Towards a Westphalia for the Middle East

Westphalia's legacy of compromise and conditional sovereignty shows the way to peace in the Middle East.

The Ratification of the Treaty of Münster, 1648. Found in the collection of the National Gallery, London.
The Ratification of the Treaty of Münster, 1648. Found in the collection of the National Gallery, London. Credit: Fine art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

The Thirty Years’ War has often been cited as a parallel in recent discussions of the Middle East, by practitioners such as Henry Kissinger, Prince Turki al Feisal of Saudi Arabia, the President of the US council on Foreign Relations, Richard Haass, academics such as Martin van Creveld, and respected journalists such as Sir Andreas Whittam Smith. The Peace of Westphalia in 1648 which ended that war has featured strongly in such discussions, usually with the observation that recent events have seen, at least in some parts of the Middle East, the collapse of ideas of state sovereignty that supposedly originated with the settlement. One honourable exception in this regard is President Steinmeier, who in his previous role as Foreign Minister of Germany, made the Treaty of Westphalia a feature of a number of more considered and extended speeches and articles on the Middle East in 2016.

The immediate parallels between the conflicts are clear. It is the prosperous heart of Europe today, but early seventeenth century Germany, the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, was the disaster zone of Europe. It lay at the heart of the continent, and was thus the point at which the great power interests of nearly all the major protagonists in the international system intersected: the French, the Habsburgs, the Swedes, the Ottomans, and even the English all regarded the area as crucial for ensuring their security. The Empire was politically fragmented, with the emperor and the Reichsstände (various princes, bishops, towns) all jostling for influence, a competition greatly complicated by intense religious divisions. So Germany both imported intervention from its neighbours, and exported instability into Europe when the Empire erupted in a civil war in 1618/19 which was to last three decades.

Just as the original Thirty Years’ War was really a series of separate but interconnected struggles, recent conflict in the Middle East has involved fighting in a number of territories: Israel and the occupied regions, Lebanon, the long and bloody Iran-Iraq war, the two Gulf wars, and now civil wars in Iraq and Syria. As with the Thirty Years’ War, events in Iraq and Syria have been dominated by sectarian conflict and the intervention of peripheral (and more distant) states; engaged in proxy wars which have often escalated into direct military engagement. Both the Thirty Years’ War and the current Middle Eastern conflicts have been hugely costly in terms of human life.

I argue that the Westphalian treaties, far from enshrining state sovereignty in the provisions that they set out, in fact reconfigured and strengthened a structure for the legal settlement of disputes both within and beyond the German statelets (Reichsstände) on whose territories most of the conflict had been fought out, and provided for the possible intervention of guarantor powers outside Germany to uphold the peace settlement. As we shall see, this real history of Westphalia holds important lessons for the present about the resolution and prevention of complex conflicts: lessons of a different sort to those promulgated by the Westphalia myth.

The first route by which we may perceive these lessons concerns the factors which led to the conflict in Europe, and ultimately motivated its solution. One root of the Thirty Years’ War, just as with many contemporary Middle Eastern conflicts, lay in religious intolerance. The security of subjects governed by rulers of the opposing religious camps was often endangered by attempts of governments to enforce doctrinal uniformity. Had the Reformation appealed to subject populations only, it could have been suppressed easily enough. But it also attracted numerous ruling princes and city councils, and for this reason it caused a crisis at the heart of Europe. Secularisation of church property tempted princes and governments with prospects of huge wealth and state-building opportunities, and a concomitant increased control in spiritual matters over their subjects. It was this broad yet disparate appeal of the Reformation that caused an immense potential for conflict at many different levels. Here we find another parallel with the contemporary Middle East: with the creation of cross-border confessional communities, and rising antagonisms both within and between the territorial states, rulers were increasingly willing to intervene on behalf of the co-religionist subjects of other princes.

These religious problems were initially met with equally problematic solutions; which saw the structures and interests of the state collide with the more individualised needs of the princes and their subjects. After a series of wars following the Reformation, a religious peace was concluded at the imperial Diet of Augsburg in 1555. This was a milestone in the development of confessional cohabitation, because it embodied, for the first time, a recognition of the importance of creating a legal-political framework to manage confessional co-existence, while marginalising debates about theological truth. But although it was successful for a time – the treaty helped foster peace and effective co-operation among German governments and the emperor for several decades – it was nevertheless deficient. First, the princes only granted each other toleration between themselves, not among subjects within their territories. The ‘Right of Reformation’, or ius reformandi, gave princes the right to impose their confession onto their subjects; a form of religious compulsion later encapsulated in the phrase cuius regio eius religio (‘the religion of the prince is the religion of the territory’).

This solution was inherently state-centric: it ignored the concerns of the princes’ subjects, apart from guaranteeing their right to emigrate. Partially designed to undercut interventionist impulses by consigning confessional affairs to an inviolable domestic sphere, the treaty text stated: ‘No Estate [territory] should protect and shield another Estate or its subjects against their government in any way.’

This settlement was insufficient for a second reason, in that it failed to satisfy another site of internal division: the Christian church itself. The treaty was increasingly unsatisfactory for most Protestant states, and had many in-built structural advantages for the Catholic side. It made it effectively impossible for ecclesiastical territories to turn Protestant: the Catholic status of ecclesiastical territories was guaranteed by the ‘spiritual reservation’ whereby prince-bishops did not enjoy the full Right of Reformation and would have to abdicate if they converted. Calvinism was not recognised and remained heretical in official terms. Furthermore, the Catholic princes began to rely on majority voting to sideline Protestants at consultative and decision-making assemblies such as the Diet (Reichstag). The settlement was further tested by the fact that the Catholic Church embarked on a major evangelising effort to reverse the effects of the Catholic reformation through popular preaching – the Counter-Reformation and the Catholic reform movement, a prime mover for which was the Jesuit order, supported by Catholic princes. Taken together, these factors meant that Protestants felt increasingly under pressure, and more radical Protestants constantly searched for means to revise the settlement.

The smooth functioning of the institutions of the Empire was predicated upon consensus and compromise. It was a willingness to engage in either of these which began to wane from the 1570s and 1580s. Confessional polarisation became increasingly intractable, leading to institutional paralysis and confrontation. The formation of hostile princely religious alliances – the Protestant Union (1608) and the Catholic League (1609) – was symptomatic of the general ‘War in Sight’ atmosphere characterising central Europe at the turn of the century. The resulting Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648), when it finally happened, was, just like the current Middle Eastern conflict, a set of interlocking political-religious struggles at local and regional levels. These provoked and enabled extensive external interference, which in turn exacerbated and prolonged the conflict.

The war was immensely destructive – arguably the greatest trauma of German history, beyond even that of the twentieth century. It resulted in an overall loss in excess of a third of the population. Some areas – Mecklenburg, Pomerania, Thuringia and Hessen – suffered much more severe death rates of up to two-thirds. As Jacques Callot’s picture cannot fail to remind us, beneath such overwhelming statistics, individual suffering was also extreme. Farms and villages were routinely burned by passing troops; their occupants tortured to extract their valuables, or raped. Some of the victims, with few other options, might then join one or other of the armies as soldiers, miserable camp-followers or prostitutes. Atrocities such as the massacre and burning of Magdeburg in 1631, which killed over 20,000 people, still resonate in the German popular imagination to this day. As is the case on the current Middle Eastern stage, the role played by non-state and sub-state actors was substantial: corporate groupings of noble subjects (estates (Landstände)) and private military entrepreneurs then; terrorist groups and aid organisations now. The war also caused its own refugee crisis. Cities such as Ulm took in huge numbers relative to the pre-war population, 8000 refugees taken in by 15000 inhabitants in 1634 – a situation analogous to that faced by Lebanon today. Moreover, the resulting shifts in the religious balance often sparked unrest in previously quiet areas, a phenomenon also beginning to emerge in the Middle East today. No one had yet come up with the concept of Toxic Stress in the early seventeenth century – but the trauma could well be described by it.

The war also evolved and mutated. What began as an insurrection of the Bohemian nobility against Habsburg rulers soon escalated into a much broader conflict within the Empire, chiefly as a result of the radically Calvinist elector Palatine’s decision to accept the Bohemian crown in 1619 which the rebels had wrested from the Habsburgs. But it also became a struggle between competing visions of the future political order in central Europe. A centralised Imperial monarchy was pitted against a more federally organised constitution, based on princes and estates. This tug of war morphed into the long-standing Habsburg–Bourbon struggle for European supremacy. The conflict had several overlapping phases, as the Emperor and his (mainly Catholic) allies faced a shifting and growing cast of adversaries: the Bohemian rebels and the elector-Palatine (1618–23); Denmark and her north German allies (1623–29); Sweden and her Protestant German allies (1630–34); and finally France, Sweden and their allies (1635–48), whose intervention established some sort of equilibrium.

Eventually, the war was brought to an end by the now-famous treaties of Münster and Osnabrück (collectively known as the Peace of Westphalia). Although it took five years, the eventual success of the peace negotiations at the Westphalian congress towns of Münster and Osnabrück was due in no small measure to the participation of most imperial estates. An all-inclusive summit of this scale was unprecedented at the time and it was the willingness of the participants to explore unknown diplomatic terrain that helped it succeed. This made it a ‘universal’ congress, and allowed for a settlement that was satisfactory to all members of the empire. The role of informal discussion among the envoys and dignitaries in developing more formal structures, and eventually, treaty provisions, was important to the success of Westphalia. Also vital was the late arrival on the scene of a core grouping of princes from both religions who were prepared to compromise and who acted as informal mediators between the emperor and foreign crowns. Such a cross-confessional party was unprecedented and greatly propelled the peace process forward in its final phase. The intervention of this ‘third party’ thus ensured that, although a universal peace accord would be unattainable, peace would be secured in the crucial central European theatre of the empire.

In the mythic narrative which still surrounds Westphalia the treaty has been seen as the zenith of the unstoppable trend towards political fragmentation and decentralisation; the formal entrenchment of the issues driving the war that it was designed to end. In fact, the true Westphalia, in its structure and its implications, was something quite different.

The real treaty enshrined an order of conditional sovereignty. Although the Right of Reformation was officially confirmed, it was in effect nullified by the imposition of the ‘normative year’ (Normaljahr). This fixed the control of churches, the right of public worship and the confessional status of each territory to its original state, on 1 January 1624. This arrangement marked an innovative compromise to the contentions of confession, which set a mutually acceptable benchmark at a point in time at which neither side had gained supremacy.

The practical outcome of such moves was to limit the autonomy of the princes. A princely conversion could no longer determine the religious affiliation of the subject population in question. Princes were entitled to rule for life, but crucially were required to respect their subjects’ basic rights such as religious freedom (including that of Calvinists), enjoyment of their property and access to judicial recourse, while also respecting the rights of fellow rulers. The right of alliance was curtailed by the caveat that it must not be directed against the Empire, the emperor, or the constitutional order established by the treaties. The Imperial judicial tribunals retained extensive authority to enforce the confessional and property rights of princes’ subjects (many of which themselves stipulated at Westphalia). The external guarantors, France and Sweden, were granted a right to intervene either against the Emperor or the princes, in order to uphold Westphalian rights and terms. If princes failed in their duties towards their subjects or the Empire they could in theory and practice become targets for intervention, which in some cases entailed deposition from power. Some examples might be Count Ferdinand Karl of Hohenems-Vaduz (1684), Prince Wilhelm Hyacinth of Nassu-Siegen (1707) and most prominently Duke Carl Leopold of Mecklenburg-Schwerin (1728).

The treaty’s relationship to political fragmentation also requires reformulation. Far from codifying the foundations of international relations based on balance of power principles, Westphalia was primarily a German settlement, which regulated confessional, political, and constitutional conditions within the Holy Roman Empire, while also tying it into a broader system of European control through the external guarantee. Once again, compromise was key. As a political settlement, it determined the balance of prerogatives between the non-sovereign territorial states and the Imperial centre.

As a religious settlement, focusing mainly on the thorny confessional issues (it was these components that took up most space in the texts), the treaty carried off the huge diplomatic achievement of securing a compromise that was acceptable to all congress participants. A graded form of toleration was granted to the adherents of the three official confessions (adding Calvinism as a recognised religion). The stipulations regulating religious affairs between the territorial states were based chiefly on confessional consensus as opposed to majority voting at consultative assemblies, and the parity of religious representation in Imperial institutions. Through them, and the related normative year, Westphalia opened up confessional affairs within the territorial states to legitimate external scrutiny, enforcement and intervention.

The wide-reaching success of these mechanisms in regulating conflict is confirmed through a number of testimonies. At a time of renewed religious dispute in the early eighteenth century, a statement issued by the Protestant party at the Imperial Diet commenting on the improvements that Westphalia brought to the Imperial constitution, stated:

The refusal of Territorial rulers to accept that other fellow states protect foreign inhabitants and subjects was one of the greatest causes which led to the wretched Thirty-Years’-War. It is precisely this wound which has been healed by the Peace of Westphalia.

The controlling function of the external guarantee of the settlement by France and Sweden (Russia was added in 1779) furthered this stability, engendering a greater willingness by emperor and princes to respect each other’s recognised (Westphalian) rights, as well as those of subjects. Simultaneously, the central European order of peaceful legality had a pacifying effect on Europe as a whole, not least by providing a substantial geopolitical buffer zone between great powers. Furthermore, although Westphalia certainly did not make the German territories sovereign, it did not permit the emperor to set up a centralised monarchical German polity capable of external power-projection either. History provides perhaps the strongest testimony of all: after 1648, central Europe was not again to become embroiled in religious war.

Far from the confirmation of separatism and self-interest, as the ‘Westphalia myth‘ would suggest, Westphalia was seen as a corrective measure by opening domestic affairs up to mutual and reciprocal scrutiny, on the basis of clear principles agreed by all. While confessional strife certainly continued, the settlement provided an effective system for the ‘juridification’ of such conflict, whereby divisions were channelled into a legal-diplomatic framework and defused through litigation and negotiation, rather than settled by warfare. The necessity of these parameters, regulating religious matters through compromise and consensus, and bracketing out intractable theological disputes, was validated through what has been called the age of Westphalia (1648–1806): an entire epoch founded on the impact and influence of these measures.

It is in this reoriented, de-mythologised version of Westphalia that the real resonances with the Middle East of today are to be found. First, we may compare the triggers for factional entrenchment. Whether one chooses to accept the Shiite or Wahhabi version of events, both Iran and Saudi Arabia feel insecure in the region, menaced by enemies, to a degree paranoid and liable to miscalculate the true nature of the threat to them and their faiths. Where in 17th-century Europe Protestants were alarmed by the revanchism of the Catholic Counter-Reformation, through which the emperor (with the support of his Spanish Habsburg cousins) sought to restore property and lands confiscated from the Catholic prince-bishoprics by Protestant princes in the previous century, so in the Middle East today Shi‘a communities feel under pressure from the new wave of aggressive Wahhabi/Salafi jihadism, which similarly regards their faith as heresy and abomination.

Another aspect of the conflict in the Middle East finds strong echoes in those issues of fragmentation versus collectivity at the heart of Westphalia and its misrepresentation. The creation of Iraq, Syria and Lebanon as sovereign states during the mid-twentieth century owes something to the European sovereign state model derived partly from what we have called the ‘myth’ of the Westphalia settlement. Some would say that model was artificial and unsuited to the complex political reality of those states; that the continuing collapse of Iraq and Syria (with Lebanon looking fragile) is at least in part a consequence of that. But it may be that the borders of those states were not the real problem. After all, such borders generally followed the boundaries of previous Ottoman administrative districts, including those abolished with much fanfare by ISIL in 2014.

More relevant perhaps is the internal political nature of the states as they were established. The traditional territory of Islam is still perceived in some sense as a coherent whole in the minds of Muslims. Both Iran and Saudi Arabia see themselves as the legitimate leader of this one Islamic community. Just as Christendom was both pulled apart by religious conflict in the 17th century, yet still bound together by shared history and shared faith, so too with contemporary Islam. Any attempt to redraw borders extensively is thus likely to deepen and exacerbate the chaos. Such is the ethnic, religious and tribal complexity of the peoples they contain: as enmeshed and connected as they are divided, they will probably resist being divided up in any less artificial or more satisfactory way. In the Westphalia settlement, with only a few exceptions, the pre-war borders were retained; it was the way the states related to each other and the confessional diversity of their subjects that changed. There is surely a lesson here. Just as the Emperor’s authority was still recognised by the Protestant states of the Empire, albeit reluctantly and with bitter resentment, so Shi’a Muslims have to accept Saudi Arabia’s de facto guardianship of the holy places of Medina and Mecca. The move towards this acceptance could gather strength from the lingering sense of a common heritage in the region.

Sectarianism, the interference of neighbouring states, the breakdown of earlier state arrangements, the exodus of refugees – all these are features of a region that has become, to quote the evocative phrase of the Viennese satirist Karl Kraus about the Austro-Hungarian Empire before the First World War, a “Laboratory for World Destruction”. Westphalia has much to tell us about this overwhelming situation: both in the fallaciousness of its myth and the importance of its reality, in the parallels that it offers and the dissimilarities it helps to elucidate. To this end, the Forum on Geopolitics at Cambridge has established a “Laboratory of World Construction” to begin to design a Westphalia for the Middle East. In partnership with the Hamburg Koerber-Stiftung and the German Foreign Office a group of experts has been considering the origins and con-sequences of the myth, the true form of the Westphalia settlement and its outcomes, and ways in which the true Westphalia model could be applied to help resolve the modern conflict.

Following a prominent curtain-raising article in the New Statesman in January 2016, the first four seminars of the project took place in Cambridge and London in March, April and May 2016, and drew together academics working on 17th century Germany and the contemporary Middle East, but also policy practitioners and journalists. The meetings were supported by the DAAD and the Quraysch Foundation. Representatives from the German Foreign Office and the Koerber-Stiftung also took part in some of the sessions, and since the autumn of 2016, the Koerber-Stiftung has been our principal partner in this venture. The German Foreign Office also took an interest, sending officials to further workshop events organized with the Koerber-Stiftung in November 2016 in Berlin, and January 2017 in Amman. The former German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, now the Federal President has taken a personal interest. He has mentioned the project several times in speeches and articles and gave an address to open the event in Berlin. The Jordanian government is also taking a close interest and the King’s brother, Prince Faisal Ibn Al Hussein opened the session in Amman. The events in Berlin and Amman have had a different character to the earlier more historical and theoretical sessions, with participants drawn primarily from the Middle East itself, including from all the main countries of the region; most being senior policy analysts close to government, or former policy practitioners (in other words, what are sometimes called “track two” practitioners).

How might such a solution look? That, plainly, is a matter for the local actors themselves, but here are a few suggestions from the Westphalian experience. The overall principles could look something like this:

First, it would be necessary to draw together all interested parties for an inclusive congress aimed at finding collective solutions to regional conflicts (i.e. stressing the need for interrelated and interlocking conflicts to be resolved by general settlement rather than piecemeal settlements that don’t work).

Secondly, there is a necessity for regional parties to be open about their security interests and to take responsibility collectively for regional problems (cf. Westphalia “third party”), albeit with help and encouragement from peripheral and non-regional powers, rather than hoping for those powers to rebalance the region or impose a settlement for them.

Thirdly, there is the need for mutual guarantees and mutual oversight of settlement commitments, accepting some supranational treaty and legal arrangements for the monitoring and enforcement of treaty norms.

As far as substance is concerned, while treaty content cannot be transferred wholesale to the Middle East, the idea of a universal congress and a mutual guarantee is useful, instructive and applicable. An important first step would be to get comprehensive discussions and negotiations started (if need be in parallel to fighting as in 1645–48) before necessarily setting out principles. Local actors define the central points and thrash out a mutually acceptable settlement, which external powers then guarantee. Smaller actors were crucial in bringing about Westphalia (the Third Party) – collectively they drive the process forward.

It is necessary to avoid assigning blame for the previous carnage. (At Westphalia there were extensive amnesties, although with some exceptions e.g. Bohemian rebels). Instead the emphasis should be on ensuring that all actors share a responsibility for maintaining and securing future peace (the guarantee).

There was a deep consensus in Germany that the Holy Roman Empire as an order must persist – the Middle East as a region should try to find a similar institutional memory to draw upon – perhaps a post-Ottoman space, pan-Arabism or Dar al-Islam?

The congress could perhaps conclude a treaty which reconceives parts of the Middle East as an externally-guaranteed and regionally specified security zone (equivalent of the Holy Roman Empire). In this zone – probably comprising Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen – inter- and intra-state violence could be outlawed, property, appeals, and minority rights would be safeguarded (although allowing for a predominant “official” confession), and subjects/citizens are to be given rights to appeal to a higher authority against their governments. Possible measures against sectarian hate speech could be established as was the case in the Holy Roman Empire.

This could entail a form of shared sovereignty for the “failed states” in this security zone – conditional in the sense that the governmental authority would be dependent upon the rulers’ adherence to the treaty terms and an insistence that external guarantors have a right to enforce them in case of breach, and in the sense that inhabitants can sue their leaders at an extra-territorial appeals tribunal in assertion of their recognised rights, to prevent Arab Spring-style unrest – a lesson learned by the German princely elites after the Peasants’ rebellion of the 1520s.

The guarantee could be organised according to a two-tier system at the regional level – Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran – and at the global level – USA, Russia, and/or EU. The regional actors to whom the treaty terms chiefly apply together with external powers offer a collective guarantee for the settlement, as was the case at Westphalia with the Emperor and the Imperial Estates guaranteeing themselves in a recalibrated set-up, and crucially also including France and Sweden in order to allay the mainly Protestant Estates’ fears of the Emperor reneging on the agreement.

It would plainly, be highly desirable as part of a wider Westphalia-style settlement also to make progress toward a solution to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. But a wider settlement should not be seen as necessarily dependent on that. The Israel/Palestinian question is not a major factor in the current situation in Syria or Iraq, nor was it among the prime concerns of Al Qaeda or Daesh/IS, who were both much more focused on toppling Arab states in the Middle East.

Bringing peace will not be easy, and many attempts have failed before. But if it could be done in mid-seventeenth-century Germany, a no less intractable problem, then it is possible in the Middle East. The answer, whatever it is, will not lie in an outcome but in a process which will have to resemble that of Westphalia in important respects.

This emphasis on process is important in terms of timing. We obviously must not look for a “quick fix” in the Middle East. The Westphalia negotiations took five years and ultimately failed to end the related war between Spain and France, which lasted until 1659. The complexity and bitterness of the conflict looked intractable and a settlement virtually impossible. But by 1648, many warring parties in central Europe, especially within Germany, had also reached a state of general exhaustion, and disillusionment with religious extremism. Through these two powerful sentiments, tiredness and disaffection, a settlement was eventually agreed – a lasting and durable one. When the many parties to the present conflicts in the Middle East approach those same points, the hard-won lessons of the mid-seventeenth century will be valuable in finding peace there too.

In turning to past paradigms to address equally, but always differently, complex conflicts in the present, we are, of course, drawing on “the lessons of history”. This brings its own dangers. We know that the past is another country. They did things differently there. The origins of sectarian division in Islam are different from their Christian equivalents. Yet we should not be too modest. As Frank-Walter Steinmeier has said, some in the contemporary Middle East are aware of past religious extremism and conflict in Europe, and ask how we overcame it historically. We owe them an answer, and while we cannot give them “the” answer, we can give them useful answers which might lead to the answer.

The Irish poet Seamus Heaney once expressed the wish that “hope and history” would rhyme. He was speaking of his native Ulster, at that time an intractable conflict, now a province uneasily at peace. It is our hope that the true history of Westphalia might provide some hope for the Middle East. German history has so often, and for good reason, been seen as a laboratory of world destruction. Let it this time stand for something positive. Westphalia is, as it were, an instrument of German “soft power” which can be used for the benefit of all.

It is in no way trite to offer these lessons, earned from trauma, to those experiencing it currently – it is part of our shared human experience, our collective memory. The Westphalia myth, in supporting a notional model of the modern state which has failed in both Iraq and Syria, may have contributed to the terrible recent conflicts we have seen unfolding in those countries. But the lessons of the real treaties of Westphalia, which provided means for the legal resolution of disputes and showed ways to turn external interference in war into external strongholds for peace, could provide a significant contribution to the eventual settlement of the Middle East’s problems. Harnessing those twin tools of collective memory – the right to reflect on why things have happened, and the ability to plan for how they can change – that is what applied history is, or can be.

Towards a Westphalia for the Middle East by Brendan Simms was first published in Past and Present, 2020, Axess Publishing


Brendan Simms