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Report on A Westphalia for the Middle East: Session 1

last modified Mar 08, 2016 12:43 PM

We held the first Seminar of the series 'A Westphalia for the Middle East' on the afternoon of 2 March in the Department of War Studies, King's College London, in front of a large and lively audience.

The Seminar took place under the title 'The Development of the Middle Eastern Problem since 1914 and the Failure of Sovereignty'. It was intended to set the scene for the remaining seminars in the first part of the series, by setting out the nature of the problem in the Middle East (ME), with some preliminary commentary about the Westphalia analogy; emphasising the need to distinguish between the real Westphalia, and the myth.

Some of the main points that emerged included -

  • The importance, albeit elusive, of religion; even if it is not always or necessarily the prime motivating factor, it was used as a cover for hegemonic aggrandizement for example, and as in the 17th century, for state-building; sectarianism could also fuel fear and potential miscalculation about the motives of other actors.
  • State-building in the ME had historically been a forced rather than an organic process, moving from nationalism to sectarianism. Sovereignty had been only conditional for many countries in the ME for much of their history.
    the agency of local actors should not be overlooked; the tendency to blame outside intervention for all the problems of the region was too prevalent.
  • Although the current crisis in the ME was unmanageable in its severity and complexity and had gone beyond the capability of external forces to control it, both too much and too little outside involvement in the region could be detrimental to its stability and chances for reconstruction.
  • The disintegration of Syria had had political causes, but sectarianism had been exploited by the Assad regime and various other parties to protect and aggrandise their positions (echoing the first point) - the 1989 Taif agreement in Lebanon and its outcome was potentially a case study for our project as an attempted solution to the Lebanese civil war with some Westphalia-style features.
  • Iraq had broken up and new entities had appeared; IS was popular with at least some Sunnis, and was the prime enemy for none of the other regional actors. A new state model could be emerging; a kind of managed chaos of peripheral states with spheres of influence, and power centres with vaguely defined hinterlands.
  • There was no regional integration in the Middle East; outside help would be needed to create a regional structure that could accommodate diverse confessions and ethnicities— diachronic analysis could demonstrate ways in which a Westphalia-style order could deliver mechanisms capable of defusing social and religious tensions.
  • Some questioned the possibility of a Westphalia solution in a region marked by bad state actors that were not honest brokers; there was also a radical legitimacy problem with outside intervention.
  • Nevertheless, several participants also noted the unlikelihood of ME actors coming together to resolve problems collectively without external participation; the P5+1 talks with Iran had been a constructive precedent for diplomatic engagement by external powers with the region; others remarked on personal experience of people from the region asking about the history of religious strife in Europe and the solutions that had been found for it.
  • The feasibility of applying conditional sovereignty – a flexible concept that did not simply stand for partition or any other single form of solution.
  • The unwieldy complexity of the problem; pointing to the need for flexibility and variable geometry in any possible solution – something that a Westphalia approach could offer.

We agreed the lively discussion had confirmed both the level of interest in the subject-matter, and the validity of the concept of analogy between 17th century Europe and the Middle East now.

Our next seminar will be on 19 March, in Cambridge, when we will be starting to explore the 16th—17th century experience in more detail.

This series has been supported by the DAAD (German Academic Exchange Service) with funds from the Federal Foreign Office (FFO) and by Institution Quraysh for Law & Policy. It is being run in conjunction with King's College London and the University of Exeter.

We urge everyone to keep coming and to keep contributing as they did so effectively on 2 March. In particular, we are looking forward to the second phase of the project, which will take place in the first months of 2017; this is planned in outline but we are still very much open to ideas and offers for participation.