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Report on 'A Westphalia for the Middle East' Seminar Four: 11 May 2016

last modified Jun 30, 2016 12:56 PM

Report on 'A Westphalia for the Middle East' Seminar Four: 11 May 2016.
'Maintaining the Peace—the impact of Westphalia during the subsequent 150 years'

We held the final instalment of Phase One of the seminar-series on 11 May 2016 at the War Studies Department of King's College London. The speakers and participants discussed the long-term impact of the Peace of Westphalia on central Europe in order to evaluate its success as a peace treaty, and simultaneously assessed the implications this has for framing a long-term solution to the challenges faced in the contemporary Middle East.

The main speakers were:

  • Keynote: Jonathan Powell (InterMediate)
  • Patrick Milton (FU Berlin)
  • Andrew C. Thompson (Cambridge)
  • Volker Arnke (Osnabrück)
  • Frank Kleinehagenbrock (Würzburg)

Chairing the panels and commentating were:

  • John Bew (KCL)
  • Laura James (Cambridge)
  • Michael Axworthy (Exeter)
  • Ali Ansari (St. Andrew's)
  • Andreas Whittam Smith (First Church Estates Commissioner)

The participants were welcomed by co-convenors Brendan Simms (Cambridge) and Michael Axworthy (Exeter), who also officiated as chairman of the convenors.

The following points emerged from the presentations and discussions:

  • An important aspect of the Peace of Westphalia's long-term impact was the innovative guarantor system, whereby the settlement and its terms were guaranteed by the signatories: it set up a collective security system encompassing the internal guarantors (Emperor and princes) and the external guarantors (France and Sweden). The external guarantee integrated this system into the broader international order of Early Modern Europe.
  • The guarantee became most salient when the integrity and the constitutional balance of the Empire was under threat. This threat often emanated from one or more of the guarantors themselves (Emperor/French king). Remaining guarantors would then usually step in and defend the Westphalian order—either out of ideological conviction, or geopolitical self-interest (these considerations often merged). As the Emperor could not be forced to adhere to Imperial law through internal judicial mechanisms, the external guarantee was widely seen among Germans as a welcome complement to the existing structure. This additional level of external control probably encouraged restraint on the part of both Emperor and princes, deterring obvious breaches of the peace and the law, and incentivising the respecting of confessional rights and princely prerogatives enshrined at Westphalia. The guarantor system also displayed an ability to evolve and grow in response to shifting international currents: Sweden's geopolitical decline over the course of the 18th century made it less capable of exercising the guarantee effectively (although it remained officially bestowed with that status until the demise of the Empire in 1806), while Russia's concurrent (and commensurate) advance was reflected in its acquisition of the guarantor status in 1779. A guarantor system for the Middle East would need to be similarly flexible in order to adapt to changing circumstances.
  • The system of a pacific, pacifying, non-expansionary European centre policed by flanking guarantor powers depended on the guarantors' non-abuse of their position for the advancement of power-political self-interest.
  • There was a widespread normative acceptance in the Holy Roman Empire of the principle of outside intervention for the protection of rights/liberties, and a corresponding entrenched tradition of Germans seeking foreign assistance: this, along with the decentralised nature of the Empire, was possibly a pre-condition for an effective external guarantor system, as was the guarantors' own restraint.
  • Despite the application of this principle being the most loaded in the context of the Middle East, many participants believed that an analogous external guarantee would be central to a future solution. The comparable consensus deficit on issues such as norms and the law, however, would make this challenging. In order to find appropriate external guarantors for a future Middle Eastern settlement, one would need to establish mechanisms that reflect prevailing power distributions, but that also possess legitimacy. Some suggested that Europe in the Early Modern period had a greater degree of cultural homogeneity than the Middle East now. In that sense Sweden and France as guarantors were not as 'external' as the USA and the EU would be to the Middle East, for example. The UN might be the only potential external guarantor with sufficient legitimacy as it contains Middle Eastern representation, although its legitimacy to some extent comes at the cost of effectiveness. For an external guarantee system to be effective it needs to be backed up by military force. While the US and the EU would be reluctant to sign up to a guarantee entailing a potentially military commitment, Saudi Arabia and Iran might be. However, in this context one must be cognisant of the risk of guarantor interventions exacerbating existing tensions on the ground, due to their actions being guided solely by self-interest, as was the case in France's guarantee under Louis XIV. Therefore, identifying a constellation whereby guarantors' perceptions of their interests most closely match the upholding of an overall structure is crucial. Interventionism has always existed in the Middle East, as in Early Modern central Europe, and the contribution of the lessons of Westphalia and its guarantee could include the development of a rules-based framework for intervention. In the contemporary Middle East, depending on the case in question, there is often either too much or too little intervention. A failure to intervene can have more disastrous consequences than intervening (migration crises, humanitarian disasters, and the expansion of militant-held territory)
  • While the external guarantee of Westphalia was important for the longevity of the settlement in central Europe, its internal guarantee was at least as important. In safeguarding the optimised Imperial constitution, the Empire and the princes thereby guaranteed themselves in a recalibrated set-up. A central aspect of this was the improved religious constitution, which successfully banished religious war from central Europe from then onwards.
  • The long-term value of the framework established at Westphalia was that it protected minority rights (of the three main recognised confessions) throughout the Empire. This helped to transform the perception of toleration from a vice to a virtue, and further strengthened a political culture based on the primacy of legality, that eschewed principles of 'might is right'.
  • Instead of confessional conflict being eradicated, it was transformed into legal processes – another example of the 'juridification' of conflict characteristic of the Holy Roman Empire. Litigation was thus crucial in defusing tensions and turning 'hot' conflict into 'moderate' tension, such as during the German confessional crisis of 1719, which did not result in armed hostilities.
  • The prince-bishopric (territorial state) of Osnabrück was examined as a case-study where special tailor-made arrangements were devised to ensure successful peaceful cohabitation of the confessions. As a compromise, it was determined that the ruler (who governed for life from the time of his appointment) would alternate between a Catholic elected by the local cathedral chapter, and a Protestant appointed by neighbouring Brunswick-Lüneburg. While confessional disputes continued on the ground, these were largely defused through litigation, negotiations and diplomacy, rather than being settled by force.
  • From the Middle East perspective this could help provide guidance on how to translate chaos into pluralism through institutionalisation as a reference point, which is still lacking in the region (although it was noted that there are legal traditions that could serve as a basis, and that one should not assume a 'blank slate'). However, the risk of institutionalising confessional antagonisms and binaries by embedding them into legal structures was also discussed. One of the chief triggers of confessional disputes in the post-Westphalian Empire was princely conversions, which is absent in the Middle East. The potentially fruitful application of Osnabrück-style sharing arrangements at the micro-level in the Middle East, such as in Jerusalem, was noted. In fact, such carefully calibrated local-level sharing arrangements that were conducive to confessional co-existence did formerly exist in places such as Syria and Yemen, but have now been swept away.
  • The existence of two supreme judicial tribunals as high courts of the Holy Roman Empire was a crucial aspect of the defence of the peace terms of Westphalia, and of the 'juridification' of conflict in general. The courts served more as mediators between princes in conflict than as definitive suppliers of verdicts (although this also occurred). By including both Catholics and Protestants among its judges, the courts regained a degree of confidence among both religious groupings (although the latter often complained of bias).
  • By accepting appeals from subjects who could sue their rulers at the courts, the Imperial judiciary acted as a 'safety-valve' against pent-up popular discontent which could have erupted into Arab Spring-style unrest. The courts helped to maintain the status-quo and in particular the 'conditional sovereignty' that limited Imperial princes' freedom of action in confessional and other matters, by overseeing and policing their conduct, including their treatment of subjects. This recognition that 'Westphalian sovereignty' is a myth is important as a belief in the Westphalian myth has a deleterious practical effect on policy-making today. It was also noted that the UN already has a courts system with international competence as well as conflict-resolution mechanisms.
  • It is sometimes claimed that the heterogeneity of actors in the Middle East undermines the chances of reaching an effective settlement. But the Holy Roman Empire also contained diverse actors. There was a greater degree of normative consensus in the regions affected by the Thirty Years War than in the Middle East now, but the Westphalia treaties were successful in developing that consensus and building norms to a new level that prevented conflict. The success of Westphalia shows what can be achieved if all parties can be brought to focus on mutual confidence-building and norm-establishment.