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.
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