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 orderthat it ushered in the modern system of nation-statesAxworthy 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 estimate that as many as eight million civilians were killed in Germany during the Thirty Years’ War. Even by more conservative estimates of three to four million, the wars claimed about one-fifth of the Holy German Empire’s population. Similarly, in France, more than three million were killed in the Huguenot Wars (1562–98) between the Catholics and the Calvinist Huguenots. From 1580 to 1594, France’s population decreased by over 1.5 million––about 10 percent. By the time the wars ended, the Huguenots, who constituted over 10 percent of the country's population, had almost entirely disappeared. Of those who survived, many converted to Catholicism. Others fled into exile, mostly to the New World. Paul Revere, for example, one of the United States’ “Founding Fathers,” came from Huguenot roots. 

Homogenization was essential to secularization. As a result of homogenization, it became possible to demarcate exclusive territorial jurisdictions for the princes. Once these polities were homogenized—to the point that the majority were confessionally aligned with the sovereign prince and the minority lacked the numbers and power to effectively challenge the status quo—there was much less incentive for the other princes to meddle. The obvious exception was the pontiff, whose religious authority required him to intervene on behalf of all Catholics, everywhere. But once the princes were committed to acknowledging one another’s sovereignties,  this forestalled meddling not only from them but also from the pontiffs. It was through this development by which the Treaty of Westphalia later affirmed, “He who rules a territory determines the religion” (cuius regio, eius religio) and promised “perpetual forgetting and forgiveness” (perpetua oblivio et amnestia).

Eventually, this paradigm shift allowed for the externalization of rivalries through international competition: namely, the motive to surpass national rivals in the colonial race. It became a common cause that incentivized the cooperation of diverse political, economic, and religious interests within a nation—in other words, it led to the internalization of differences and a common national identity. The transition from a web of competing authorities to a system of mutually recognized sovereignties birthed the rise of the nation-state, which allowed for political, business, and religious interests to work in tandem. Indeed, in his survey of European colonialism, Stanford University’s David B. Abernethy highlights that this “triple assault of power, profit, and proselytization” was the physics behind Europe’s colonial expansion. The European powers were still fighting one another, but the new battlegrounds were in New England, New Holland, New France, and New Spain.

Had the Middle East been able to secularize its politics, homogenize its polities, internalize its differences, and externalize its rivalries as Europe did in the seventeenth century, it certainly would have been a more peaceful place. But the reason why this did not happen—and why the Westphalian order, which emerged not as a cause but as a consequence of these transformations, cannot address the root causes of the Middle East’s problems—is that there is a vital difference between Europe then and the Middle East today: colonialism.

Europe is perhaps the only geographic regime whose modern history was not shaped by a relationship of domination or control, whether political or economic. Like almost anywhere else in the world, the Middle East is the product of successive colonial ordering, from Napoleon’s 1798 invasion of Egypt to the United States’ 2003 invasion of Iraq. This is not to say that the colonially imposed structures are the be all and end all of the Middle East’s troubles. But it is worth noting that there is not a single episode of violence in the Middle East’s modern history that could be properly explained without reference to colonial legacies, from the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict to the 1979 Iranian Revolution to the Arab Spring and Syria’s ongoing civil war. 

Consider Palestine, the “thrice-promised land.” Sir Henry McMahon, who served as the high commissioner for Egypt from 1915 to 1917, promised it to the Arabs. Sir Mark Sykes, of the Sykes-Picot Agreement that partitioned the Ottoman Empire, promised it to the French. And British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour promised it to the Jews. In the end, the British kept it until they no longer could, and since then, the Arabs and the Jews have been killing each other over it. In Iran, the CIA-supported ouster of the popularly elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq was the last nail in the coffin of Mohammad Reza (Shah) Pahlavi’s monarchy and a rallying point for the protests that culminated in the Islamic Revolution. Many of the autocrats who were toppled in the Arab Spring owed their power to either the United States or the Soviet Union, as did their predecessors, stretching back to khedivial Egypt, French North Africa, or Italian Libya.

As the European experience illustrates, the formation of a modern polity is a slow and violent process. In France, it took more than a century and a half. In the Middle East, however, colonial legacies prevented––or, better said, distorted––these processes. Instead, the region was condemned to living in a colonially imposed cartography, but under modern norms that stigmatized the very political violence that homogenized and secularized European polities. 

When the great nation-states of Europe were constructed, there was no external club of preexisting great powers able to penetrate their continent and enforce a paralyzing and fragmented status quo, to their own benefit. The Middle Eastern versions of ambitious rulers such as the Tudor monarch Henry VII, the Prussian leader Otto von Bismarck, and the Italian Count of Cavour include Ottoman Egypt’s Muhammad Ali, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, and Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein. But unlike their European counterparts, they were all burdened by the handicap of colonialism, and they often failed against its power. Hence, as the political scientist Ian Lustick has written, the Middle East never had “the kind of interstate violence through which some of those small states could become the third world equivalents of Muscovy, Piedmont, Prussia, Wessex, or the Ile de France.”

This is not to say that the routes to great power status that were open to the Europeans must now be made available to the Middle East or that troubles of the Middle East came through no fault of its own. But it must be conceded that peace in the Middle East will remain elusive unless the region either reaches a political cartography that better reflects its ethnic, religious, and sectarian contours or endures so much bloodshed, as the authors suggest, that it is “eventually compelled to adopt the positive and cooperative attitudes needed for forging peace.” This was, after all, how durable peace came about in Europe.

It would be wise to remember that Westphalia is a single link in a long chain of events from the Peace of Augsburg to the Congress of Vienna to the Paris Peace Conference to the San Francisco Conference to the present. It is meaningful only in its proper historical context, as are the Middle East’s troubles. There is not a single instance in history where the West’s grand schemes for peace in the Middle East achieved anything other than the unraveling of what existed. The last thing anyone needs is yet another example.

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  • SELIM CAN SAZAK is a doctoral student at Brown University’s Department of Political Science and a researcher at the Century Foundation’s foreign policy program.
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