The title for this post is taken from a book of the same name, which is sort of a manifesto for a larger project aimed at achieving something like what it is called: a Westphalia for the Middle East. This is not the first time I have seen efforts to link Westphalia and the Middle East, nor even the first academic effort to do so. This one is different, however, because it is sponsored by Cambridge University and includes an ongoing effort to make something happen rather than just discussing some parallels. It was kicked off by a conference a few years ago which I was, unfortunately, unable to attend. I was recently invited to another, much smaller conference in May of this year, which I did participate in, and where I got a copy of the book shown here. As someone who has written critically of other attempts to link Westphalia and the Middle East, I have to say that this one is better thought-out than most and addresses most of my up front concerns. The general approach is for a comprehensive, regional conference (and subsequent agreement) with major power involvement and some kind of enforcement mechanism. I expect to hear more about it in coming years.
Archive for the ‘current events’ Category
If you’re like me, when you saw the title of this post you wondered, “Has the country of Somalia changed its name?” But, no, Somaliland is not an alternative name for Somalia, but rather the name for a region that is fighting for independence from Somalia (see map at right).
I do not intend this site to become focussed on would-be independent countries, but I do have to admit that the question fascinates me and partly drew me to the Peace of Westphalia in the first place. In the 1640’s, partially sovereign states in Portugal, Catalonia, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Transylvania (as well as some shorter-lived ones) struggled for recognition. In the modern world, we see much the same thing as Taiwan, Tibet, Somaliland, South Sudan, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Catalonia, and the Basque territories struggle to obtain or retain autonomy and international recognition. These places at a a wide range on the spectrum of independence: Tibet can only dream of independence at this time; Taiwan is fully independent but China undermines its sovereignty at every opportunity (most recently by insisting that airlines serving China not use the name “Taiwan” on their routes); Abkhazia and South Ossetia are Russian puppet states; Catalonia and the Basque territories are firmly part of Spain but have varying degrees of autonomy and strive for more; South Sudan is recognized as independent but struggles to maintain control over its own territory. (This is an incomplete list, of course.)
I was not even aware of Somaliland’s would-be independence until recently, which is ironic because it has been de facto independent for 25 years. (For some background information, check out the BBC site and Wikipedia.) In colonial times, Somaliland was administered by Britain and Somalia by Italy. They both became independent in 1960 and agreed to merge into a single government, which seemed like a good idea at the time. However, differences between the two regions became obvious as the first national leader imposed military rule, eventually leading to civil war. Somaliland declared its independence in 1991 and has been functionally sovereign ever since.
There is one qualification: no other country formally recognizes Somaliland’s sovereignty. Legally, Somaliland claims that it was an independent country for a short time in 1960 and has a right to reclaim its independence, just as Syria separated from its voluntary union with Egypt in 1971 and Senegal from Gambia in 1989. Politically, Somaliland is surprisingly democratic and is rated as more free than any of its neighbours by Freedom House.
So why the hesitation to accept it as a member of the international community? The political reason is fear that it would lead to even more independence movements in the region. I find this logic curious, since Djibouti and South Sudan are recognized internationally and both are far more problematic (from what it appears) than Somaliland. It is true, however, that Somaliland has border disputes with several other would-be independent regions of Somalia, and sorting out all those claims would be tricky. The other reason Somaliland may have trouble gaining recognition is that it is one of the poorest countries in the world, which means there are no major nations with a vested interest in its economic stability. Compare this with the case of China, whose Communist government was not widely recognized until the early 1970’s: unlike Somaliland, China was simply too big to ignore and offered too many advantages to countries who were willing to overlook Taiwan’s situation. Moreover, Somaliland has been free from the kind of catastrophe that mobilized world opinion in support of South Sudan. Ironically, Somaliland seems to be doing fine without official recognition, so there is little incentive to rock the boat.
I find Somaliland’s situation fascinating. Every country’s claim to independence is different; some have a stronger legal justification, others have established institutions that make its de facto sovereignty something that other states are likely to recognize eventually. I think Somaliland has both a strong legal justification and a generation of functional independence, which makes the failure of anyone in the international community to recognize them puzzling. If the situation continues for another generation, I suspect other nations will eventually accept the fact that Somaliland is independent, regardless of what problems that might theoretically create in the region. In the meantime, they are only a step away from being reunited forcibly with Somalia, as they are too poor to defend themselves against a determined attack and owe their continued independence to the complete inefficacy of the central government in Somalia.
Independence movements have been a lot on my mind since the harsh European reaction to Catalonian independence. Actually, independence movements have always been a lot on my mind; one of the main reasons I wanted to study the Peace of Westphalia was to learn about how the European map achieved its modern shape. One aspect of that shape is the fact that Catalonia is part of Spain rather than France or an independent country of its own.
The situation in Abkhazia and South Ossetia obviously owes nothing to the Peace of Westphalia. The conflict and complicated mixture of languages, ethnicities, and religions in the Caucasus is far older and infinitely more complex: if you think the Balkans are difficult to sort out, they have nothing on the Caucasus. The similarity is that all three regions — Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Catalonia — wish to be independent (or, at any rate, contain a sizeable proportion of people who wish to be independent) but are not widely recognized in the West. Catalonia, of course, is not at all independent at the moment. Abkhazia and South Ossetia have been de facto independent since the early 1990’s, but they remain so only thanks to major support from Russia. The only other nations that recognized their sovereignty are Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Nauru; in the last month, Syria has joined that list. The obvious connection between these four states is their close relationship with Russia (or, in the case of Nauru, financial aid). The rest of the world presumably considers the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Georgia as illegitimate, and European nations have stated as much explicitly.
At least the West is being consistent in supporting the “territorial integrity” of both Spain and Georgia in these cases. But what about the territorial integrity of Russia, which following 1989 lost Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia along the Baltic, as well as a series of Central Asian republics (Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, etc.), and several nations in the Caucasus, among them Georgia itself? Who in the West spoke out for the territorial integrity of Russia against these independence movements? A similar scenario unfolded in Yugoslavia, where Slovenia, Slovakia, Croatia, Macedonia, and Bosnia broke away from Serbia.
One could argue, of course, that the circumstances were different. These newly independent nations had their own languages, cultures, and histories that predated Russian or Yugoslavian control. On the other hand, the same is true of Catalonia, and to some extent of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. I have seen people argue against Catalan independence on the grounds that Catalonia has never been independent. This is mostly true (leaving aside some brief periods following revolts, e.g. in 1640), but it is equally true of almost all of the new countries. Very few of the new Balkan nations had ever experienced independence, and it had certainly been a long time since Georgia and Azerbaijan had ruled themselves. The Baltic States were independent for about two decades following World War I, but apart from that Latvia had hardly ever existed as an independent polity.
Should this matter? If a country has a distinct culture and history, is that enough to warrant its right to independence? What about the people who live in the country but don’t want to be independent of its current government? The Spanish government is quick to point out that opinion about independence in Catalonia is divided, although since they outlawed a vote on the matter and actually dragged people away from polling places, it is hard to see how the Catalans could prove that a majority support independence. In the United States itself, arguably only a minority supported independence against Great Britain in the 18th century, yet we still celebrate the results of our revolution.
What of a nation’s viability as an international political actor? South Ossetia is home to only about 50,000 people, which is clearly not enough to maintain its independence from Georgia without major outside support. Then again, Nauru, one of the five countries that has recognized it, has only a fifth as many as that. I frequently think about this when I hear of objections to the creation of an independent Kurdistan because it would be a landlocked nation with territorial claims in various neighbours (assuming that it would be created from only some of the countries that currently occupy the Kurish homeland, perhaps Iraq and Syria but very likely not Turkey or Iran). Sure, one could argue that an independent Kurdish nation would be a “source of instability” in the Middle East, but since when has that been a dominant concern in our foreign policy? What people have ever suffered so much at the hands of their rulers that they deserved a chance at independence more than the Kurds? Unless, indeed, one were to cite the Jews, whose homeland was explicitly created as a safe haven against hostile rulers. Would anything that could happen with Kurdistan be more destabilizing than the existence of the state of Israel?
I raise these points, not because I have answers, but because it seems some people don’t want to acknowledge that they are difficult questions. The people who support Spain and Georgia against separatists seem to do so without asking themselves under what circumstances they could be convinced to change their minds. It is, of course, idealistic of me to think that nations would ever pursue a coherent foreign policy based on rational principles, but I think it is worth striving for. Indeed, it is not so much the governments themselves that disappoint me as the people who are not government officials who are so quick to oppose independence movements. As one Russian researcher said about the question of independence, “International law is ambivalent. On the one hand, it gives the people the right to self-determination, and on the other hand it protects the territorial integrity of states. In each specific case, a country decides which of the principles for it is more priority.”
(N.B. The last quotation, as well as my original source for learning about Syrian recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, was an article in Izvestiya. My Russian is pretty limited, and I pasted that translation directly from Google. There has been little Western news about Syria’s diplomatic moves, but you can find articles on it in English, e.g. https://sputniknews.com/world/201805291064903741-syria-ossetia-abkhazia-recognition-reaction/.)
I recently learned that Catalonia is scheduled to vote on independence on October 1st, which is less than a week away. How is this related to the Peace of Westphalia? Very closely, as the fate of Catalonia was perhaps the touchiest part of the negotiations, and was certainly the main reason France and Spain could not reach an agreement. When they finally made peace 11 years later, it was only after the Catalonian issue had been completely resolved by Spain’s reconquest of the province.
Catalonia has its origins as the Spanish March that Charlemagne had conquered from the Muslims — a very small and early beginning of the Reconquista. It ended up a part of the Kingdom of Aragon, but France retained a claim to it until the 13th century. In 1640, Catalonia rose up against Spain and declared its independence. This marked the beginning of a drastic downturn in Spain’s military fortunes. Shortly thereafter, Portugal also declared independence, meaning that, without Catalonia’s revolt, it is possible that Portugal might not have become independent.
France was quick to recognize Catalonia’s independence, but a determined Spanish counterattack convinced the Catalonians that they stood little chance as an independent state; consequently, they placed themselves under French protection. Catalonia became a part of the French monarchy, under guarantees that France would respect its rights and privileges that Spain had violated leading up to the revolt. Based on other cities and territories that accepted French protection (such as in Alsace), I feel confident that Catalonia would have ultimately been disappointed with their new arrangement. In the short run, it created a nearly intractable legal problem in that Philip IV refused to accept the withdrawal of Catalan obedience, but Louis XIII (and soon thereafter his son, Louis XIV) could not consent to the return of Catalonia to Spain. There were actually two things preventing France from returning Catalonia. One, as it had now become part of the royal patrimony, it was considered inalienable, and going back on that principle would call into question a French legal doctrine dating back two centuries that had been used to justify the impossibility of ceding land to other states. Two, as France had agreed to protect Catalonian rights against Spain, the mere suggestion that they might be willing to return the province to Philip IV would have seemed like betrayal and would have hurt France’s international reputation severely, not to mention the likelihood that Catalans might have tried to strike a deal with Philip IV at the first hint of French treachery, which could deprive France of all the advantages it had gained from the province’s rebellion. The situation regarding Portugal was similar, but France did not have the liability of actually having agreed to make Portugal part of the French crown, so it had more flexibility.
The best either side could hope for was a truce in Catalonia. For France, the longer the truce was for, the better, as it would enable them to incorporate the province into royal government and gain legitimacy by prescription. It wanted a truce of at least 30 years. Spain hoped for just the opposite: as short a truce as possible, just enough for Spain to disentangle itself from its other conflicts (notably with the Dutch Republic) and focus its efforts on Catalonia. The Dutch, who had no particular desire to continue the war either then or in the future for the sake of French conquests in Iberia, eventually made peace with Spain while the French-Spanish war continued. Thanks in part to unrest in France, Spain was able to retake Catalonia in the years immediately following 1648.
The fate of Catalonia also has particular significance for me for two further reasons. One is that my dissertation advisor’s dissertation advisor, J. H. Elliott, wrote his dissertation on the Catalan revolt. Second, I chose the Peace of Westphalia as my dissertation topic because I wanted to know about the factors that shaped Europe’s borders. I was particularly concerned with Alsace in my dissertation, but Catalonia would certainly make an equally interesting case. It ended up remaining with Spain, but it would not be difficult to imagine a French Catalonia, or even an independent Catalonia.
In point of fact, the borders in Western Europe have changed remarkably little in the past 500 years or so. Looked at from one perspective, it seems almost inevitable that the modern states would take on the shapes that they have: how would France not encompass all the French-speaking peoples, Italy the Italian, Spain the Spanish, and so forth. But this only appears true until one looks at the cases more closely. Alsace was a Germanophone territory until the 17th century and only gradually switched to French over the next two hundred years. There are many French speakers in Belgium, mixed with Flemish speakers, whose language is very close to Dutch. Switzerland includes German, French, and Italian speakers. And Catalan is a distinct language from Castilian; very similar, it is true, but then Portuguese is also very similar, and Galician is closer to Portuguese than to Castilian. In short, much of what we take for granted about Europe’s borders only appear so because territories have been stable and have homogenized over time, and because we tend to dismiss anomalies.
The borders in Eastern Europe have been more fluid, and I have witnessed in my lifetime quite a number of significant changes: the creation of independent states in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, and the Ukraine, the breakup of Yugoslavia into a number of smaller, more homogeneous countries, and the division of Czechoslovakia into two states. Most of these changes have been welcomed in the West as a chance for people with a distinct language and culture to become independent and self-determining. (The way that Yugoslavia broke up was a tragedy, of course, but now that it has happened, I haven’t heard anyone other than Serbs urging a reunion.) Strangely, though, anything resembling an independence movement in Western Europe is usually treated as an impending disaster. Even the British withdrawal from the European Union, which is quite a young organization and is not yet a proper government, brought about great howls of protest. Similarly, the Catalonian referendum generally seems to be viewed unfavourably (if I may judge from a tiny bit of reading) outside of Catalonia itself.
As so often happens, I take the less popular side. In general, I sympathize with independence movements wherever they occur. I don’t always agree with them or think they would be for the best, but I understand why one group of people would feel like they don’t belong with another, and I am very conscious of how difficult it is to get any government to part voluntarily with any part of itself. Spain tried to grant some concessions to Catalonia in 2006, but the nation’s courts ruled many of them illegal and unconstitutional. I’m not surprised that Spain’s government would object to the independence of Catalonia. It is almost a given that a government will cede power and land only to force. Arguably a government’s main purpose is to keep people united, so I don’t expect it just to wave goodbye at any region that happens to vote itself independence. What astonishes me is that people with no stake in the government in question, and who purport to believe that governments are founded on the will of the people, should be so hostile to independence movements. How can a popular democracy insist that no region may legally secede and still be consistent with its principles? How can it be right to force a people to remain in a voluntary union?
In some cases, the creation of a new, independent country out of an older, larger one presents difficulties in international relations. The breakup of Austria-Hungary after WWI left a number of small, unstable, and relatively weak countries in Germany’s vicinity, and these countries were easy targets for German alliance offers — or, in case they refused, for German invasions. Changing gears to the present, the union of Kurds in Turkey, Iraq, and Iran into an independent Kurdistan would introduce a major complication into an already messy international situation in the Near East. Arguably, a landlocked country under Kurdish rule would be unstable and would have unresolved territorial claims against virtually all of its neighbours, which could mean even more warfare. In my view, Kurds have suffered enough and deserve the opportunity to rule themselves; but it’s hard to disagree that the creation of Kurdistan would spawn all sorts of unknown issues that we can’t possibly expect to anticipate.
One hundred years ago, instability in the international system would have been a major concern regarding independence movements. But I can’t believe that anyone seriously expects an independent Catalonia would make war more likely on the Iberian penninsula, any more than one would expect Britain’s exit from the EU to increase the likelihood of war. The same goes for independence movements in the Basque territories, Scotland, Flanders, Northern Italy, and Quebec. So, while most of the West laments every independence movement as a social breakdown, I support them as a chance for people to determine their fate as part of a smaller, more homogeneous group; ironically, as a chance for them to unite more closely to people whose principles they share, rather than to participate anonymously in the ever-widening circle of global culture. Although my optimism is rather limited on this score, count me in Junts pel Sí.
With sadness, I report the death of one of the giants of the history of the Peace of Westphalia, Konrad Repgen. He passed away on Sunday, April 2nd in Bonn, his home for the last 50 years, at the age of 93. In the early 1960’s, he and his advisor, Max Braubach, began the Vereinigung zur Erforschung der Neueren Geschichte (VENG). The name in English would be “Association for the Study of Modern History,” an extremely broad title for an organization that is known chiefly for its publications on the Congress of Westphalia and related areas. The most important of these is the Acta Pacis Westphalicae (APW), a series of dozens of volumes of documents related to the Congress of Westphalia: correspondence, diaries, minutes, official documents, and more. Although some collections on the same theme have appeared before, sometimes with a very similar name, none can compare to the depth and breadth of the APW. Correspondence, which constitutes the bulk of the APW, is extensively annotated, marginalia and corrections noted, enciphered text indicated, with a summary (sometimes quite lengthy) at the beginning of each letter and numbers pointing to the previous and subsequent pieces of correspondence in the series. The editors invariably spent years with their documents and often produced historical monographs based on them. Any scholar working on this subject must be grateful for the enormous effort dedicated to it over a long period of time, with Professor Repgen as its leader for most of its existence. (He retired officially in 1988, but has remained active in the profession and in particular with the VENG.) In recent years, Repgen approved the release of these important, but very large and expensive, books in an electronic form, freely available to anyone and easily searchable (although most volumes were printed with an amazingly detailed index, the ability to search the text for specific words is a major bonus).
His primary interest was Church history and his first contribution to the Peace of Westphalia was a tome on papal policy. To the best of my knowledge, the book began with the Peace of Augsburg (1555) and never got to the Congress of Westphalia. There was supposed to be a second volume but it was not published. The fact that Repgen thought it necessary to go into that much background is typical of his work. He is more noted, I think, for numerous articles on the Peace of Westphalia, as well as other topics, including the Third Reich. In spite of the thoroughness of his writing, he was not afraid to tackle broad questions such as “What is a religious war?” or “The Peace of Westphalia and the origins of the European balance of power”, and one of his articles provides a very helpful summary of the negotiations at Westphalia which is otherwise lacking. In addition to the publication of the APW, as head of the VENG Repgen also fostered many monographs into publication and oversaw the doctoral research of numerous students.
I met Professor Repgen just once when I was doing my dissertation research in Bonn in 1993. He was genial and helpful in the little time I spent with him. Even back then, he seemed like a product of a different era, from the Latin poem inscribed over his fireplace to his traditional approach to diplomatic history. It seemed entirely in character that, when the APW released its first documents online, it was under the heading “Supplementa Electronica”: an ancient language used to describe cutting-edge technology.
It also seems an appropriate symbol of how far Repgen brought the study of the Congress of Westphalia: previously more of a curiousity, we now know it in great depth. There are still plenty of gaps to be filled, but there is no doubt that future scholars working on these lacunae will owe much to Professor Repgen, as I do.
History repeats itself, and historians repeat each other. We are witnessing a case of one or the other in the current situation in Syria, where religious conflict has called to mind the religious conflicts of 16th and 17th century Europe. If Europe ended its religious wars with the Peace of Westphalia, the thinking goes, a new Peace of Westphalia may be the prescription for bringing peace to Middle East.
A quick recap of the events leading up to the first Westphalia: Martin Luther started the Reformation in 1517, and a major competing version of Protestantism arose in the 1530’s under John Calvin. Every Christian state in Europe struggled to come to grips with this movement, but the ones that saw the most fighting between Protestants and Catholics were France, the Low Countries, and the Holy Roman Empire (now Germany). In 1618, civil war broke out in the Empire between Protestants and Catholics, and gradually drew in other European states until nearly the whole Continent was fighting. It was over a generation before the fighting in Germany finally stopped. The settlement, signed in 1648 in two small towns in Westphalia, gave considerable latitude to subordinate rulers within the Empire to manage religious affairs within their realms, while guaranteeing certain basic rights to religious minorities – a federalist solution that would make Americans proud.
Islam has its own problem with disputing versions Shia and Sunni, dating back to the 7th century. Only recently, however, have Westerners begun seeing it as an analogue to Europe’s religious struggles. As long as Sadam Hussein and Bashar Assad managed the religious divisions in their countries, however ruthlessly, the split within Islam was peaceful for the most part. With the breakdown of authority in Iraq and Syria and the bloody wars there between the two Islamic sects, religious differences have suddenly become an international issue of the first order. Unlike the war against generic “Islamic extremists,” which could be viewed in terms of the long-term conflict between the West and Islam, these new civil wars can’t be easily pigeon-holed and are causing analysts to stretch their imaginations to come up with solutions.
As far as I can tell, the first person to compare the situation in Syria with the Peace of Westphalia was Henry Kissinger, in 2012. He did so in entirely conventional terms: Westphalia, he wrote, is the foundation of our international order, and it is based on state sovereignty. Intervening in Syrian affairs would compromise the principle of sovereignty and thereby risk unleashing another Thirty Years’ War on the world. Ironically, within a few years scholars were drawing the exact opposite lessons from the past, seeing the Peace of Westphalia not as a reason to stay out of Syria but as a model for intervention. At least two academic conferences have been organized on the basis of comparing Europe’s religious wars with the Middle East’s, one of them explicitly pointing toward the Peace of Westphalia as a model for a solution.
These scholars are certainly right about one thing: the Peace of Westphalia says nothing about sovereignty or non-intervention. We can blame the tradition of “historians repeating themselves” that the connection between Westphalia and sovereignty ever became popular in the first place, as one writer after another repeated the claim without investigating its origins until it became an unquestionable orthodoxy. Anarchist philosopher Pierre-Joseph Prudhon, who first proposed that Westphalia endorsed the principle of sovereignty (as an aside in an article that he wrote on the much later treaties of 1815), would probably have been astonished how thoroughly his idea informed international relations theory in the second half of the 20th century. Instead of approving non-intervention, Westphalia did the opposite: it endorsed France and Sweden’s intervention in the Holy Roman Empire to protect the rights of religious minorities.
To that extent, it makes sense to look to Westphalia as a model for a peace in Syria that would be brokered by outside powers such as the U.S. and Russia. But if we look at the comparison any closer, we find that it is an exceeding weak model for peace. Whereas the Holy Roman Empire already had a history stretching back 700 years or more by 1648, Syria is a relatively recent creation of the retreating colonial powers that owes more to the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916 than to the sort of organic process that created the Empire over centuries and fostered such a strong sense of unity among its inhabitants. During that time, the Empire had become politically decentralized, managing to continue to exist in spite of the fact that its subordinate duchies, counties, and cities conducted their own foreign policies and even raised their own armies. It was a difficult task, and there was a tendency for border regions of the Empire to become independent (such as the Dutch Republic in 1648) or get incorporated into other states (such as Alsace, which was absorbed into France before the end of the century). Yet it was functional to a surprising extent. The quasi-independent units paid taxes, submitted to Imperial justice, and even waged war as part of the Empire.
It is difficult to imagine Syria surviving a similar decentralization. Hardly anything binds Syrians together that does not also bind them to other people – Muslim Arabs, Kurds, Druze – in neighbouring states. Regional governments exist, but have no tradition of operating independently or of co-ordinating their relations with each other. The division of Syria into smaller, more religiously homogeneous regions would likely result in civil war, possibly leading to re-unification, or to the regions’ withdrawing entirely from Syria and joining with those they share most in common with. Would Syrian Kurds be more likely to stay with Syria or to try to join with other Kurds in Iraq? This even presumes that relatively homogeneous units could be created out of Syria, which may be the case for Sunnis and Shi’ites, and perhaps Kurds, but what about Syria’s other religious groups, such as the Druze (3% of the population) or Christians (10%)? What about people who share a religion but are an ethnic minority, such as Armenians, Turkomens, and Circassians?
Then again, Syria would not have the advantages of settled neighbours the way the Holy Roman Empire did. The Empire was the last Christian state to resolve its religious problems in 1648, so it had little to fear from rebel groups in adjacent countries raiding or fomenting division among its provinces. Syria faces the opposite situation, as Lebanon and Iraq are still violently divided and show no signs of resolving their problems any time soon. To the contrary, it seems certain that extremists on both sides of the Islamic divide will continue to do their best to unify the region under a single religious law; and, failing that, to spread terrorism, fear, and disorder wherever they cannot control. No purely Syrian solution is going to solve the underlying conflict of goals because there are parties that have no intention to restrict themselves to national boundaries. That includes many Syrians, who may be forced to accept an agreement for a time, but are likely to ignore it as soon as the immediate threat is over.
The Westphalian model for Syrian peace, therefore, fails because the historical situations are only superficially similar. The Thirty Years’ War was the last war in Europe fought primarily for religious reasons. Does anyone think that the Syrian civil war will be the last Middle Eastern war fought for religious reasons?
Here is yet another article linking the Syrian civil war with the Peace of Westphalia (and the Thirty Years’ War). I don’t have anything to add to what I’ve already said here and here. The comparison is picking up steam (this is the fourth article that I can recall) in spite of my best efforts to point out that it doesn’t work very well. But, hey, people are talking about the Peace of Westphalia, so it can’t be all bad.
Someone recently brought to my attention a blog post by historian Martin van Creveld arguing that the present state of international relations is comparable to that of the early 17th century, and that we may be at the beginning of another Thirty Years’ War. This puts me once again in the unfortunate position of arguing that the period of history with which I am most familiar bears a lot less similarity to our present situation than some people would like to claim. I thought it would be helpful on the reasons that I disagree with the historical comparison.
It is true that we share some similarities with the situation at the start of the Thirty Years’ War: a multipolar international system, religious division and associated violence, and a rebellion (Bohemia in 1618, Syria in the present day). But the differences go much deeper than the similarities. The religious conflict in our day is quite different from the Protestant-Catholic division in early modern Europe. The Reformation had split a single religion with 1500 years of common history; radical Islam proposes to export its vision of society to places that have never been Islamic. In fact, there is hardly an opposing religion at all in Europe, where secularism is widespread. If there is a religious war, it is all on one side.
Then, too, Islam is at war with itself. The Islamic religious division goes back nearly as long as the religion itself and continues to divide Muslims from each other, often with violent consequences. Even this, however, is not the only or even the decisive division within Islam; rather, it is the vision of fundamentalist Muslims who want to shape society in a narrowly religious fashion against moderate Muslims who have largely accepted the modern framework of individual rights. This is a curious form of religious war in which one religion wages war on all other religions and simultaneously on different forms of itself. It could hardly be more different than the Lutheran, Calvinist, and Catholic conflict in early modern Europe, in which different denominations of the same religion sought above all a safe space for themselves, and, secondarily, the conversion of other Christians to their way of thinking.
The rebellion in Syria also bears little relation to the Bohemian revolt against the Habsburgs. Unlike the political context of the Bohemian revolt, which took place in the Holy Roman Empire, Syria lacks a common history and shared set of political institutions going back 500 years (a point I made in response to another suggestion relating the Peace of Westphalia to Syria). There may be some common feeling among Syria’s diverse population, but it is also likely that Syrian Shi’ites feel more of a bond with Shi’ites in Iraq than with Sunnis in their own country, and that Sunnis also have strong international loyalties. It is true that some German Protestants looked to England or the Netherlands or Sweden for support against the Catholic threat, but only a few of the most radical had any desire to break up the Empire fundamentally. Germans of all denominations were firmly attached to the idea of a German nation with a shared heritage, a fact that consistently frustrated foreign rules who expected greater rewards for their support of co-religionists.
At the same time that this common German bond was a crucial factor in the war, so was the Empire’s uniquely decentralized structure. Its subordinate units — duchies, counties, bishoprics, cities, and other political entities — were functionally independent for many purposes, and carried on relations with foreign powers with virtual impunity. It was no stretch for France or Sweden to sign a treaty with Bavaria or Brandenburg and use it as an excuse to intervene militarily in the war, because it was clear what Bavaria and Brandenburg were; indeed, they maintained their own military force independent of the rest of the Empire, as did many other large estates. There are no such subordinate political entities in Syria, and America’s experience with trying to fund rebels has shown that it is not at all clear which rebels it is supplying with arms and whether a successful overthrow would be beneficial to American foreign policy — or whether it would be a tragic defeat. This doesn’t prevent foreign intervention in Syria, of course, but it makes it a drastically different matter than what happened in the Thirty Years’ War.
Van Creveld compares Iran to France under Richelieu, watching other states fight and covertly supporting whatever parties it chooses. This is true as far as it goes, but that is not very far when one considers that Richelieu is correctly perceived as having sought to isolate religion from politics as much as possible, whereas Iran puts religious goals above politics and “reason of state.” Richelieu was put in his position because he was allied with Protestants of various stripes and needed their support to be successful; Iran would apparently rather lose decisively than sacrifice its religious principles for political gain.
Van Creveld notes that civilian populations bore a heavy cost in both the Thirty Years’ War and in the modern Middle East. That is certainly true, but it is important to distinguish the effect on civilians in areas affected by the fighting from the effect on civilians affected only by terrorist attacks. Tiny numbers of people are killed by terrorism at present. An army in a territory dominates it and is capable of extracting resources and killing virtually at will. Terrorism is committed precisely by groups that don’t control territory and are too small and insignificant to hope to do so. They do not extract resources but rather create fear and uncertainty as a matter of policy. Terrorism, had it been possible in the 17th century, would not have had nearly the same effect because random death (mostly due to natural causes) was so much more common that terrorism would not have brought the shock that it does today. In the Thirty Years’ War, all participants were directly affected by the conflict; in the present war, it is chiefly the states in the Middle East that bear this burden, while those supplying arms and money are affected in much more limited ways.
This brings us to a point of particular importance to me: how would this new “Thirty Years’ War” be resolved? In the 1640’s, the war was ended by a meeting of the major powers at conflict in the Empire: Spain, France, the Netherlands, Sweden, and, of course, Austria. The Empire’s other constituent units had a role because they possessed enough political power to make life difficult for the outside powers, but their participation was largely restricted to internal matters such as religion. There is no conceivable conference of powers that could resolve to end the Middle Eastern conflict. Perhaps they could temporarily end the fighting in Syria, but none of them, even all of them together, has the power to end terrorism and sectarian Islamic fighting at the stroke of a pen. The Empire attracted so much foreign intervention because it was literally at the center of Europe and so much power stood in the balance if one side gained a preponderance of force there. Syria is of minimal strategic importance to the West. If it should happen to be pacified, there are a dozen other countries where Islamic radicals could and would wage war, and even more possibilities for terrorists to train and plan for their next attack. The people with the leading interest in Syria are Syrians and their neighbours, but the fighting in Syria is inchoate and the loci of political authority difficult to identify apart from the Assad regime. Although I have argued that Westphalia was not the origin of state sovereignty in a practical or a theoretical sense, it seems a model of sovereignty compared to the problems facing the Middle East right now. The Thirty Years’ War was chiefly about the arrangement of political authority in the Holy Roman Empire, and it was able to be solved chiefly by allowing power to rest with local units so that no one side could become a danger to the other, or to any neighbouring powers. The war in Syria is about political authority in Syria and in the rest of the Middle East; no purely Syrian solution is going to solve the underlying conflict of goals because there are parties that have no intention to restrict themselves to national boundaries. In that sense, the war in Syria is both less serious in its international repercussions that the war in the Empire, and also much, much harder to resolve. The Thirty Years’ War was the last war in Europe fought primarily for religious reasons. Does anyone think that the Syrian civil war will be the last Middle Eastern war fought for religious reasons?
The recent letter that 47 Republican Senators sent to Iran concerning President Obama’s authority to negotiate has a distant echo in events leading up to the Congress of Westphalia. At the Diet of Regensburg in 1641-42, Imperial estates were disappointed with Emperor Ferdinand III’s unwillingness to accept negotiations with France and Sweden to end the war. While they pressured him to accept the Treaty of Hamburg (1641), which established the framework for a peace conference, they also took direct action by writing to the governments of France and Sweden. Their purpose was to encourage the foreign powers to make peace, at least in part by signalling the willingness of Imperial estates to negotiate, regardless of whether the Emperor seemed to be equally well disposed.
The two events, historical and contemporary, both have their roots in a government where power is shared among different branches. The Emperor had long claimed exclusive authority to conduct foreign policy, but the estates also insisted that they had an advisory role, much as the United States’ Senate must give its advice and consent before a foreign treaty can become law. While no one disputes that the Senate has this role in the United States, it is uncertain whether the letter crosses into the president’s domain of conducting negotiations. The letter also addresses the distinction between an executive agreement, which can be made without the Senate’s consent but which lacks the force of law, and a duly ratified treaty.
One distinction between the events of 1642 and 2015 is that the Imperial Diet wrote in its official capacity as a body representing the Empire. The Republicans’ letter was sent by individual members of the Senate and not in the form of an official act.
Last Friday was Peace of Westphalia Day — the 366th anniversary of the signing of the treaties. I was, appropriately enough, delivering a paper on the Peace of Westphalia. I was at a conference at Columbia University that brought together specialists to compare early modern Europe’s religious wars with the current religious conflicts in the Middle East. This seems like a bit of a stretch for historians, but not so much for political scientists. Fortunately, both I and the other member of my panel, Wayne Te Brake, were open to the comparative perspective. Professor Te Brake is most known for Shaping History: Ordinary People in European Politics, 1500-1700, but he is currently working on a book on the ends of Europe’s religious wars. Hopefully there will be a publication coming out of this conference some time next year.
I recently bought and started to read Henry Kissinger’s latest book, World Order, which begins (of course) with the Peace of Westphalia. Perhaps ironically, he also compares the Thirty Years’ War to contemporary Islamic wars, although from a cynical perspective: “Much like the Middle Eastern conflagrations of our own period, sectarian alignments were invoked for solidarity and motivation in battle but were just as often discarded, trumped by clashes of geopolitical interests or simply the ambitions of outsized personalities” (pp.25-26). You can read my comments on it here.