At first glance, “Towards a Westphalia for the Middle East” seems to the reader to mirror countless other books on the region’s history. By comparing current conflicts to wars of a bygone era, it risks falling into the traps of eurocentrism and orientalism, damning the region as trapped in a vicious cycle of religious wars and despotism somehow rooted in its cultural legacy. Such a narrative has become well-worn over the years and results in nothing but the projection of historical tropes, leaving the reader convinced that only Western intervention can bring balance to such chaos.
Yet the book, written by academics Patrick Milton, Michael Axworthy and Brendan Simms, exceeds expectations in this regard. Despite drawing parallels between the European Thirty Years War – which ended with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 – and the situation of the Middle East today, it continually recognises the limitations of such a paradigm. Beginning by probing what it refers to as the “Westphalian Myth”, it challenges the view that the peace treaty paved the way for the creation of modern nation states predicated upon the state being granted full sovereignty. It proceeds to clarify that the objective of the book is to provide innovative ideas for diplomacy and peace-making, which can then be applied to a region that experiences similar interlocking crises to those once witnessed in Europe, not to propose a political model for any individual nation.
The second chapter gives an apt summary of the current geopolitics of the region – pivoting largely around the ongoing conflict in Syria – but successfully avoids the usual stereotypes often superimposed onto the Arab world. It acknowledges the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran as not simply a Sunni versus Shia dispute, but one rooted in a struggle for power over the region. The role played by external interference is acknowledged, with the contradictory role of several of the Gulf States receiving particular attention. Saudi Arabia is just one case in point, having supported several armed groups in the Arab Spring, until Islamist tendencies arose.
Having provided a brief history of the circumstances leading up to the Thirty Years War, the book proceeds to outline the various parties to the conflict and their underlying grievances. It draws an array of similar circumstances from this history to current trends in the Middle East; comparing the 1620 Spanish corridor through Europe to the so-called modern-day “Shi’i Crescent,” established by Iran through sympathetic governments to the Mediterranean Sea; monarchical rule in the Roman Empire and the Gulf States; and the coups experienced by the Habsburg Dynasty and the power grab of Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman (MBS). It also outlines similar environmental circumstances, the mass movement of refugees and tenuous relations between the military and civil society.
Yet beyond surface similarities, structural parallels are also drawn. Contested sovereignty leading to civil war – as occurred during the Dutch rebellion in 1566, when rebels were fighting for the freedom to exercise their Protestant faith and political independence – is compared to action exhibited in the Arab Spring. Proxy wars that occurred from 1625, with the intervention of Denmark and later Sweden and France, are compared to the current situation in Syria and Yemen, where an array of regional and international parties now have vested interests. The absence of declarations of war is also rightly highlighted; the Peace of Westphalia was a peace treaty among those who had never formally declared war on one other. Similarly, in the Middle East today tensions and full military confrontations often exist, despite no official state of war being declared.
The authors also make an insightful recognition – that neither the Thirty Years War nor the current crisis in the Middle East can be considered religious wars. Rather, they argue that religion is instrumentalised due to its standing amongst the public, suggesting that although it remains an important factor, greater significance should be accorded to geopolitical and constitutional matters.
Yet despite being based on workshops with over 100 participants – including politicians and senior officials from across the region – the book falls short in being able to candidly recognise the centrality of the Israel-Palestine conflict, stating: “The Israeli question has no or very little bearing on the current round of Middle Eastern conflict erupting in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, and was also largely unrelated to the rise of Al-Qaeda and the [so-called] Islamic State.”
This cognitive dissonance – which downplays the ongoing role of the Israeli occupation and the shockwaves it continues to send throughout the region – often conveniently relegates any discussion of the Middle East’s challenges to merely internal politics. However the Arab Spring, though primarily motivated by immediate economic and social concerns, quickly grew to encompass longstanding political grievances against the autocracy of governments. Among these grievances was governments’ inaction towards perceived threats, primarily the US and Israel. To this day, the news of normalisation between Israel and the Arab world continues to cause concern amongst the public, with the US declaration of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital sparking weeks of outrage and street protests. While many commentators may prefer to separate the issue of Israel from the Middle East’s troubles – in doing so allowing them to sidestep the issue of its legitimacy – this is disingenuous to the core grievances held by the peoples of the region, whose memory of Israel’s atrocities lives on.
When it comes to potential lessons from the Thirty Years War, the authors also fail to live up to expectations. While it would of course be impossible for them to recommend any kind of solution simply from a historical comparison, even the proposed steps that could work towards peace seem somewhat devoid of reality. The role of international allegiances is largely overlooked in its examination of the need for an inclusive congress, for example in the assumption that Saudi Arabia would be willing to meet with all parties to the conflict in Yemen at a time when it faces little-to-no pressure from the international community to drastically change its position, all the while with US President Donald Trump firmly at its side.
Later on, the authors go further by suggesting that the admittedly “self-interested warring parties like Russia and the United States” could take on the role as guarantors for peace, if a settlement was found to be mutually beneficial. Yet international powers have proven their stance time and again, in which war, or at least some degree of interference, is continually chosen over peace. In the ongoing War on Terror, there is little to suggest that such parties would be willing to take a step back from pursuing their objectives, particularly now when their national security is perceived to be threatened more than ever.
Whilst the authors highlight the need for a willingness to adopt and discover “innovative means of diplomacy,” they overlook the fact that there are currently insufficient incentives to warrant such cooperation. In Syria, there is little to suggest that the regime or its allies Iran and Russia would have any sincere intention to meet with the opposition and arrive at a mutual solution, as the world slowly reconciles itself to President Bashar Al-Assad remaining in power.
Stressing the need for some level of trust and transparency is intuitive, but the book does make valid points about the exaggerated level of both that is usually assumed to be necessary before negotiations can proceed. A focus on crisis diffusion and assurances that the rights of minorities would be protected “within the context of an inclusive socio-political system tailored to local specificities in the region” are other inventive suggestions made, which recognise that it is the process of peacemaking that is the greatest lesson from the Peace of Westphalia, not the content per se.
Milton, Axworthy and Simms conclude by emphasising the need for a “post-crisis regional order”, the like of which was witnessed in the wake of the Treaty of Westphalia, making it a useful source of inspiration. However, they recognise that the shortcomings of Westphalia must be avoided, for example by setting up an effective arbitration body to act as a safety valve against renewed conflict. “Towards a Westphalia for the Middle East” provides a current and nuanced perspective on crises in the region, while illustrating that hope for diplomacy is not entirely exhausted.