Westphalia: The Last Christian Peace

What I Meant to Say

At the end of a typical graduate school seminar, everyone in the class will read everyone else’s paper and discuss it.  In one of my classes, the professor asked us to say a few words about our own paper at the start of the discussion.  This was, he said, our chance to tell everyone what we meant to say.  Of course, anything we could add at that point would have been better off in the paper itself, but the professor knew that there is always something that we should have said but didn’t quite manage to write down.  So here is my chance to express what I meant to say in the book.

I subtitled the book “The Last Christian Peace” because I wanted to emphasize the ways that it was a continuation of earlier traditions — of dynasticism, Christianity, and feudal modes of political organization.  I did this to counter the prevailing idea of “Westphalian sovereignty,” the idea that the Peace of Westphalia somehow initiated the modern system of sovereign states.  I can’t find any evidence for that among the statesmen who created the Peace of Westphalia, and I wanted that aspect to be front and center.

On the other hand, I did not intend to say that Westphalia was entirely traditional in outlook.  It was not a conscious innovation that sought to recreate the basis of interstate relations, and in that sense it wasn’t part of the contemporaneous Scientific Revolution.  On the other hand, Westphalia did demonstrate statesmen pushing the boundaries of traditional ideas of foreign policy.  There was a (well-founded) sense on all sides that other states were not to be trusted, and to attempt to overcome this through new ideas on security.  Richelieu is well-known for envisioning a system of collective security secured by leagues in a way that seems to presage the United Nations, but Habsburg statesmen had similar ideas.  In any case, the time was evidently not ripe for this idea, since Richelieu’s successor, Cardinal Mazarin, didn’t follow through with it, and it is doubtful how far it could have gone anyway with the lack of Swedish commitment.

Instead of coming up with a major leap forward, as a system of collective security would have been, statesmen groped forward incrementally.  The most common measures were basic ones, such as increasing physical security through land and fortresses and ever more comprehensive and airtight phrasing in treaty wording.  But they went beyond that to less direct measures, such as securing the support of allies and seeking general consensus on treaty terms through the involvement of more powers.  Such measures lacked the immediate efficacy of physical security, but they were necessary in an international system that was unavoidably multilateral.  There was, in other words, no way that a single state could guarantee its own security when there were so many other governments to contend with — at least not without making the others feel more insecure than ever, which would lead to more active resistance to the government seeking physical security.

Statesmen all around recognized the imperatives of a multilateral system to greater or lesser degrees.  The one state most in a position to set an example, France, preferred direct security measures to indirect ones; that is, it preferred power over consensus.  And this tendency continued for the rest of Louis XIV’s reign, with the result that international security came to be viewed mostly in terms of limiting French power.  Starting with the Dutch already in 1646-1648, and later with the addition of England, European states found their greatest safety in allying against France, leading to the doctrine of balance of power.  Balance of power is by its nature a rather crude instrument, but at least it tended to maintain the system’s multilateral nature and prevent the hegemony of one state.  This allowed the international system to mature through repeated interaction and, eventually, develope sounder principles by the time of the Congress of Vienna.  Westphalia was no direct antecedent to this, of course.  It demonstrates statesmen grappling for new ways to deal with international security, but their solutions were still inchoate and direct.

The insecurity that all statesmen at Westphalia seemed to feel about their governments’ international situation, which overwhelmingly conditioned the negotiations, fits in well with the general anxiety characteristic of the Baroque age.  The juxtaposition of new ideas and traditional mental frameworks also suggests the stark contrasts of Baroque art.  For these reasons, I consider the Peace of Westphalia to be neither traditional nor modern, but rather a Baroque peace — a product of its own age.


Visual supplement

Images I would have put in the book if I had been able.


A new review is available on H-Net — for some reason on H-War rather than H-Diplo — that gives a fair account of Westphalia.

So far, the only review that has been published is one in Choice — and you only get a part of the first sentence for free, after that you have to pay $20 to get access to the rest of the review for a single day.  At that price, you might as well buy the book. 🙂  I will link to other reviews as they become available.

The book is depressingly expensive at the moment:  $115 retail, although you can usually find a deal for as little as $92.  There are also used copies available now for under $60.  I hope there will be a paperback edition someday.  In the meantime, here are some places you can buy the hardback if you have that kind of money.


Abe Books


Tower Books


Barnes and Noble

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