In a recent article in Foreign Affairs, Michael Axworthy and Patrick Milton argued that the Westphalian framework, which concluded the Thirty Years’ War, can help bring an end to the Middle East’s deep-rooted conflicts. While debunking the traditional interpretation of the Westphalian order—that it ushered in the modern system of nation-states—Axworthy and Milton set out to salvage some of its less appreciated provisions, such as its extraterritorial dispute-resolution mechanisms and its system of collective security. They believe that this updated vision of Westphalia could serve “not as a blueprint . . . but rather as a guide and a toolbox” for peace in the Middle East.
Even if that is true, however, the authors get the causal order wrong. The peace treaty, in and of itself, did not bring about peace. It was actually the presence of four important dynamics that enabled the peace treaty’s mechanisms to work: the secularization of politics, the homogenization of polities, the internalization of differences, and the externalization of rivalries.
As the architect of realist theory, Hans Morgenthau asserted in a 1948 article, aptly titled “The Problem of Sovereignty Reconsidered,” that by the end of the Thirty Years’ War, “sovereignty as supreme power over a certain territory was a political fact, signifying the victory of the territorial princes over the universal authority of Emperor and Pope.” In other words, the Westphalian system of sovereign states had created a secular order. No wonder Pope Innocent X was so outraged by the peace treaty that he declared it “null, void, invalid, iniquitous, unjust, damnable, reprobate, inane, empty of meaning and effect for all time.”
The leap into a secular order was made possible by the violence of Europe’s religious wars, which spanned over two centuries—from the Hussite Wars (1419–34) to the Thirty Years’ War (1618–48). By the time Europe had resolved its religious differences, the homogenization of polities was nearly complete. The “different” were already murdered to extinction, chased into exile, or docile in defeat. For example, historians