Towards a Westphalia for the Middle East

| March 2020
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Towards a Westphalia for the Middle East, Patrick Milton, Michael Axworthy, and Brendan Simms (New York: Oxford University Press 2019), 176 pp., $39.95 cloth, $38.99 eBook.

Could the Peace of Westphalia, which ended the Thirty Years’ War in Central Europe in 1648, serve as a source of inspiration for new ideas, instruments, and methods for peacemaking in the Middle East today? Coauthors Patrick Milton, Michael Axworthy, and Brendan Simm argue that the answer is yes. Towards a Westphalia for the Middle East presents an original, historical perspective that builds on the similarities and parallels that exist between the Thirty Years’ War and the contemporary conflict in the Middle East.

Much like the Thirty Years’ War, the current conflict in the Middle East is characterized by great complexity. It is a set of different but interconnected conflicts, including internal rebellions, civil wars, struggles for greater political participation and freedom, proxy wars, external intervention, sectarian animosity, geopolitical conflict, and great power rivalry, with multiple kinds of actors taking part in different disputes within the region. In addition, both conflicts were prompted by contested sovereignty. During the Thirty Years’ War, the location of sovereignty within the Holy Roman Empire was at stake, with a driving force behind the war being competing visions of the prerogatives of the emperor, the princes, and their subjects. Similarly, the Arab uprisings that began in Tunisia in late 2010 were essentially a struggle for popular sovereignty that was opposed by the ruling regimes that fought to maintain their absolute sovereignty. Another important parallel between the two cases is the role of religion and sectarian animosity. While it is inaccurate to reduce the two conflicts to sectarianism alone, sectarian animosity is an important element of both, one that has at times also exacerbated other nonreligious conflicts. It has been used instrumentally by ruling regimes to pursue their strategic interests. The book discusses various other parallels between the two conflicts, including the sequences of escalation, the great power rivalry, monarchy and dynasty, civil-military relations, state-building wars, communication technologies, and refugee crises.

The main purpose of the book is to draw lessons from the Peace of Westphalia to suggest resolutions for the current conflicts in the Middle East. The authors distinguish between two kinds of lessons. First are the diplomatic techniques that proved to be effective in facilitating the treaties of Westphalia and securing the peace afterward. Second are the terms of the treaties. As far as the techniques used to facilitate a peace treaty, an important takeaway from the Peace of Westphalia is the necessity of establishing an inclusive peace congress. The current conflicts in the Middle East are too complex and interwoven to be successfully resolved independently of one another. Rather, the various conflicts should be conceptualized as different parts of a single regional crisis that needs to be resolved through an inclusive peace congress involving all parties to the conflicts. The congress should be as inclusive as possible, with the exception of absolutely irreconcilable actors such as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). This approach has a greater chance of success than piecemeal approaches, because it can in theory address the interests of all parties that, as a result, will have collective incentive to deter individual actors from violating the terms of the agreement. Attempts to negotiate an end to individual conflicts in the Middle East, such as the Syrian Civil War, have failed in large part because they have ignored the interconnection among conflicts in the region and not included enough participants in the peace process.

Another effective technique of the Peace of Westphalia that should, according to the authors, be applied to conflict resolution in the Middle East, is the establishment of a mutual guarantee system to secure the peace. “The Westphalian guarantee was innovative in the sense that this was the first time that the warring parties and contracting signatories themselves became the guarantors of their own peace settlement in a mutual and reciprocal set-up” (p. 122). Each party was committed to defending every aspect of the treaty, even those that did not affect them. The Westphalian guarantee was helpful in persuading the parties to negotiate and sign the peace treaty partly because it increased trust in the viability of peace. The guarantee was also successful in maintaining peace over time because it deterred individual actors from violating the terms of the treaty. Implementing this lesson in the Middle East would necessitate including local, regional, and international guarantors due to the complexity of the conflicts in the region.

While the majority of the lessons the authors draw from the Peace of Westphalia fall under the category of diplomatic techniques to facilitate peace treaties and secure the peace, they also put forth a second key lesson: that some terms of the treaty itself could be of potential value for a new regional order in the Middle East. One of the key achievements of the peace agreement was the juridification of sectarian conflict, “ensuring that religious conflicts were regulated legally and politically, thereby removing their propensity to cause armed conflict” (p. 126), a key achievement of the peace agreement.

Another important term of the treaty was conditional sovereignty. According to the myth of Westphalia, the treaties inaugurated a state system based on full sovereignty and nonintervention. But, as this book convincingly shows in systematic detail, “Westphalia actually increased the scope for intervention in rulers’ domestic affairs and reduced the princes’ freedom to rule as they wished” (p. 128). The Westphalia treaties set up limited and conditional sovereignty, effectively abolishing rulers’ authority to impose their faith on their subjects. The Peace of Westphalia also strengthened and legitimated judicial systems to which subjects could appeal against their own governments. The treaties even include provisions that allow interventions in domestic affairs by the outside guarantors to enforce the treaty terms. While the state model based on the Westphalian myth of absolute sovereignty and nonintervention has largely failed in countries such as Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, this more nuanced, limited, and conditional vision of sovereignty could offer lessons to solve the ongoing conflict over the domestic and external sovereignty of the state, and help to build a new regional order based on legitimate principles of sovereignty.

While the authors are historians, the book is based on workshops that brought together experts on the Middle East, historians of early modern Europe, and policy practitioners including senior state officials and representatives from regional and international organizations. This raises the question of whether a different set of parties to the conflicts in the Middle East, such as the regional powers, weak states, ruling regimes, minorities, opposition parties, victims of the conflicts, women, human rights organizations, and leaders of the popular uprisings, would draw similar or different lessons from the Peace of Westphalia. The book is an excellent example of the value of history as a source of lessons and as a solution to contemporary problems and conflicts. It will be of great interest to conflict resolution practitioners and scholars, and students of the Middle East, history, international relations, and peace studies.


—Raslan Ibrahim

Raslan Ibrahim is assistant professor of political science and international relations at the State University of New York at Geneseo.

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Category: Book Review, Issue 34.1

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