Kissinger, Westphalia, and ISIS

You don’t have to like the enduringly controversial Henry Kissinger to realise that he’s usually worth listening to. He is, unlike many politicians (as opposed to the best international diplomats), a real student of history. He was in the news when I was a child (Vietnam), he’s still in the news today at 92.

One of his regular lessons relates to the Thirty Years War. This was, to put it mildly, a complicated conflict, with a confusing mix of religious and political allegiances. ‘Trust nobody’ might be one message from it. When a Catholic cardinal (Richelieu) is in hock with the north European protestant supremacists, you know it’s going to be a can of worms.  It all eventually ended, nearly, with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, which involved in varying degrees France, Sweden, the numerous chunks of Germany which existed before Bismarck, Spain, the Low Countries, Denmark, England, Bohemia, lots of smaller players and of course the Austro-Hungarian Habsburg empire. Complicated indeed.

The key thing was pleasing everyone a bit, and everyone having to compromise a bit, whilst noting that in terms of influence, size, location and population, Germany was the key player (but in its component parts). It pretty much has been since then too.

Kissinger states that this tricky compromise is the model of future diplomacy and international relations, if you carefully study it and extrapolate accordingly. Here is a quote from the Wall Street Journal review of the great man’s last book, World Order:

For Mr. Kissinger, Westphalia is not simply one system among many but the most morally, intellectually and even aesthetically pleasing of all such systems. The story begins with France’s Cardinal Richelieu (1585-1642), who articulated a doctrine that “the state was an abstract and permanent entity existing in its own right,” holding interests peculiar to itself—raison d’état. When the religious wars of the mid-17th century exhausted all parties, the diplomats who gathered in the northwest German province of Westphalia in the mid-1640s agreed that they would not seek to impose their own religious principles upon one another. States would no longer interfere with the domestic order of other states. “The Westphalian concept took multiplicity as its starting point,” Mr. Kissinger writes, and thus incorporated “multiple societies” into “a common search for order.”

Here he is in an interview last year, musing on how the Westphalian system might fit with our ‘problem’ in the Middle East:

“Is it possible to create the equivalent of such a system [in the Middle East]?” asks Kissinger. “That is the challenge for the United States, and for others — we alone can’t do it. The world without a balance of power is an arbitrary world. The nature of the balance of power will change, but the principle that you cannot have one region or one country dominate the whole world will re-emerge — or should re-emerge.”

That balance, rather than world domination, seems to be the key thing. Each player depends to a degree on the other. How complicated it is in reality is shown by trying to analyse today’s news from Turkey, nobody seems sure of what their downing of a taunting Russian jet actually signifies, yet everyone seems sure it is significant.

However, if we go back to the 17th century, and seek advice from one of the beneficiaries of the Peace of Westphalia, a man charged with maintaining that elusive balance, Frederick William, the splendidly titled Great Elector of Brandenburg-Prussia, here is what he recommends regarding ISIS, in his Political Testament:

“..when war arises between two others, attempt to resolve the conflict through your interposition, but always position yourself well, so that you have force behind you”

and if that’s not working

“One thing is sure. If you stand still and think that the fire is still far from your borders, then your lands will become the stage upon which the tragedy is performed”

It’s already happening. Time to act.


Henry: not just a guru of diplomacy




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