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Centre for Geopolitics

Providing historically-grounded solutions to enduring geopolitical problems
Series report: "A Westphalia for the Middle East Phase I"

Report on Phase One of the seminar series and project “A Westphalia for the Middle East”

Dr. Michael Axworthy (University of Exeter)
Dr. Patrick Milton (Freie Universität Berlin)
Prof. Brendan Simms (University of Cambridge)


  1. Summary of themes and main results  
  2. The Middle Eastern Problem  
  3. The Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation  
  4. Crisis and War in early seventeenth-century central Europe and in the current Middle East  
  5. The Peace of Westphalia: peace negotiations at the congress towns of Münster and Osnabrück  
  6. Westphalia: applicable to the Middle East?  
  7. Westphalia’s impact in Central Europe, and the implications for a possible ‘Westphalian’ settlement in the Middle East  
  8. Lessons for the Middle East   
  9. Impact   

1. Summary of themes and main results

‘A Westphalia for the Middle East’ is a project and seminar series convened by Michael Axworthy (Exeter), Brendan Simms (Cambridge), and Patrick Milton (FU Berlin), with financial assistance from the DAAD-Cambridge Research Hub for German Studies, and Institution Quraysh for Law and Policy. It constitutes one of several ‘Laboratories for World Construction’—policy-oriented and collaborative research projects which are run by the University of Cambridge’s new Forum on Geopolitics, established by Prof. Simms in 2015 at the Department of Politics and International Studies. The Laboratories assemble informed multi-disciplinary teams of academics and practitioners with the aim of tackling the most pressing, and seemingly intractable, current international geopolitical challenges through rigorous analysis, deep historical knowledge, and research.

As one such Laboratory, ‘A Westphalia for the Middle East’ investigates how lessons from the experience of confessional and power-political strife in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Central Europe can be used to inform steps toward the resolution of contemporary conflict in the Middle East, given the analogous nature of the conflicts and constellations in both epochs. Specifically, the aim is to determine how seventeenth-century central European conflict-resolution models relating to the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation – chiefly the Peace of Westphalia (1648) which ended the Thirty Years War, and its mechanisms of politico-confessional co-existence – could serve as an inspiration for attempts to solve the geopolitical and sectarian challenges of the contemporary Middle East. A particular concern of the analysis has been to avoid (and refute) the widespread and tenacious myth that Westphalia inaugurated a system of state sovereignty and non-intervention in domestic affairs.

Phase One of the series consisted of four seminars and took place between March and May 2016 at the University of Cambridge, and at King’s College London. The purpose of this phase was to investigate the early modern European experience in depth, in order to extract key insights and questions for Phase Two (planned for 2017), during which the outlines of a Westphalia-inspired peace settlement for the Middle East will be developed in greater detail. The seminars brought together three constituencies which have hitherto operated largely independently of each other: experts on Early Modern German history, specialists on the Middle East, and policy practitioners, in order to create an innovative forum for discussion and to explore and test the application of history laterally and counter-intuitively. Each speaker’s presentation on the Thirty Years War and Westphalia received commentary by a respondent with Middle East expertise. The three seminars focussing on early modern central Europe were preceded by an introductory session identifying the main Middle Eastern problems that need to be addressed. As was the case with the subsequent sessions, each presentation by experts on the Middle East had an assigned early modernist as a commentator. This set-up served to integrate the two parts of the project, constantly stressing the comparative aspects of the analysis.

The speakers demonstrated that far from enshrining a system of independent state sovereignty and non-intervention, the treaties of Westphalia actually increased the scope for appeal from within states to supra-statal legal institutions, and for external intervention in domestic matters, while also securing minority religious rights on a more secure footing. This occurred through the opening up of domestic confessional matters and rights to international scrutiny, and by empowering external guarantors to intervene in defence of stipulations which often dealt with local inhabitants’ liberties. Just as the legal norms established by Westphalia served to dampen conflict, provide means for the settlement of disputes and outlaw violence even, to some extent, when they were breached, so the establishment or re-establishment of similar norms through a treaty, with similar mid-to-long-term effects, must be the aim of a settlement in the contemporary Middle East.  The conflicts leading up to the conclusion of the peace of Westphalia and those affecting the Middle East were found to be broadly analogous; in many cases the closer we examined the detail, more parallels emerged. Therefore the project concept, of using Westphalia not as a blueprint for a new treaty for the Middle East, but rather as a toolbox of potential elements toward a future solution, appeared justified. Objections and challenges from regional experts were met and welcomed: rather than presenting findings, the purpose of the series was to create a space for the exchange of knowledge, and for debate, and to arrive at new insights together. Speakers and commentators included Ronald G. Asch, Ali Ansari, Volker Arnke, Michael Axworthy, John Bew, Philip Bobbitt, Guido Braun, Maria-Elisabeth Brunert, Malik Dahlan, Ralf-Peter Fuchs, Payam Ghalehdar, Martin Jacques, Laura James, Michael Kaiser, Christoph Kampmann, Frank Kleinehagebrock, Raphael Lefevre, Toby Matthiesen, Patrick Milton, Jonathan Powell, Michael Rowe, Mohammad Shabani, Brendan Simms, Andreas Whittam Smith, Gareth Stansfield, Andrew C. Thompson, Anuschka Tischer, David Trim, and Peter H. Wilson.

2. The Middle Eastern Problem

Before diving in to the details of early modern German history to identify which features and mechanisms could be useful for future peace-making in the Middle East, we needed first to set out the nature of the problem, to establish why something like a Westphalian solution is needed, and how it could be applied.

The prime current trauma is plainly the continuing strife in Syria, which draws in both regional actors and powers beyond the region to fight a proxy war, while facilitating the rise of Islamic State/Daesh. But that conflict has linked up with the continuing strife in Iraq, where IS/Daesh have made major gains: it was necessary to recognise that IS/Daesh enjoyed substantial support from some Sunni communities. There is serious fighting elsewhere in the wider region, notably in Yemen and in Libya; the situation in Bahrain is still tense and there is concern that conflict could spill over into other states where the confessional and ethnic balance is delicate, such as Lebanon and Jordan. The long-running dispute between Israel and the Palestinians is still unresolved.  Above and beyond the immediate local conflicts and tensions, the regional rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and the related confessional tension between Sunni and Shia, have become a major factor in fuelling conflict. The confessional disputes, the use of proxies and the way outsiders are drawn into conflict out of a perceived need to protect their own security all echo the historical experience of Europe, and particularly Germany, in the seventeenth century.

It was striking that just as historians debate the role of religion in the conflicts of seventeenth-century Europe, so also, while some analysts argue against religion as the motivating force in contemporary conflict in the Middle East, favouring the influence of underlying geopolitical or economic factors instead, others continue to stress the direct effect of sectarian hostility. Speakers observed that external intervention had lost credibility since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, but others pointed out that a Westphalia-style peace conference, or indeed any lasting settlement, was hard to envisage without the facilitating role of external powers. The P5+1 talks with Iran had been a constructive precedent for diplomatic engagement by external powers with the region.

The European-style state system established in the Middle East after the demise of the Ottoman Empire was widely perceived to have broken down, without any adequate replacement having emerged. Participants recognised that the Westphalia myth, in appearing to support a European-based model of independent nation-states, may have contributed to this failure. 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 Middle East 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 stability and chances for reconstruction. One of the prime messages of the Westphalia settlement, the success of the concept of conditional sovereignty, is of great relevance and potentially of great benefit in the Middle East context.

3. The Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation

The Peace of Westphalia was simultaneously an international peace treaty between the Emperor and the crowns of France and Sweden, along with their respective princely allies at the end of the Thirty Years War, and a fundamental constitutional law for the Holy Roman Empire. Its peace-conserving terms and constitutional mechanisms thus applied first and foremost to the specificities of that polity. For this reason, any discussion of whether, or how, to apply lessons from Westphalia to a contemporary context requires a basic grasp of what kind of an entity the Empire was.  The absence or relative absence in the Middle East of such an overarching legal-political framework was noted at various points during the discussions, though others noted that the region should not be regarded as a blank slate, and that there were traditions and structures that could form a basis for future development.

Despite an unresolved historiographical debate about whether or not the Empire was a state, and if so, what kind of state, most historians now agree on the basics. It was a mixed monarchy in which functions of statehood and sovereignty were shared among complementary levels: 1. The complex hierarchy of hundreds of Imperial Estates (Reichsstände - princely territories or Imperial cities) at the lower level; 2. The ten regional districts (Reichskreise) encompassing several neighbouring Imperial Estates at the intermediary level; and 3. The handful of central Imperial institutions—the Imperial Diet (Reichstag), the supreme Imperial judicial tribunals (Reichshofrat and Reichskammergericht), the Imperial chancery (Reichskanzlei), and the office of the Emperor—at the higher level. At least among the political and social elites of the Empire, there was a strong sense of belonging and of proto-nationhood which developed over the course of a millennium, and in which the recognition of the Emperor’s overlordship was virtually unchallenged for most of the Empire’s long history. The overlordship of the office of the emperorship existed in three capacities: as the head of a political hierarchy of Estates, as the judicial apex of a legal system whereby the Emperor was the highest judge, and as the feudal overlord over all other fief-holders in the Imperial realm.

But the Emperor was by no means an absolute ruler over a centralised monarchy. According to the protean body of treaties, laws and customary practice collectively constituting the Imperial constitution, the numerous constituent parts of the Empire—the Imperial Estates, i.e. territories ruled by princes of varying ranks, or city-councils—possessed considerable prerogatives associated with statehood. These included the ability to conduct individual foreign policies (including the right to wage war, conclude peace and alliances, dispatch embassies), and the right to rule over their subject populations (including the administration of territorial justice and the raising of taxes according to customary practice). The Emperor himself was an Imperial Estate in his hereditary lands of Austria and Bohemia (the Habsburg Monarchy) and was elected by the seven, later nine, highest-ranking Imperial Estates, the prince-electors. The Imperial Estates were the ‘immediate’ subjects of the Emperor (their subjecthood to the Emperor was not mediated through any intervening lord), while the population groups within the Imperial Estates were subjects both of their territorial prince, but also the ‘mediate’ subjects of the Emperor.

4. Crisis and War in early seventeenth-century central Europe and in the current Middle East

The fundamental problem behind the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) was competing visions of constitutional balance, which occurred on two levels: between the prerogatives of the emperor and those of the princes, as well as between the princes (including the Habsburg emperor as an Imperial Estate) and their respective subject populations within their territories. The question of how the confessional divisions caused by the Reformation should be managed and accommodated by the Imperial constitution was related to both of these issues. The speakers highlighted the Imperial-constitutional and confessional, as well as the international dimensions of the crisis which plunged central Europe into three decades of destructive warfare, prolonged and exacerbated by external interventions (Denmark 1625, Sweden 1630, France 1635).

The analogy between the two epochs and periods naturally demands an imaginative leap, in light of the intervening four centuries and contrasting political, socio-cultural and economic contexts. Nevertheless, many of the basic constellations were found to be remarkably similar: the length and intensity of conflict; the staggering complexity of the disputed issues; the importance of internal rebellions escalating into wider conflicts; the sucking in of foreign powers and exporting of instability; the intensity of religious animosity among militants; the multipolarity of the international context; the existence of numerous non-democratic monarchical princely dynasties; the fusion (and confusion) of confessional and political/constitutional matters; the terrible intensity of human suffering; the exploitation of new forms of information technology to exacerbate sectarianism; the fading of a unifying effect of hostility to the Ottomans and to Israel. Participants also discussed the phenomenon of the return of religion as a destabilising factor in both contexts: early seventeenth-century Europe and in recent Middle Eastern history. Despite structural deficiencies (chiefly the ignoring of subjects’ concerns in what was a state-centric solution), the 1555 Religious Peace of Augsburg had established a durable working compromise between Catholic and Lutheran princes (inaugurating the second longest period of peace in German history, surpassed only by 1945—present), but Imperial politics became confessionally confrontational again from late-sixteenth century, as have sectarian relations in the Middle East in the last thirty-or-so years.

The participants recognised the relevance of often contentious historiographical debates among experts on the Thirty Years War to the accuracy and persuasiveness of the Middle East/early modern European parallels. On one side of the debate, the interpretation of the Thirty Years War as not being a religious war, but instead resulting from competing interpretations of the Imperial constitution in which confession was enmeshed with law and politics—an Imperial Civil War—seems to paint a picture less analogous to the Middle East than other interpretations of the Thirty Years War, which stress the role of growing confessional antagonism and polarisation in the road to conflict, and the importance of incremental internationalisation in its perpetuation.

5. The Peace of Westphalia: peace negotiations at the congress towns of Münster and Osnabrück

Having established the broadly analogous nature of conflict preceding the Peace of Westphalia in central Europe and that in the current the Middle East, the main parts of the seminar discussions turned to the nature of Westphalia as a possible inspiration for a future Middle East settlement.

The speakers demonstrated that peace negotiations continued throughout the Thirty Years War, in parallel to hostilities. Although there were several important breaks in the fighting when it seemed as if peace had been achieved (1623-24, 1629-30, 1635), peace-making proved to be a more challenging task than expected, and it took five years of negotiations (1643-48) at the Westphalian congress towns of Münster and Osnabrück for definitive treaties to finally be concluded. A lasting peace was so elusive because there was a repeated failure to engage in effective crisis containment. As the war was fought over competing visions of the chiefly confessional elements of the constitutional balance of the Empire, the Habsburgs’ practice of punishing and dispossessing enemies (both noble subjects in their hereditary lands, and Imperial Estates) as ‘notorious rebels’, created an altered constitutional balance in favour of a more hierarchical, centralised Imperial monarchy. This in turn triggered foreign (Danish, Swedish, and French) interventions by powers who saw the transformation of the Empire into a power potentially capable of power-accretion and -projection as a threat to their own interests (especially given the Emperor’s family alliance with Habsburg Spain). The expropriation and displacement of rebel nobles produced large exile communities around which other Habsburg enemies could rally, and helped to recruit troops for use by the foreign intervening powers. Because systems of regular war financing collapsed from the 1620s, rebel lands and territories needed to be redistributed to allies to ensure their continued assistance. The inability to return these as concessions without losing the means to achieve victory perpetuated conflict. The belligerents fought on not to exterminate the enemy but to achieve an acceptable settlement, which paradoxically made it more difficult to end the war.

The eventual success of the peace negotiations at Westphalia was in no small measure due to the participation of most Imperial Estates, which made it a ‘universal’ (i.e. general, multilateral) congress, and permitted the achievement of a compromise settlement which was satisfactory to all members of the Empire. An all-inclusive congress on this scale was unprecedented and it was the willingness of the participants to explore unknown diplomatic terrain that helped the congress succeed. The role of informal discussion among the envoys and dignitaries in developing more formal structures, and eventually, treaty provisions, was important to the success of Westphalia. Also vital was the late arrival on the scene of a core grouping of princes from both religions who were prepared to compromise and who acted as informal mediators between the emperor and foreign crowns. Such a cross-confessional party was unprecedented and greatly propelled the peace process forward in its final phase. The increased activism of the Imperial princes to the peace process in 1647–48 amounted to an ultimatum to Emperor Ferdinand III (r. 1637–57), forcing him to reach a settlement or risk losing their support entirely. This intervention occurred at a crucial moment when the congress risked complete collapse as it had become clear that the Spanish–French peace accord, which was also being negotiated, would not be achievable at Münster (it was only concluded at the Treaty of the Pyrenees in 1659). The intervention of this “third party” thus ensured that, although a universal peace accord would be unattainable, peace would be secured in the crucial central European theater of the Empire.

The settlement reached at Westphalia consisted of three main elements: a reformed Imperial constitution; related to this, a revamped religious settlement for the Empire; and an international peace treaty. The peace treaties re-activated the ‘Eternal Territorial Peace’ that had been proclaimed throughout the Empire in 1495. This Eternal Peace, together with the simultaneous establishment of a supreme Imperial judicial tribunal whose jurisdiction extended between and within the Imperial Estates, and at which ruling princes could be convicted, had arranged the Empire as an order of peaceful legality. This order of collective security had outlawed inter-territorial violence and provided for the judicial—as opposed to the military—settlement of conflicts. The Religious Peace of 1555 had been an attempt to integrate the confessional factor into the constitutional framework predicated upon peace and the rule of law. It embodied, for the first time, the recognition of the importance of managing religious coexistence legally and politically within the framework of the Eternal Peace, while bracketing out intractable questions of theological truth. It was this basic framework that was optimised at Westphalia, by extending the protection of the Eternal Peace to Calvinists as a third recognised confession, and by reducing the excessive authority of princes over their subjects in religious matters.  

The participation of the Imperial Estates affected the eventual balance between the Emperor’s and the princes’ prerogatives that was reached with the adjusted constitutional settlement of 1648. According to the compromise, the princes’ ‘territorial superiority’ was enshrined, giving them a degree of political autonomy, as was their right of participating in decisions on major Imperial policy areas, concluding alliances with other Imperial Estates and foreign powers, maintaining armies, waging war and making peace. On the other hand, their alliance-making capacity was limited by the caveat that alliances must not be directed against the Emperor, the Empire or the peace settlement. The princes remained subjects of the Emperor as their feudal and judicial overlord, and the Empire and its supreme courts retained judicial oversight over their territories and jurisdiction within them. The still-widespread view of an ‘Westphalian system’ that supposedly created an order of equal, sovereign states that do not intervene in each other’s domestic affairs is therefore fallacious.

The true diplomatic masterstroke of the peace settlement was its optimised religious constitution, which laid the foundation for an improved ‘juridification’ of sectarian conflict. After long negotiations and numerical haggling, 1624 was selected as the ‘normative year’ according to which the confessional possessions, rights of public (demonstrative) worship, and the confessional status of each territory were frozen. The princes’ ability to impose their faith onto their subjects through the ‘Right of Reformation’ was thereby effectively abolished. Princely conversions (a possible parallel in the Middle East being revolutions) should no longer have consequences for the subject populations’ religious liberties. A graded form of toleration was applied to all adherents of the recognised confessions. The success of the normative year derived from its gradual acceptance, during the 1630s and 40s, as a benchmark for the re-setting of confessional conditions to a mutually agreed, negotiated point in time. It can be rated as a successful peace-seeking effort on the part of electoral Saxony and other Imperially loyal, Lutheran princes. It was an innovative vehicle for the re-establishment of trust, which had been eroded between the confessional groups from the later sixteenth-century.

As an international peace treaty, Westphalia granted the foreign crowns a limited amount of territory from the Empire as ‘compensation’ for their efforts at defending ‘German Freedom’ (princely prerogatives) on behalf of the Imperial Estates. While Sweden, and indirectly France, had also championed Protestant rights at the peace congress, both crowns were frustrated at the tenacious loyalty of the Imperial Estates to its Empire, a factor which scuppered proposals of radical curtailments of the Emperor’s prerogatives and authority. The external guarantee of the peace settlement by France and Sweden was of long-term significance because it provided the crowns with a right to intervene in the Empire, after a certain sequence of steps, in order to defend Westphalian terms and stipulations.

6. Westphalia: applicable to the Middle East?

The relative absence of normative consensus on legitimacy and an overarching political framework in the Middle East was noted as an impediment to a successful implementation of an analogous peace settlement; centuries of co-existence under the feudal-political and legal umbrella of the Empire produced a tenacious sense of belonging despite civil war, and the Imperial constitution was a shared reference system in Germany. These factors explain the continual willingness among most belligerents to countenance peace and contributed to the success of the treaties, which were explicitly conceived as a pax christiana (Christian Peace). The development of a comparable framework in the Middle East merits consideration; indeed the widespread desire in the Middle East for the achievement of a stabilising and pacifying overall structure was noted. The former Ottoman Empire had historically functioned as an overarching order; as had the idea of a unitary territory of Islam, going back to the time of the Abbasids in the eighth and ninth centuries.  The institutions of the United Nations were widely accepted as legitimate across the region.

Despite undeniable contextual contrasts, much can be learned from the successful settlement of a highly complex and challenging set of problems in the 1640s. Given the importance of inclusivity at the Westphalian peace talks, the question of granting a seat at the negotiating table to entities such as IS/Daesh becomes salient. In the Westphalian case, non-state actors such as the Bohemian and Austrian exiles sought representation but were excluded as their participation would have been intolerable to the Habsburgs. Similarly, the Habsburg negotiators successfully exempted (with minor caveats) the Emperor from the duty of respecting subjects’ new Westphalian confessional rights within his own hereditary lands, where the Emperor as a territorial ruler retained a virtually unfettered Right of Reformation. Through a series of such opt-outs and exemptions, as opposed to blanket applicability, similar challenges in the Middle East could possibly be overcome—be they the question of admitting IS/Daesh as a negotiating partner, or the probable unwillingness of the King of Saudi Arabia, like the Emperor in Vienna before him, to countenance legally grounded interferences or interventions in his kingdom.

A graded form of religious toleration of this kind, guaranteeing a minimum level of rights and security for minority groups, yet still recognising a dominant, official confession in most territories, could possibly have a greater chance of general acceptance and therefore practical success in the Middle East, than an attempted blanket imposition of full universal toleration.

In light of the strong mistrust of external intervention among local actors in the Middle East, one would need to consider carefully who the external guarantors of any Middle Eastern settlement should be, so as to ensure success—the importance of the general acceptance of the guarantee among inhabitants of the Reich after 1648 (although less so during the sole rule of Louis XIV) is relevant in this context.

Discussion also centred around the question of whether the negotiation process at Westphalia might serve as a useful model for a Middle East peace process. Mediators played a role at Westphalia, and in the Early Modern period mediating could be seen to bring prestige, whereas a stance of neutrality often had negative connotations. The length of the congress had advantages as well as disadvantages; as military conduct became locked into the peace negotiation. Pre-modern European concepts of honour prescribed the insistence upon achieving an ‘honourable peace’ (pax honesta), and the willingness to continue fighting in pursuit thereof in the hope of achieving one more victory so as to improve one’s bargaining position at the negotiating table, largely accounts for the longevity of the congress.

7. Westphalia’s impact in Central Europe, and the implications for a possible ‘Westphalian’ settlement in the Middle East

A crucial aspect of assessing the success of any peace treaty and its suitability as an inspiration for future settlements, is an examination of its long-term impact. Along with investigating the effects of Westphalia in central Europe over the subsequent century and a half, the participants also discussed the implications for framing a long-term solution to the challenges faced in the contemporary Middle East.

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 necessary complement to the existing structure. This additional level of external control encouraged restraint on the part of both Emperor and princes, deterring obvious breaches of the peace and the law, and incentivising the respect for confessional rights and princely prerogatives extended and confirmed at Westphalia. The guarantor system also proved able 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 in formal terms it retained that status until the demise of the Empire in 1806), while Russia’s growing power 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.

In short, 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. Despite abuse of the system (notably by Louis XIV), the norms established by Westphalia exercised a restraining influence; when abuses or breaches took place, they were considered in the light of the provisions of Westphalia, and were judged accordingly.

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 need to be central to a future settlement. 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, even if that force is never used. While the US and the EU might now be reluctant to sign up to a guarantee entailing a potentially military commitment, Saudi Arabia and Iran might be less hesitant; and Turkey might also be willing to take a greater role., In this context one must face the risk of guarantor interventions exacerbating existing tensions on the ground, not least for being perceived to be guided solely by self-interest, as was the case in France’s guarantee under Louis XIV. Therefore, establishing a structure in which guarantors’ perceptions of their interests closely match what is necessary for the maintenance of the structure, is crucial. Interventionism has always been a feature of 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 guaranteed each other 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, rejecting the principle that 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 became crucial in defusing tensions and turning hot conflict into moderate tension, notably during the German confessional crisis of 1719, which did not result in armed hostilities.

The prince-bishopric (Imperial Estate) 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 legal and institutional structures – something that is still lacking in the region (although it was noted that there are legal traditions that could serve as a basis,). But we also recognised the risk of institutionalising confessional antagonisms and binaries by embedding them into legal structures. One of the chief triggers of confessional disputes in the post-Westphalian Empire was princely conversions; a phenomenon 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) – another instance of less formal conflict resolution often working better than formal. 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.  

8. Lessons for the Middle East

Allowing for a natural range of views, and healthy criticism notwithstanding, the expert participants agreed that the fundamental idea of the project, of history informing ideas for practice in the present, had been validated in this case.

One cannot expect to transport solutions wholesale as blueprints or templates to the present, but the experience of Westphalia shows, importantly, that peace can always be brought about in spite of the complexity, duration and intensity of any conflict.

Achieving peace:

The main lesson derived from the European experience in the 1640s is that an effective settlement should be preceded by a conference or congress in which the main regional actors come together to negotiate a settlement. Participation should be as inclusive as is possible—however, certain disruptive or otherwise unpalatable actors may be excluded (Habsburg rebel exiles; IS/Daesh). Participants must be willing to work flexibly and break new diplomatic ground in order to achieve peace. If they are as yet unwilling to do so in the Middle East, the experience of the Thirty Years War suggests that yet more bloodshed will eventually compel this willingness.

The initiative recognises that a central part of the problem is Saudi/Iranian rivalry. Accordingly, a major part of the initiative, if it is to succeed, must necessitate bringing representatives from both to participate actively and constructively. In this connection, the parallel between Saudi Arabia’s centrality to Sunnism in the contemporary Middle East and the Habsburg emperor’s centrality in the Holy Roman Empire and in the Westphalia settlement, may be useful.

The peace terms:

A new settlement must build on traditional religious, legal and other structures native to the region, just as Westphalia was squarely based on a pre-existing but re-negotiated Imperial constitution.

While there is no desire to impose a European template, application of the underlying principles of Westphalia to the Middle East merits consideration. According to a close reading of the 1648 treaties, this might take the following shape:

  • A limitation of sovereignty for most states/rulers in the region—this would result from giving subjects and citizens the right to appeal to a higher legal authority – some form of court - as was the case in the Holy Roman Empire. Respect for basic rights of religion, property and due process could be enforced collectively or by external guarantors. States would not be obliged to introduce a fully free press, democratic reforms or gender equality (though these could be stipulated as aspirations for the medium term) and existing rulers could be entitled to rule for life. Crucially, though, this prerogative would be conditional upon their respecting subjects’ mutually agreed basic rights, as well as their non-use of military force against other states, or of arbitrary violence or arrest of their own subjects. In the case of transgression, subjects or other rulers could take an offending prince/government to court, and serious or persistent offenders could be deposed from power and replaced, through a collective effort, possibly with the help of the guarantors
  • While the settlement must be palatable to most of the powerful actors in the region, an important lesson from Westphalia is that if it is to work, it must also be guaranteed by external powers. These must be willing to enforce the settlement (including, in extremis, militarily) out of a natural combination of self-interest and conviction. Enforcing a right of intervention for the protection of the peace and its terms might therefore entail a degree of coercion, at least with regard to some of the local actors.
  • A ‘normative year’ for the Middle East – local states and actors identify a mutually agreed point in time to which the rights of public worship and dominant confession would be set. Minority rights would be safeguarded (This might entail, depending on which date is chosen, for example, the return of Sunni, Shia, Christian, Yazidi and other communities that have suffered displacement and/or genocide in Syria and Iraq). No subject/citizen could be legally excluded from civic office on the basis of religion.
  • The normative year provision would also imply the principle that established borders between states in the region would be preserved and upheld as part of the settlement, as was the case at Westphalia.

The seminars of Phase Two (2017) will address the practical political consequences of the fallacious myth of Westphalia in the post-1945 period, before considering in greater detail the features that might form the basis of the internal, and the international dimensions of a new peace settlement for the Middle East. The final seminar will be treaty-drafting exercise in which the main topics (or treaty paragraph headings) of a final peace treaty are identified. 

9. Impact

The main themes and ideas behind the project were set out in an article that appeared in the New Statesman magazine on 21 January 2016, by Michael Axworthy, Brendan Simms and Patrick Milton, entitled ‘Ending the new Thirty Years War’. The project was also mentioned in an interview conducted by Internationale Politik und Gesellschaft/Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung with one of the leading German professors specialising in early modern Germany, Siegrid Westphal, as well as several online blogs and articles.

Officials from of the German Federal Foreign Ministry attended several of the seminars (as did some British officials, and diplomats from European and Middle Eastern embassies in London). The German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier delivered a speech at the Osnabrücker Friedensgespräche on 12 July 2016 during which he endorsed the concept:; he did so again in an article in Foreign Affairs that same month, and in another speech, at the Hamburg ‘Historikertag’ in September. In addition, the convenors were invited to participate as moderators at a workshop at the German Foreign Ministry’s annual Botschafterkonferenz (a conference in Berlin for German ambassadors and senior diplomats, at the end of August 2016) on the themes of the project, in order to present its findings and stimulate new policy ideas.  The concept was also mentioned by King Abdullah of Jordan in his acceptance speech when he was awarded the Westphalia prize in Münster in October 2016.  Phase Two of the project will be undertaken in cooperation with the Hamburg-based Körber Foundation, which will also provide full funding.