Treaty of Westphalia 2019-05-28T09:30:37+00:00

A Westphalia for the Middle East?

The Westphalia for the Middle East project is a joint initiative of the Forum on Geopolitics of the University of Cambridge and the Körber Foundation to open new, creative approaches for resolving conflict in the Middle East by looking at solutions that worked in the Peace of Westphalia.

Ever since the 1970s, perhaps longer, the Middle East has been in the grip of a new Thirty Years War which echoes that of the seventeenth century. Then, the Habsburgs and Bourbons faced off in Germany, Italy and the Low Countries; the Emperor and Princes clashed in Germany; and conflicts erupted between Catholics and Protestants pretty much everywhere. Confessional, political and international conflicts all interpenetrated and produced the most destructive war Europe has ever seen.

Today, the Middle East is riven by religious conflicts, the Israel-Palestine issue, the Iranian question and the competing interests of the great powers, resulting in a circle of conflicts to which there is no end in sight.

Can conflict resolution models from the European past help here?

About the Treaty of Westphalia

Below is a summary of the Treaty of Westphalia taken from Brendan Simms, Europe the struggle for supremacy, 1453 to the present day (Penguin, 2013).

The Treaty of Westphalia has been seen by generations of international lawyers as the breakthrough for the modern concepts of sovereignty and non-intervention in the domestic affairs of other states. There is something in this, but not much. It is true that the treaty permitted German princes, for the first time, to conclude alliances with foreign powers. In practice, however, they had always done so. Moreover, European statesmen had always encouraged domestic dissidents in rival states and they continued to do so after 1648. In fact, the Westphalian treaties were nothing less than a charter for intervention: by fixing the internal confessional balance within German principalities, they provided a lever for interference throughout the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. They laid down the toleration of the three major confessions, Roman Catholic, Lutheran and Reformed (Calvinist). The political structure of the new Holy Roman Empire, though hierarchic with an emperor at the head, was a sophisticated form of Early Modern consociationalism, in which confessional matters – which was almost everything of substance – had to be settled by compromise rather than majority vote. Within territories, rulers were bound to respect certain rights, including the right to convert. Those religious minorities who had enjoyed toleration in 1624, were not only were guaranteed it for the future, but could not be excluded from certain civic offices.

The revolution effected at Westphalia was also geopolitical. Spain finally acknowledged the independence of the United Provinces, holding on to Flanders and Wallonia. Sweden gained anterior Pomerania – which served as a kind of Calais protecting her southern coastline from attack – as well as the bishoprics or Bremen and Verden, together with their three votes in the German Diet. The Palatine was divided: the upper Palatinate remained with Catholic Bavaria (which was awarded an additional electoral vote), but the critical Lower Palatinate, which lay astride the ‘Spanish Road’ was restored to the Protestant Charles Ludwig together with the old electoral vote. So there were now eight electors in total. Above all, the Habsburg bid for ‘universal monarchy’, real or imagined, had been contained. The ghost of Charles V had been laid to rest.

The geopolitical and the ideological clauses of the treaty were closely linked. Both Sweden and France had entered the war in defence of the ‘German liberty’ they deemed essential to prevent the Habsburgs from over-running the Empire and threatening their own freedom and security. It was for this reason that both France and Sweden insisted on being recognised as ‘guarantors’ of the Empire and the liberties of its individual ‘estates’. This nexus was summed up by the Swedish negotiator Johan Adler Salvius remarked ‘the Baltic sea will be the ditch, Pomerania and Mecklenburg will serve as counter-scarp, and the other Imperial estates will be, so to speak, the outer works’, of Swedish security. The Swedish chancellor explained further that his aim was ‘to restore German liberties…and in this manner to conserve the equilibrium of all Europe’. The link many early modern protagonists made between domestic liberty, the balance of power and the right to intervene could not have been set out more clearly.