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Westphalian shadows revisited

  • Published at 06:11 pm December 8th, 2015
Westphalian shadows revisited

Last March, on the context of the Russian aggression in Ukraine, I wrote about the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia that ended 30 years of ostensibly religious warfare in Europe. The treaty ended the most destructive event of European history up until the 20th century, and the Peace of Westphalia that followed has often been called “the peace of exhaustion.”

Though the war was, on the surface, driven by the religious disputes that had become acute in the century after the Protestant break from the Church of Rome, in reality, it masked the national and ethnic divides that had accumulated in Europe since the fall of the Roman Empire. In dealing with these long, pent-up forces, the Westphalian Treaty-makers came up with the new and revolutionary principle of national sovereignty, a principle that became one of the bedrocks of international law.

It strikes me, however, that the shadow of Westphalia hangs equally heavy over the Middle East today, as violence and dysfunction there also reflect the breakdown of empires and the strains of religious fervour. The concept of Westphalian sovereignty played a role in the political breakdown in the Middle East, but could also become a concept around which a new and viable peace could be centred.

Clearly, the very complicated wars in the Middle East are about more than religion. But clearly also, religion is a convenient and an important factor. Moreover, it strikes me that the exodus from the region toward Europe is a sign of the near exhaustion of the great majority of the populace, so perhaps if peace is ever brought to the region, it will be another peace of exhaustion. I don’t think we can wait another 25 years for this to come.

Perhaps more important is that if that peace does ever come, it will have to bring with it a strengthening, but more nuanced, concept of sovereignty.

It was, I think, the breakdown of the old Westphalian concept that led to the present quagmire. Of course, strict Westphalian sovereignty had been violated for years before the 2003 invasion of Iraq which started the Middle Eastern dominoes to tumble.

For humanitarian as well as political reasons, it had come to be believed that intervention was justified and legal to prevent serious abuses of human rights.

After the ISIS attack on Paris, I have noted a number of pundits harkening back to a strict interpretation of sovereignty as one part of a solution to the now-perceived ISIS threat to the West. Some go so far as to advocate a complete abandonment of the policy to unseat President Assad and his circle.

Their reasoning goes like this: ISIS and other terrorists groups grow and take hold in ungoverned spaces; in the Syrian civil war, much of Syria became an ungoverned space; moreover, Malaki’s mis-rule in Iraq led to a large swath of that country being de facto ungoverned; thus ISIS easily took that space and now has territorial writ over it, which it portrays as de facto sovereignty.

This gives it an unparalleled attraction for the alienated and disaffected young Muslims which it now attracts in large numbers. Without its so-called “caliphate,” ISIS would be just another terrorists group -- highly dangerous and very mobile no doubt, but with much less attraction and ability to attack the West as well as its immediate surroundings.

The conclusion that ungoverned space is dangerous breeding ground for terrorists is correct, and the conclusion is that all of ISIS’ enemies must band together to take down the ISIS caliphate. While its fluidity of movement would probably allow it to move elsewhere (Libya would be most likely), whether it could then find enough ungoverned space, even in an almost ungoverned Libya, is unclear.

The image of a caliphate on the run seems much less attractive in any case to those seeking a place to vent their anger. But the idea of adding Assad’s government in Damascus to the coalition of anti-ISIS states seems to me to be profoundly foolish.

The ISIS caliphate and ISIS itself (the latter perhaps over a longer term) must be eliminated. But I believe that, in fact, the anti-ISIS coalition would fall apart if Assad’s Syrian government became its ally. The ungoverned space of Syria must be filled by a Syrian state that emerges from the negotiations that are about to begin, and the results of which take on the aura of another Westphalian Peace.

Without its space in Syria, the territory ISIS holds in Iraq would fall quickly too. But discontinuing the now-agreed all-party talks in Vienna, and/or signalling that the talks are not about a different, all-inclusive future for Syria, would alienate what must be the core of the anti-ISIS coalition -– the Sunni states of the Middle East. ISIS is as much their enemy as much as it is the West’s.

Cynics do not hold out much hope for the Vienna talks; the participants have such a confusing and cross-cutting set of interests that, indeed, it looks impossible to meld them into some semblance of an agreement.

But I wonder if the 109 delegations from 15 Western European governments, 66 imperial states (from the Hapsburg Empire) and 27 interest groups (various independent cities and transnational organisations) that trooped in and out of the negotiations that led to the Westphalian Treaty wouldn’t have looked any less confusing or more unlikely to get anywhere.

Like the brilliant negotiations for the Westphalian Treaty, getting to an agreement in Vienna will take skill and perseverance -- as well as a long time.

I do not imagine that pundits (if there were any in 1644 when they began) would have given the Westphalia talks much chance either. But, perhaps, as time goes along, the sharp outlines of conflicting interests seem to blur, as the pain and the exhaustion become more acute.

The Westphalia Treaty took five years to come to fruition. But the international principles it established have lasted two and a half centuries. While the Vienna talks last, however, the war must go on, just as the 30-year war went on during the Westphalia talks.

And the anti-ISIS coalition -- while not losing its focus on an outcome that leads to a restored and different Syrian state, and with a writ over all Syrian territory -- must raise its game against ISIS, to the point that it loses territory and attraction.

The world has moved too far past the strict Westphalian doctrine of sovereignty -- which forbade any non-provoked interference in the affairs of another state -- to now go back to ignoring significant, serial human rights abuses by rogue states or regimes.

Politically, it would not be possible in many Western countries. I would not expect the Vienna participants to take on this assignment, but perhaps there should be an international understanding, which could be centred on the United Nations, of what would be the criteria -- the level and kind of human right abuses -- that would qualify to justify some kind of international intervention.

As for South Asia, I think the lessons of the Paris attack are simple: Ungoverned spaces are rife for exploitation by terrorist organisations, so make sure there are no ungoverned spaces. Pakistan’s NAP is aimed at doing this it seems, although one still worries about the civilian follow-up and governance that is supposed to come after the army clears out the areas that were controlled by terrorist organisations.

Of course, one also still wonders if sharing writ over territory with extremist organisations -- which still seems to be the case in some parts of Pakistan -- might not be counterproductive in the long-run. But I think the main immediate implication is that the US/NATO effort in Afghanistan is likely to last somewhat longer, and possibly be ramped up, because there is highly contested (in some ways ungoverned) territory in Afghanistan, and some evidence of a growing ISIS presence. That is a territory that ISIS could think of as a fallback caliphate when the one in the Middle East is taken down.