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Forum on Geopolitics

Department of Politics and International Studies (POLIS)

Studying at Cambridge


Laboratories for World Construction

Laboratories for World Construction

At the Forum on Geopolitics, we have created a space in which we bring together multidisciplinary teams of academics and practitioners to explore potential solutions to knotty, seemingly intractable problems in international geopolitics. These include:

  • Anti-Semitism and European Geopolitics

  • Brexit / Euroexit

  • A Westphalia for the Middle East

  • Russia and Eurasia: towards a new Intermarium

  • The Anglo World and its Enemies

Anti-Semitism and European Geopolitics

The Forum on Geopolitics at POLIS, University of Cambridge, plans to convene a major international conference in Winter 2015-2016, exploring the origins and dynamics of Anti-Semitism in European geopolitics, how historically it was subsequently exported to other regions, and the reasons and manifestations of its return to Europe today. We will examine the religious, racial, economic and intellectual roots of this ancient hatred in its different national and regional contexts. We will explore how Holocaust denial, long prevalent among the far-right fringe in European politics, entered the mainstream in Iran and across the Arab world, where it has often gone hand in hand with annihilatory rhetoric against Israel. The purpose of the conference is to interrogate Anti-Semitism in its widest context and to explore the implications for modern-day policymaking and statecraft. Themes from this conference will then be taken forward to form the basis of one of the Centre's "Laboratories for World Construction."

  • For upcoming events relating to this theme, click here.
  • For reports on past events relating to this theme, click here.

Brexit / Euroexit

As the Eurozone crisis rumbles on, and as the popular political mood of Europe drifts increasingly to the right, the question of Britain's role in the Europe of the 21st century assumes a new, urgent prominence. In 2015 and 2016, the Forum on Geopolitics will convene a series of events to explore various facets of the much-debated 'Brexit', considering whether and how the union should or could be preserved, and were it to be dismantled, whether it is Britain or Europe who should lead the exit.

This project will explore, on the basis of a deep historical understanding, a number of key questions:

    • Can the tension between British concerns for the maintenance of her national sovereignty can be reconciled with the pressing need for the Eurozone to turn itself into a single state in order to deal with urgent fiscal and strategic challenges?
    • Is a full parliamentary Union on Anglo-American lines in fact the only framework that can save the Eurozone?
    • As an exceptional power within Europe which has escaped invasion and occupation for hundreds of years, Britains retains not only a seat on the UN Security Council but also a strong national currency. It will not join a single European state, nor does it really need to. Therefore is what we need a British Europe rather than a European Britain; resulting in not so much a Brexit as a 'Euroexit', in which the common currency area leaves the original EU?
    • Might there be a ‘deal’ to be done in which Britain retained participation in the Single Market and escaped discrimination against the City, in return for a proportionally greater contribution to European security?
    • What are the similarities and differences between the movement for Scottish independence and that for Catalonia, and to what extent can these separate but related drives for nationhood be seen as threats and opportunities for the EU?
    • How would a sovereign United Kingdom co-exist with a single Eurozone state in a new European Confederation within NATO?
  • For upcoming events relating to this theme, click here.
  • For reports on past events relating to this theme, click here.

A Westphalia for the Middle East

Ever since the 1970s, perhaps longer, the Middle East has been in the grip of a new Thirty Years War which echoes that of the seventeenth century. Then, the Habsburg and Bourbon faced off in Germany, Italy and the Low Countries; Emperor and Princes in Germany; and Catholics and Protestants pretty much everywhere. Confessional, political and international conflicts all interpenetrated and produced the most destructive war Europe has ever seen.

Today, the Middle East is riven by religious conflicts, the Israel-Palestine issue, the Iranian question and the competing interest of the great power, resulting in a circle of conflicts to which there is no end in sight.

Can conflict resolution models from the European past help here?

Below is a summary of the Treaty of Westphalia taken from Brendan Simms, Europe the struggle for supremacy, 1453 to the present day (Penguin, 2013).

This 'Laboratory for World Construction' will explore parallels between seventeenth-century Europe and the Westphalia settlement, and the current Middle East. It will offer a space to consider how the solutions found then may be applied today. This is a project of the planned Centre of Geopolitics and Grand Strategy (CoGGS) at the Department for Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge.

  • For upcoming events relating to this theme, click here.
  • For reports on past events relating to this theme, click here.


The Treaty of Westphalia has been seen by generations of international lawyers as the breakthrough for the modern concepts of sovereignty and non-intervention in the domestic affairs of other states. There is something in this, but not much. It is true that the treaty permitted German princes, for the first time, to conclude alliances with foreign powers. In practice, however, they had always done so. Moreover, European statesmen had always encouraged domestic dissidents in rival states and they continued to do so after 1648. In fact, the Westphalian treaties were nothing less than a charter for intervention: by fixing the internal confessional balance within German principalities, they provided a lever for interference throughout the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. They laid down the toleration of the three major confessions, Roman Catholic, Lutheran and Reformed (Calvinist). The political structure of the new Holy Roman Empire, though hierarchic with an emperor at the head, was a sophisticated form of Early Modern consociationalism, in which confessional matters – which was almost everything of substance - had to be settled by compromise rather than majority vote. Within territories, rulers were bound to respect certain rights, including the right to convert. Those religious minorities who had enjoyed toleration in 1624, were not only were guaranteed it for the future, but could not be excluded from certain civic offices.

The revolution effected at Westphalia was also geopolitical. Spain finally acknowledged the independence of the United Provinces, holding on to Flanders and Wallonia. Sweden gained anterior Pomerania – which served as a kind of Calais protecting her southern coastline from attack – as well as the bishoprics or Bremen and Verden, together with their three votes in the German Diet. The Palatine was divided: the upper Palatinate remained with Catholic Bavaria (which was awarded an additional electoral vote), but the critical Lower Palatinate, which lay astride the 'Spanish Road' was restored to the Protestant Charles Ludwig together with the old electoral vote. So there were now eight electors in total. Above all, the Habsburg bid for 'universal monarchy', real or imagined, had been contained. The ghost of Charles V had been laid to rest.

The geopolitical and the ideological clauses of the treaty were closely linked. Both Sweden and France had entered the war in defence of the 'German liberty' they deemed essential to prevent the Habsburgs from over-running the Empire and threatening their own freedom and security. It was for this reason that both France and Sweden insisted on being recognised as 'guarantors' of the Empire and the liberties of its individual 'estates'. This nexus was summed up by the Swedish negotiator Johan Adler Salvius remarked 'the Baltic sea will be the ditch, Pomerania and Mecklenburg will serve as counter-scarp, and the other Imperial estates will be, so to speak, the outer works', of Swedish security. The Swedish chancellor explained further that his aim was 'to restore German liberties...and in this manner to conserve the equilibrium of all Europe'. The link many early modern protagonists made between domestic liberty, the balance of power and the right to intervene could not have been set out more clearly.

Russia and Eurasia: towards a new Intermarium

After the end of the Cold War, the ‘lands between’ joined NATO and the EU. History appeared to have ended.

Over the past few years, however, the invasion of Georgia, the annexation of the Crimea and many other Russian provocations have brought a revival of the Russian territorial and ideological challenge. The United Nations, the EU and even NATO have struggled to contain this threat.

Against this background, our project will examine why Germany and the Mediterranean powers have been so slow to react to the resurgence of Russia. It will also investigate the energy and military vulnerabilities of the ‘lands between’ today.

Above all, the project will explore the chances for a ‘New Intermarum’ rallying Poland, the Baltic and the Black Seas states against Russia, and the extent to which such an enterprise would be inimical or conducive to the wider project of Eurozone political integration.

  • For upcoming events relating to this theme, click here.
  • For reports on past events relating to this theme, click here.

The Anglo-World and its Enemies

After the Second World War, the United States and Great Britain took the lead in constructing a series of transatlantic institutions to organize the Western democracies in common defence against the challenge posed by the Soviet Union. These institutions helped deter and ultimately transform the Soviet Union without resorting to large-scale interstate conflict. However, in the post-Cold War era, the Atlantic Alliance has faced deep-seated structural problems. There remains no common position on how to respond to Russian encroachment in Ukraine and its ambitions in the Baltic or how to deal with Europe’s unstable Middle Eastern and North African periphery, let alone the rise of China or the Iranian nuclear issue. The majority of European members states fail to honor the NATO commitment to spend 2% of GDP on defense. Consequently, the burden falls overwhelmingly on the United States, which spends three times as much on defense as the rest of the alliance put together. Understandably, Americans are growing tired of underwriting a “military welfare state.” As the former U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates cautioned Europeans in 2011, their refusal to invest sufficient funds in their own defense risks dooming the alliance to a “dim and dismal future.” Even the proposed pivot of the United States to East Asia has done little to shake Western European states out of their lethargy. Furthermore, this comes at a time when the sovereign debt crisis in the Eurozone remains unresolved and the risk of Grexit looms ever closer. The technocratic response to the euro crisis has only exacerbated the fundamental democratic deficit at the heart of the European project. This threatens the entire Western security structure.

A new framework is required to ensure greater Euro-Atlantic integration, enhance democratic accountability within transatlantic institutions and encourage closer cooperation on the common security threats that we face. To that end, the Forum on Geopolitics and Grand Strategy is convening a conference on the future of democratic security in the twenty first century, in partnership with the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University. The conference will explore how to enhance the security co-operation between the democracies and investigate whether more formal mechanisms can be established for addressing non-military issues, including political, cultural and economic affairs. Themes from this conference will then be taken forward to form the basis of one of the Centre’s “Laboratories for World Construction.”

  • For upcoming events relating to this theme, click here.
  • For reports on past events relating to this theme, click here.

Upcoming events

Applied History: Possibilities & Pitfalls

Jun 07, 2019

Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge

Upcoming events

« May 2019 »