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Want to End Our Endless Wars? Remember the Peace of Westphalia

It's time to place sovereignty back at the center of diplomacy and stop trying to inflict our values on the world.

When a crisis in the 17th-century Holy Roman Empire about princely authority and autonomy spiraled into sectarian warfare, Central Europe was plunged into the Thirty Years War. It was to be a conflict so debilitating and deadly that it would prove more proportionally costly in casualties for what is now Germany than even the Second World War. When the Peace of Westphalia finally brought the nightmare to a close in 1648, it was clear that domestic politics had to be separated from diplomacy for any stability to return to Europe. So came an emphasis on the sovereignty of states to police their own affairs while retaining a standardized system for dealing with each other as (ostensible) equals in the international realm. 

While no system can guarantee peace free from geopolitical upset, The Westphalian Peace was nonetheless an improvement over the religious wars of the past. Something like it would also be an improvement over the rampant, American-led liberal hegemony of today. The ideologies of permanent war have had disproportionate influence over the ruling cliques in Washington, D.C., from the Clintonite neoliberals to the Dick Cheney neoconservatives. There are very real material reasons for this, of course, such as defense contracting and the powerful lobbying behind it. But it was on purely ideological terms that America’s dangerous imperial overstretch was sold to a domestic audience.

Those like former U.N. ambassador Samantha Power would have us believe that there are teeming masses of people abroad just yearning to have American bombs rained down upon them as a solution for their domestic woes. Yet for most of American history, this was not so. The early and rising United States was a nation of diplomats who had taken the lessons of Westphalia to heart. From George Washington and John Quincy Adams up through the start of the 20th century, the importance of keeping domestic ideological arrangements out of sober realist diplomacy was usually understood. It was Woodrow Wilson who departed from this arrangement with his commitment to establishing the United States as guarantor not only of the rights of its own citizens but also the people of foreign nations abroad. His unrealistic vision was rejected by both Congress and most of the world’s other great powers. Still, Britain and America were influenced enough by his thinking to stand aghast when first Japan and then Italy and Germany went about sabotaging the fragile postwar order. It would take a second, more destructive war, with the United States and the U.S.S.R. creating a peace out of their victorious power, to undo the damage that had been done. Two countries that could not have been more internally different became the crux of the most important wartime alliance of the 20th century. Largely forgotten was that the top crime pursued by the allies during the Germans’ postwar trial was that of “waging aggressive war.”

Since the end of the Cold War, and with the checks on America’s ambitions largely removed, we have seen this Wilsonian messianism return, and stronger than before. America’s cultural history of puritanism and faith in its own (culturally and historically specific) institutions has merged with an unchecked hubris. Interventions unrelated to the interests of the average American came in the Balkans and Somalia, and then expanded to nearly the entire Middle East and large swathes of Africa. The justification is always the 9/11 terror attacks. The Bush administration in particular merged all of these trends by marrying the images of apocalyptic religious struggle to the Wilsonian quest for a world order founded on a universal conception of rights. When weapons of mass destruction, the ostensible reason for the invasion of Iraq, failed to turn up, Bush quickly pivoted to another argument: that we would build a new and better Iraq Americanized through our concept of civil society. What we got was the rise of ISIS, sectarian strife, and an empowered Iran greatly expanding its influence throughout that region. It was an outcome abundantly obvious to the many experts who were opposed to the war from the outset.

This turn towards militarized humanism became even more overt as the Obama administration reacted to the Arab Spring. Lacking the WMD excuse and post-9/11 bellicosity, the administration that was elected in large part to replace and undo the Bush legacy decided to topple the government of Libya and indirectly try to do the same in Syria. The administration tapped into a large network of human rights NGOs to fill the media with stories of atrocities, many of which were exaggerated or even outright false

What was the result? Libya is a now a Somalia-level failed state with street-side slave markets that’s fueled a European refugee crisis. The Syrian Civil War continues towards a now inevitable conclusion, heavily extended in length by the interventions of countries like Turkey and Saudi Arabia working hand-in-hand with the United States. Those interventions were sold to the public under the guise of upholding universal standards of government as imagined by the United States, but have only contributed to global instability and alienation of much of the world from Washington.

In order to inoculate the American public, media, and (dare one hope) policymaking class against future foolhardy adventures, the Westphalian Peace should be reintroduced into the disussion. The foreign policy establishment is largely controlled by a class of professionals in love with their own image as upholders of liberal hegemony and oblivious to the results of their actions. From empowering al-Qaeda in the Middle East to driving Russia and China together, the consequences have proven catastrophic. It is time to stick up for the concept of national sovereignty as the core principle of diplomacy once again.

It was the France, the Catholic power willing to ally with Protestants against its greater Hapsburg foe regardless of domestic politics, that won the most out of the Thirty Years War and at the lowest cost. Such realism in pursuit of modest goals should inform our diplomatic thinking today.

Christopher Mott is a research fellow at Defense Priorities and a former academic and researcher at the State Department. His book on Central Asian geopolitical history, The Formless Empire, was published by Westholme Publishing in 2015.