novus https://novus.se/egnaundersokningar-arkiv/majoritet-for-nato/ 
[Last Accessed: 25-01-2024]

The Guardian (2024) ‘Orbán reaffirms backing for Swedish Nato bid as allies’ patience runs Low’ The Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/world/2024/jan/24/orban-reaffirms-backing-for-swedish-nato-bid-as-allies-patience-runs-low  https://press.un.org/en/2024/sc15569.doc.htm      
[Last Accessed: 25-01-2024]

UN (2024) ‘Secretary-General Underscores Two-State Solution Only Way to End Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, One-State Formula Inconceivable, in Day-Long Debate’, United Nations Meetings Coverage and Press Release https://press.un.org/en/2024/sc15569.doc.htm      
[Last Accessed: 25-01-2024]

Washington Post (2015) ‘Hungary’s Orbán invokes Ottoman invasion to justify keeping refugees out’, Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2015/09/04/hungarys-orban-invokes-ottoman-invasion-to-justify-keeping-refugees-out/  
[Last Accessed: 25-01-2024]