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Centre for Geopolitics

Providing historically-grounded approaches to enduring geopolitical problems.

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Westphalian Peace for the Middle East

How can this generation secure a lasting peace in the Middle East? This is one of the great challenges facing the world today. A Westphalia for the Middle East is an initiative of the Centre of Geopolitics & Grand Strategy (CoGGS) at the University of Cambridge. A durable peace in the Middle East can only be achieved by regional actors themselves, through an inclusive general peace conference which engages with the full spectrum of interwoven conflicts across the region, at both state and societal levels, and addresses them as a whole. The Westphalia for the Middle East project is working to encourage the formation of such an inclusive peace conference.

How might this be done? A 370-year-old peace treaty holds some clues. The Peace of Westphalia, signed in 1648, ended the Thirty Years War: a devastating conflict which killed around a quarter of central Europeans. It was a landmark peace treaty, highly influential in the development of the law of nations.

And much like the Thirty Years War, the conflict in the Middle East today is a messy entanglement of overlapping struggles and confrontations, both within and between States. Both have been marked by sectarian violence and intervention by outside countries, and both the Thirty Years War and the present Middle Eastern conflicts have been hugely costly in human life.

A number of leading foreign policy practitioners have recognised these parallels, including Henry Kissinger, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Kofi Annan, Angela Merkel, and Richard Haass. Peace in the Middle East cannot be imposed by external powers – it must come from the region itself. But mechanisms and techniques that proved effective in Westphalia can provide inspiration for how this might be done in practice.

Key principles which worked in Westphalia include the innovation of an all-inclusive peace congress, development of creative power sharing arrangements based on compromise, establishment of new legal mechanisms for dispute resolution, and construction of an inclusive security architecture committed to and guaranteed by all signatories.

The Project So Far

The project has produced two key works addressing the parallels between Westphalia and the Middle East. The first of these is Towards Westphalia for the Middle East (Hurst Publishers, 2018), co-authored by Patrick Milton, Brendan Simms, and the late Michael Axworthy. The book has been published in Persian as of 2021. The second publication, by outgoing Postdoctoral Research Associate, Thomas Peak, was Westphalia from below. Humanitarian intervention and the myth of 1648 (Hurst and Company, London, 2021). This new history of the lead-up to 1648 exposes the myth of absolute sovereignity supposedly enshrined at the Peace of Westphalia, showing that humanitarian intervention is fully compatible with true Westphalian sovereinity. 

A number of workshops, conferences and panel discussions have been held bringing together leading experts on the Middle East and on early modern European history, as well as policy practitioners, journalists and other commentators, in order to investigate the parallels between the two contexts and to derive lessons for peace-making in today’s Middle East. Several of the most important of these workshops were conducted in partnership with the Berlin-based Körber Foundation.  Some of the most important lessons that emerged include the following:

  • a congress should be convened in order to achieve an overall regional settlement and this congress must be as inclusive as possible, in order to give representation to all conflicting parties — this helps to ensure that the peace is secured, because no party will feel by-passed. On the other hand, parties that do not wish for inclusion, such as ISIS, can safely be excluded, preferably after being eliminated as a power factor. Inclusivity is challenging in the Middle East because there is now a confusing profusion of state and non-state actors with many states increasingly appearing as non-state actors and vice versa.
  • a ceasefire during the negotiations is desirable but not a necessary precondition for talks to get underway.
  • negotiating parties generally do not make substantive concessions without the application of military pressure.
  • political leaders are generally willing to make concessions, whereas religious leaders are not.
  • although an eventual peace settlement must seek to address all areas of conflict in the region, the congress at which these individual conflict areas or components are addressed should consist of a set of bilateral negotiations, which are then incrementally merged in order to achieve – after several years if necessary – an overall settlement. I.e. negotiations with a smaller number of parties (ideally bilateral) are more effective than multi-party plenary negotiations.
  • Similarly, when negotiating towards the final overall all-encompassing settlement, one should negotiate one point at a time, settle it, and then move on to the next – as opposed to seeking multilateral agreement on the overall ‘grand bargain’ at the outset. Because the Middle East crisis (similar to the Thirty Years War) has escalated in a manner analogous to expanding concentric circles i.e. drawing in regional and then global powers, the negotiations should aim to reverse these concentric circles of escalation.
  • Negotiations should focus on interests and crisis-defusion, rather than matters of principle.
  • Negotiations can be mediated, and the mediator need not necessarily be impartial or neutral. The key Westphalian lesson is that the negotiating parties need to be flexible and not insist on rigid procedural rules.
  • The choice of personnel to be sent to the delegated congress is significant: the dispatch of high-ranking and respected individuals can signal that the relevant government is serious about the peace process. The diplomats should be chosen according not only to their own negotiating prowess, but also according to their attitudes towards the value and desirability of peace. A group of similarly irenic-minded diplomats who are not just executive organs and mouthpieces of their home courts and governments, but instead possess a degree of plenipotentiary powers, can act as an inter-state ‘peace party’ in its own right, and drive their governments towards peace.
  • Patience is key: it is often the experience of the peace process that can achieve the necessary shifts in mind-sets. The absence of trust should not inhibit the commencement of negotiations – the peace process itself can generate trust. These last two points indicate that a full-time delegated congress is probably more effective than summit meetings between leaders themselves.

A very important trust-building measure, and also a key mechanism in securing the peace and allaying contracting parties’ fear of being attacked again after the conclusion of the treaty, is the mutual and reciprocal guarantee. The willingness of the ‘bigger players’ to guarantee every aspect of the settlement (even those that do not affect them individually) needs to be signalled at an early stage in order to instil confidence in the viability of the peace process. In addition to a general guarantee (covering the whole settlement), there may also be complementary ‘special guarantees’, which prescribe enforcement mechanisms specifically for the most sensitive and contentious aspects of the settlement.

The project has conducted outrech work designed to publicise its ideas and findings to stimulate debate among students and young professionals. For example, the strand leader, Dr Patrick Milton introduced the Centre's work at the Al-Sharq Fellowship Programme's annual retreat on "Human challenges: Now, then, and tomorrow".

The work of the Westphalia project has been carried out in conjunction with webinars relating to geopolitical challenges in the Middle East. For instance, the Centre's Philipp Hirsch hosted one webinar on whether the establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and several Arab states can be interpreted as the end of the Arab-Israeli conflict in its traditional sense. A second webinar investigated Europe's role- both historically and in the present day- as a political force actively shaping the geopolitics of the Middle East or rather just a bystander in the region.

These themes are explored in greater detail in our book, Towards a Westphalia for the Middle East

Book review: 

Foreign Affairs - Towards a Westphalia

We have also written several articles on the topic: 

Foreign Affairs - A Westphalian Peace for the Middle East

Foreign Affairs - The Myth of Westphalia

New Statesman - Ending the New Thirty Years War

See also: 

Foreign Policy - Meet the Middle East’s Peace of Westphalia Re-enactors

For more information, please watch the short video about the project (link on the right side of the page) or visit 

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 Professor Ali Ansari




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