According to conventional wisdom, 1648 marks the moment of creation: the inauguration of the modern inter-state system. The Peace tortuously negotiated in the Westphalian towns of Münster and Osnabrück—while half-starved mercenary armies, spurred on by France or Sweden, Austria or Spain, continued to ravage the farms, towns and villages of the German principalities—famously recognized the territorial sovereignty of the 300-odd states of the Holy Roman Empire. Their princes were freed from the imperial yoke, empowered to contract treaties with each other and with outside powers, sole rulers of their own dominions. French absolutism appears at the centre of this story, as the power that secured the diplomatic recognition of this pluriverse of sovereign states.

For Benno Teschke, in this ambitious if uneven work, the textbook narrative contains completely erroneous assumptions about when and where modernity began: ‘Periodization is no innocent exercise, no mere pedagogical and heuristic device to plant markers in the uncharted flow of history. It entails assumptions about the duration and identity of specific epochs and geo-political orders.’ The very title of the book signals the importance of representing the transition to capitalism and modern statehood in a narrative form, organized around landmark dates. Undaunted by the sheer number of events that have been posited as definitive starting points of modernity—in politics, economics, religion and even philosophy—Teschke maintains that the moment of inception was, in fact, the consolidation of parliamentary rule in England in the aftermath of the Glorious Revolution. For it was then and there that the first properly capitalist state in world history was constituted.

Teschke sees this development rather than the Peace of Westphalia, forty years before, as the point of departure for the modernization of the European inter-state system. The eighteenth-century expansion of English capitalism set into motion the crisis of the European ancien régime, and eventually created the conditions for a new world order based on global capitalism. Understanding the genesis and expansion of capitalism as a process of modernization brings into focus the overarching historical trend-line. During the course of this long transition, the old predatory game of war and diplomacy broke down, and was replaced by another order. Capitalism is a social system in which the role of force in accumulating wealth has been eclipsed by the power of money invested in the means of production. The expansionary dynamic of this system should, over the long term, he argues, re-programme the prime directives of states towards the more or less peaceable promotion of economic development.

The Myth of 1648 takes aim at a series of international-relations models. A prime target is the Realist view that an anarchic system of strategic action, structured around the balance of power, emerges whenever states must fend for themselves or perish. From this Hobbesian perspective, the maxims of war and diplomacy have undergone no fundamental changes since the era of the Peloponnesian War. The transhistorical outlook of this school is resumed in Kenneth Waltz’s observation: ‘The enduring character of international politics accounts for the striking sameness in the quality of international life through the millennia.’ Teschke aims to replace the static analytics of Realism with a historicism that comprehends a succession of qualitatively distinct geo-political orders from the Carolingian age to the present. His study distinguishes itself from a number of contemporary sociological critiques of Realism that offer their own versions of the origins of geo-political modernity yet remain, he argues, beholden to a mystifying schema of periodization structured around the inaugural moment of 1648.

While orthodox Realism cannot even acknowledge this transformation, Teschke argues that international-relations theories that seek to be historical are eclectic. Such accounts can only comprehend the advent of modernity as the coincidental confluence of bureaucratic rationalization, the recognition of absolute property rights, a new economic ethos and the spread of commerce. The syncretistic methodology of Max Weber lies behind these parables of modernization: