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Centre for Geopolitics

Providing historically-grounded solutions to enduring geopolitical problems
DAAD Workshop on “Westphalia for the Middle East“

On Wednesday, December 4th, the Forum on Geopolitics organized a one-day workshop on its “Westphalia for the Middle East” project, made possible by the generous support of the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) Cambridge Research Hub with funds from the German Federal Foreign Office. The meeting was building on a previous workshop held in Cambridge in May this year. The participants consisted of experts on the history of the thirty years war and the Peace of Westphalia as well as on current Middle Eastern politics.  (Participants listed at the end).


Two themes were at the core of this event. The first session evolved around the idea of Building on existing peace frameworks. After all, several peace treaties such as the 1979 Camp David Agreements, the 1994 Israel-Jordan peace treaty or the Iranian Nuclear talks already exist in the current Middle East, dealing with particular sub-issues of overall conflict in the region. Similarly, the Westphalian peace did not emerge out of nowhere, but rather built on previous efforts to end the Thirty Years War throughout the conflict in the Holy Roman Empire and among the European great powers. For example, the annus normalis, or normative year, regulation of the Westphalian peace originated in the 1635 Treaty of Prague. Westphalia itself to an extent represents a continuation of previous peace negotiations, concluded at Hamburg in 1641. The key question Dorothee Goetze from the Rheinische Friedrichs-Wilhelms-Universität focused on in her presentation on this phenomenon was, therefore, what the key difference between previous talks and those at Munster and Osnabruck was which enabled Westphalia to end the Thirty Years War. In her analysis, one important reason for this was the open nature of Westphalia, where a broad base of participants meant that numerous actors and issues could be addressed and bound into a final solution. Moreover, she stressed how pragmatism and innovation shaped the search for agreement, which enabled the ‘peacemaker’ in 1648 to reach solutions where their predecessors had failed. In his response, Ali Ansari (St. Andrews) picked up these points, warning that if one approaches a problem over a long period of time without success, one might have to reconsider one’s tools and pragmatically search for alternatives. The following discussion by the participants evolved around questions such as the personal networks of negotiators, the legitimacy of negotiation partners and the question of who could or indeed would have to participate if a similarly comprehensive peace conference would be envisaged for the Middle East today.


The theme of the second and final session of the workshop was Overcoming hostility toward the Other. Niels May from the German Historical Institute in Paris stressed how a key element of Westphalia was that never before so many different actors (more than 160) with such a multitude of interests had come together. This multitude was reflected in diverse negotiations styles and processes. While he warned to overestimate the idea of a common Christian culture as basis for the negotiations, he rather pointed to the ability of personal networks established through face-to-face communication which kept the process of talking going over several years and ultimately led to its culmination in success. As such, the final agreement 1648 came out of dynamics within the negotiations which were neither planned nor foreseen, and indeed at times were against the initial interests of the large powers. Picking up on Dr. May’s remarks, Nadia al-Bagdadi from CEU stressed the need to include measures of reconciliation and transitional justice in any efforts to achieve peace in the Middle East today. As example of why this is necessary, she named the 1989 Taif Agreement: while it managed to the halt the Lebanese civil war, it also enshrined confessionalism and social inequality in Lebanese politics which haunt the country’s politics up to this day, in a fashion that was analogous to Westphalia’s imprinting of the confessional divisions onto the constitution of the Holy Roman Empire, thus shifting sectarian conflict from the battlefield to the judicial-legal arena. The following discussion circled around the question of timing for reconciliation and transitional justice, the question of leadership within negotiations and cultures of memory within the conflict.


Amongst the many themes discussed in the workshop, the need to think pragmatically and creatively about solutions came out very clearly. It was also noteworthy how the historians of the period stressed that Westphalia was an open process whose outcome was anything but clear at the start. Any considerations about finding solutions for the Middle East should take those points as intellectual inspiration and background information.



  • Professor Ali Ansari
  • Dr Patrick Milton
  • Dr Thomas Peak
  • Dr Dorothee Goetze
  • Dr Alia Brahimi
  • Mr Philipp Hirsch
  • Professor Aziz Al-Azmeh
  • Professor Nadia Al-Bagdadi
  • Dr Shahira S. Fahmy
  • Dr Niels May