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

Can a series of far-flung, high-level conferences bring peace to the Middle East by applying lessons from 17th-century Europe?

An engraving at the French National Library shows the ratification of the Peace of Westphalia in Nuremberg, Germany, on June 16, 1650. (Roger Viollet/Getty Images)
An engraving at the French National Library shows the ratification of the Peace of Westphalia in Nuremberg, Germany, on June 16, 1650. (Roger Viollet/Getty Images)

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is running late, but word has it he’s on his way. Tehran couldn’t decide who to send but ended up dispatching Ali Akbar Velayati, who has the ear of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. At the opposite end of the convention center, Israel’s foreign minister talks with his aides, and Baghdad’s and Damascus’s foreign ministers chat amicably with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Rumors swirl that the top Saudi diplomat was going to be a no-show, but he ultimately agreed to attend after pleading from the European Union foreign relations chief, Federica Mogherini, on the condition that he not have contact with the Houthi delegation or the Qataris.

It will not be a surprise that the above description is fictional. With wars raging in the Middle East from Syria to Iraq to Yemen, and a cold war between Iran and Saudi Arabia that shows no signs of thawing, any sort of grand peace meeting seems far-fetched.

But a group of scholars, mostly affiliated with University of Cambridge and acting with the encouragement of the German government, have quietly gained traction at producing just such a conference by drawing on lessons from 17th-century Europe. Their goal is to organize a contemporary Peace of Westphalia for the Middle East, on the model of the series of diplomatic meetings that ended the Thirty Years’ War that ravaged what was then Germany.

The project has already held eight workshops and conferences in Cambridge, London, Berlin, Munich, and Amman, Jordan, with stakeholders and policymakers involved in the Middle East’s conflicts; the hope is these meetings will eventually pave the way for a final series of conferences that can produce a grand bargain. Among those who have endorsed the project and taken part in its formal discussions are former CIA Director David Petraeus, Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul Gheit, United Nations Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura, Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal, and former Iran nuclear negotiator Seyed Hossein Mousavian. The government of Jordan has been involved in the discussions, and both Royal Court chief Fayez Tarawneh and Prince Faisal, the king’s brother, have taken part in the conferences. Recently, German Chancellor Angela Merkel publicly endorsed the project.

But if the idea of a grand bargain appeals in the abstract to many Middle Eastern players, the conference organizers are very aware that achieving it in practice will be far more difficult. The original Westphalian conference proves that goodwill won’t be sufficient; in Europe, exhaustion of bloodshed served as the ultimate midwife of peace. Simultaneously arriving at that stage in places as diverse as Iran, Syria, Yemen, the United States, and Israel will be a painstaking process. But the scholars organizing today’s Westphalian conferences are certain the process is underway.


Scholars and journalists over the years have repeatedly likened the tangle of crisscrossing, overlapping conflicts afflicting the Middle East to the Thirty Years’ War, when the patchwork of Europe’s Protestant and Catholic German states descended into a chaotic conflict abetted by the rival regional powers of the time.

Then it was France, Spain, and Sweden battling for leverage and influence. Now, it’s Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey, Russia, and the United States competing, via Sunni and Shiite proxy forces, over a volatile region that stretches from the Bab el-Mandeb to the eastern Mediterranean. Within that that arc of crisis, hundreds of thousands of people have been killed in airstrikes and by gunfire and millions have been displaced. Many more are suffering through deprivation and disease caused by wars that have drained public coffers; ruined hospitals, roads, and schools; and traumatized entire generations.

It was that type of devastation during the Thirty Years’ War—exacerbated by the use of mercenary armies—that ultimately prompted diplomats from the Holy Roman Empire, France, Sweden, and some of the German states to convene the talks that ultimately led to the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. “The more you look at what’s happening in the Middle East now, the more parallels there are to the Thirty Years’ War,” said Michael Axworthy, a scholar and Iran specialist working on the contemporary Westphalian project. “The sectarian nature of the conflict, the use of proxies. How instability in one country led to instability in other countries and states.”

The Westphalian peace talks went on for several years, with an alternating cast of characters, convening in two locations—predominantly Protestant Osnabruck and mostly Catholic Munster—using the local city halls as conference centers. The organizers of the contemporary Westphalian conference have taken the same approach, moving between various cities in Europe and the Middle East. (If it came to holding a series of final conferences, Istanbul or Amman, cities that are in the region but maintain ties to all the main actors, have been proposed as potential sites.)

Beyond choosing a suitable location, the original Peace of Westphalia offers other lessons on how to organize such an event. The first is the importance of ensuring that all the disparate parties be physically brought together. Critics of a contemporary conference cite precisely this requirement as a nonstarter. Presumably, invitees would include official delegations from the United States, the EU, Russia, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq; delegates from the Syrian regime and opposition; and perhaps the Kurds and Yemeni parties. “There are too many groups that don’t want to sit with each other,” said Joost Hiltermann, the Middle East and North Africa director at the Crisis Group. “Saudi Arabia will not sit with Qatar. Iran will not sit with Israel. You cannot exclude anyone, because they will become spoilers. The grand bargain, though attractive, is not possible at this stage.”

But the group of scholars pushing the idea say similar, and arguably trickier, dynamics played out during the series of conferences in the Westphalian cities of Munster and Osnabruck that ultimately led to the 1648 peace. For one thing, the Holy Roman emperor, the youngish Ferdinand III, didn’t like the optics of being seen negotiating with his subjects. This was resolved, first, by negotiating through intermediaries. Emperors, kings, and princes rarely attended the 17th-century peace talks, and today’s heads of states can stay away as well. “It could be at the ambassadorial level, with expert consultants appended,” said Patrick Milton, a Berlin-based scholar specializing in 17th-century Germany who is among those spearheading the project. “The top guys need not attend but would need to approve their ambassadors signing off.”

The original Westphalian organizers also dispersed the meeting places, never forcing any two parties to be in the same room at the same time. Already today, arch-enemies Iran and Israel communicate via intermediaries in Moscow, while Oman serves as a mediator between Iran and the U.S. and Kuwait passes on messages between Saudi and Qatar.

The Westphalian conference also ensured the participants had adequate time, focus, and autonomy. Without mobile phones or constant media scrutiny, and often locked up together for weeks, the delegates were forced to come to terms. “The diplomats didn’t have a lot of opportunities to contact their foreign ministers, so they had quite a lot of diplomatic flexibility,” said Elisabeth von Hammerstein, program director at the Körber Foundation, a German think tank that has supported the project. “They were able to compromise. Personal ties were quite important.”

It helped, of course, that the French brought some 30,000 liters of wine, eager to avoid having to drink the local swill—though one Dutch delegate could only negotiate in the mornings, because he was drunk from lunchtime on. Alcohol is unlikely to be a universally accepted icebreaker at a contemporary Middle Eastern conference—but shisha tents or lavish buffets could serve the same function.


The conference’s organizers understand that in today’s Middle East, just as in 17th-century Europe, the conflicts are not fundamentally about doctrinal differences. “A lot of tensions are not purely religious,” said Brendan Simms, a professor of the history of international relations at Cambridge and one of the scholars behind the peace push. In the European wars, Sims says, the fights were partly “a cover for a battle for access to resources: land, education, civil service positions.”

Over the course of contemporary negotiations, diplomats would have to figure out the precise scope of conflicts in need of resolution. The rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia would be at the core of the Middle East’s tensions. Would the Kurdish issue have to be addressed? The Israeli-Arab conflict? The growing tension between Iran and Israel? Simms said the discussions so far had concluded that it would be more useful to keep peripheral conflicts—such as the war in Afghanistan or the civil conflict in Libya—outside of discussions until absolutely necessary.

The original Peace of Westphalia also offers hints of what the outlines of an enduring peace might look like in today’s Middle East. A grand settlement for the Middle East along Westphalian lines would include no redrawing of borders and preferably no transfer of populations, but a reshaping of rules within the space of troubles running from the western border of Iran to the Indian Ocean and to the eastern border of Egypt and the Mediterranean.

Europe’s sectarian and political troubles were exacerbated by constant foreign meddling, just as is the case now in the Middle East. But the architects of the Westphalia peace took a realistic view of intervention by foreign powers; rather than try to bar it, they formalized it, giving Catholic and Protestant powers the right to protect co-religionists in other countries in exchange, with superpowers gaining the rights and responsibilities as guarantors. “It actually codified intervention,” Simms said. “It permitted intervention in defense of minority rights, and thus set up an effective system of deterrence. Outside intervention was regulated by international law.”

The contemporary conferences have encouraged brainstorming about conceivable analogues today. Perhaps the rights of Shiite minorities would be guaranteed by a combination of Russia and Iran, and the rights of Sunnis would be guaranteed by the Americans and Saudi Arabia, with the EU in charge of the rights of Christians. It’s also possible the major actors would agree on more elaborate arrangements. “The ‘failed states’ of Syria, Iraq, and Yemen could be remodeled as a guaranteed and neutralized security zone to remove it from ongoing geopolitical competition,” Milton said. “All signatory powers could mutually and reciprocally guarantee each and every aspect of the whole settlement, making them empowered and indeed obliged to intervene if any aspect of the treaty is violated.”

The initial talks that led to the Peace of Westphalia began soon after the start of the Thirty Years’ War, though they picked up steam as Germany fell to ruin and the combatants began to grow exhausted. Hiltermann, who has been involved in some of the discussions about the Westphalia project, wondered if the belligerents in the Middle East’s conflicts even want peace—or ever will at the same time. “There will be a time when people will be exhausted, but in different phases and different times,” he said. The contemporary talks have so far suggested that while the United States and Europe would like the conflicts to end, the other players in the Middle East—such as Iran or the United Arab Emirates—have more of an appetite for a longer fight. Countries such as Jordan and Turkey, dealing with the fallout of the wars, are more eager for a general peace than those that have already paid blood and treasure, such as Saudi Arabia.

But that needn’t be an impediment to talks. France and Spain continued their rivalry for another decade after the Peace of Westphalia, though not within the Holy Roman Empire. “Some historians say it was peace of exhaustion, but I don’t think it’s true,” said von Hammerstein. “A large part of population had died. There were diseases, famines. There was a great desire for peace. But what was important was to create a situation where everyone got something out of the peace. The peace was more about great power interests than about humanitarian or altruistic motives.”

The question is whether today’s organizers can convince the relevant powers, in the Middle East and abroad, that they have a shared interest in peace. They admit that they are still in the early stages. But as the original Westphalian peace proved, merely talking about peace, even in the early stages of a conflict, can eventually reap big rewards.

Borzou Daragahi is an Istanbul-based journalist who has covered the Middle East for more than 16 years. Twitter: @borzou