Stephen Chan: When we look back at our his­to­ry here in Europe, we often cel­e­brate the roman­ti­cized ver­sion of that his­to­ry and for­get the import that that roman­ti­cism often cloaked. For instance when we have films, when we read the books of Alexandre Dumas, par­tic­u­lar­ly The Three Musketeers, all we see are three (plus one) swash­buck­ling, sword-bearing gen­tle­man usu­al­ly of an exquis­ite hand­some­ness. And there’s an evil car­di­nal, Cardinal Richelieu, lurk­ing in the back­ground. But the idea that France was just like this for no appar­ent rea­son is some­thing that we nev­er real­ly real­ly inves­ti­gate.

Now in fact, the mus­ke­teers were part of the mil­i­ta­riza­tion of French soci­ety at that point in time. All of Europe was mil­i­ta­rized. Struggle with­in indi­vid­ual coun­tries among armed fac­tions was a com­mon­place. And the idea of an all-powerful car­di­nal, some­one who was the pow­er behind the throne, some­one whose pow­er in fact was often greater than the pow­er ema­nat­ing from the throne, this was some­thing which demar­cat­ed a Europe caught up in what we call The Thirty Years’ War.

The Thirty Years’ War dev­as­tat­ed cen­tral Europe. Although France itself was spared mass destruc­tion, it was mil­i­ta­rized in order to avoid hav­ing to be plunged into the chaos that sur­round­ed Germany in par­tic­u­lar. And the war that last­ed for thir­ty years was in its ori­gin a reli­gious war. It was a war between Catholics and Protestants. It was an attempt to estab­lish a reli­gious hege­mo­ny over Germany that in the end failed. 

And the peace treaty that arose from the strug­gle, what we call the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, was not real­ly one treaty but a series of treaties that were arrived at in a pro­tract­ed, labo­ri­ous, and real­ly quite painful man­ner. But it was a treaty that was the result of a con­ven­tion of all of the states in Europe. At that point in time there were sev­er­al hun­dred states. So con­ven­ing them all in a small town that was itself wracked by famine as result of the war, hous­ing all of the ambas­sadors from sev­er­al hun­dred small coun­tries that was Europe well before union took place, and get­ting them all to agree where to sit—in which order let alone how to debate and to con­tem­plate a new Europe—was very dif­fi­cult. So that the final agree­ment of Westphalia is cel­e­brat­ed as a great accom­plish­ment.

And I think that there were some half dozen cen­tral break­throughs in inter­na­tion­al rela­tions as a result of the Treaty of Westphalia. First of all that peace could be pos­si­ble by diplo­ma­cy. Mass diplo­ma­cy. Diplomacy involv­ing rep­re­sen­ta­tives, ambas­sadors, of many states. Multilateral diplo­ma­cy, in short, was to a very large extent pio­neered at Westphalia. 

However, pow­er­ful states with­in the con­gress that con­vened in Westphalia formed a con­cert of pow­er. So the con­cert with­in the con­gress became a fea­ture of mod­ern inter­na­tion­al rela­tions which stays with us to this day. The Security Council in the United Nations is an exam­ple pre­cise­ly of that.

But what was real­ly impor­tant to end the strug­gle between reli­gions was the recog­ni­tion that domes­tic pol­i­cy with­in one state should not be the con­cern of oth­er states. States had a right to prac­tice what they want­ed to with­in their own bor­ders. Therefore what you had was the recog­ni­tion of what we now take for grant­ed as sov­er­eign­ty. And with­in the sov­er­eign­ty, each state was enti­tled to devel­op its own per­son­al­i­ty.

So what this meant, fifth­ly, was that in a Europe with these recog­ni­tions, with the recog­ni­tion that each state could domes­ti­cal­ly achieve its own per­son­al­i­ty, the idea of try­ing to achieve a hege­mo­ny of one reli­gion over anoth­er fell away. So that you have for the first time the advent of a sec­u­lar state sys­tem. And, it being a sec­u­lar state sys­tem, what Westphalia accom­plished in the longer term was the lib­er­a­tion of thinkers to think in uni­ver­sal terms that were tru­ly philo­soph­ic rather than reli­gious. Without Westphalia the Enlightenment and the think­ing that came out of that would not have been pos­si­ble.

The Westphalian state sys­tem as we call it last­ed to the present day. Indeed in his lat­est book—probably his last book—Henry Kissinger does a root and branch defense of the Westphalian state and its state sys­tem. But he sees the flaw in the sys­tem. He sees very much the weak­ness in it with the advent and the rise and the grow­ing pow­er of states which are wed­ded not so much to a Westphalian sec­u­lar­ism but to reli­gious prin­ci­ples. It’s as if the wicked old fox final­ly real­izes that all his years defend­ing states like Saudi Arabia might now come home to roost. Kissinger’s book was writ­ten before the advent of what we now call Islamic State, which we will con­sid­er at a lat­er point in these lec­tures. But it also was a book writ­ten almost nos­tal­gi­cal­ly for states that tried to be Westphalian and to a large extent failed because of Western inter­fer­ence.

The 20th cen­tu­ry was note­wor­thy for the advent of states that arose not only out of colo­nial­ism, but states that arose out of the defeat after World War I of the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman Empire had a very strong reli­gious char­ac­ter, an Islamic char­ac­ter. Its defeat meant Islam almost to an extent cal­ci­fied at that moment in time. Sharia law for instance stopped devel­op­ing after the Ottomans were defeat­ed, because there was no longer a state prop­a­ga­tion of jurispru­den­tial debate along Islamic lines. 

The defeat of the Ottomans meant the advent of many new states that had pre­vi­ous­ly been part of an empire. What was left all of the Ottomans tried to regroup itself into a much small­er enti­ty called Turkey. And Atatürk, who led the Turks to a rec­og­nized inde­pen­dence with­in the Westphalian state sys­tem, 1923, had to do it in the face of hav­ing to make great con­ces­sions to the Western pow­ers. But also he was a mod­ernist, he was a reformer, and he was deter­mined that his new state of Turkey would be a mod­ern non-religious, sec­u­lar state—modernity and sec­u­lar­ism went hand in hand.

It went hand in hand sim­i­lar­ly after World War II. The Egyptian leader Nasser want­ed to have a free state, in the sense that it was free of reli­gion. A free state in the sense that it was free of back­ward­ness, and this meant sec­u­lar mod­ern­iza­tion.

Saddam Hussein, although we would now think this was almost a per­verse com­ment, tried to do the same but in a more blood­thirsty man­ner in Iraq. The idea of a state that would not be bound to reli­gion; reli­gion would exist but not be the dom­i­nat­ing deter­min­ing force; but reli­gion would take a sec­ond place to mod­ern­iz­ing and sec­u­lar insti­tu­tions. This was some­thing that Saddam tried ruth­less­ly to imple­ment in his coun­try of Iraq.

Countries that had sprang up from pover­ty, from dis­uni­ty, and from reli­gious back­ward­ness were now being pro­pelled dic­ta­to­ri­al­ly towards a form of Westphalianism, towards of form of sec­u­lar­ism. With the defeat of peo­ple like Saddam (a great irony in our mod­ern his­to­ry) the Islamic genie is being unleashed again, and Kissinger was right. It now will begin to chal­lenge the Westphalian state sys­tem.

Further Reference

Religion and World Politics course information

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