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David Attenborough — not over, not out

At 84, Britain’s favourite naturalist says that, with BBC2’s First Life, he has made his last major TV series. Yet he shows no sign of losing his love for fossils . . . and life.

Picture the scene: it is the late 1950s, and in an English field a young David Attenborough and 16-year-old Richard Dawkins are hunting for tadpoles. "We had wellington boots on, and we had little fishing nets," says Dawkins, "and we spent the whole day tramping around through ponds and ditches." He had met Attenborough through his uncle and aunt, who encountered the presenter when he was making a programme in Sierra Leone.

It is easy to imagine the pair of them trawling through the mud, because that is how we have seen Attenborough on our screens for nearly 60 years: exploring and explaining the behaviour of animals in their natural habitat. He has become part of our collective imagination, his voice a soundtrack to British television. Yet Attenborough, when we meet, is wary of his public image. "If you appear on the box, people think you know what you are talking about, and it's patently not so," he says.

This is modesty; he reads all the latest zoological literature, and his documentaries, according to Dawkins, don't just show "things the world hasn't seen but that scientists haven't seen either. You can think of it as a very fertile part of scientific work, of scientific research." Attenborough, 84, won't have it, describing himself as simply "a chap from the television".

When I ask him if he ever regrets not becoming a scientist, he shrugs. "I am not a specialist, and I can't pretend to be a specialist." He is keen not to be cast as a figurehead, or a champion of a cause. Environmentalists often try to recruit him, and in films such as State of the Planet he has spoken out on the subject, yet he "fights against being put in that situation when people say, 'So, what's happening to the climate?' I say, 'I don't know. I'm just looking at the scientific world, and this is what the majority of scientists say. It's no use attacking me. I'm a reporter.'"

Perhaps it is understandable that a figure so widely celebrated should wish to underplay his achievements. He does this to an almost comical degree, improbably describing himself as someone who is "by nature rather idle, sitting in a bath chair watching it all going on around me". He avoids aligning with any political party (he votes, but "secretly"), saying carefully that he appreciates the progress all the parties have made in taking the environment seriously.

If he has a "cause", it is overpopulation, which he believes is "at the root of almost every affliction that the world faces today". He advocates female emancipation - where there is good education and free medical care for women, they choose to have fewer children. The Catholic Church, and its opposition to contraception, must anger him, I suggest. "You're telling me!" he says. "Yes, absolutely."

Religion carries no weight in Attenborough's life. Many believers write to him, criticising his failure in his films to acknowledge the role of a divine creator. "You're never going to silence them because the fundamental problem is accepting what evidence exists," he says. "They say, 'It's written down on this page and what is there is beyond argument and it was put there by God.' If you believe that, well, I'm awfully sorry, but there's no point in us discussing it."

This is the pragmatic and tough-minded side of Attenborough. He makes programmes because he thinks "the way a spider weaves its web is breathtaking" - but he has no desire to preach. As he says, "I have a certain compulsion to tell people stories, but I don't have a compulsion to persuade them. I'm not one of them."

Fossil fuelled

Attenborough's first love was the fossil. He was born in 1926 and brought up, together with his brothers Richard (the film director) and John on campus at the then University College, Leicester, where his father was principal. As a boy, he would spend hours searching Charnwood Forest for specimens. "They are just gorgeous, and so you become intoxicated by them," he says now. "You have to be pretty stolid and phlegmatic not to be thrilled by the perfection of the fossil."

That intoxication led him to Cambridge, where he studied natural sciences, specialising in zoology and geology. When he left, he joined the navy for his national service, hoping for adventure but ending up on a Reserve Fleet aircraft carrier in the Firth of Forth. The disappointment continued as he joined a London publishing house that produced science textbooks, a job he found so dull that he thought the clock on St Paul's Cathedral had stopped, because he checked it so often.

Attenborough wanted to be out in the world, bringing the facts to life, not limiting them to paper. So, in 1952, he applied for a training course at the BBC and joined the talks department, where he made his first natural history series, The Pattern of Animals. He was eager to show the animals - trapped and frozen in the bright studio lights used on the show - in their natural environment. That brought about Zoo Quest (1954), a colonial-style adventure with Attenborough, dressed in a safari suit, accompanying the curator Jack Lester on a mission to capture wild animals for London Zoo's collection.

Their first quest, in Sierra Leone, was for Picathartes gymnocephalus, the white-necked rockfowl. The programme was supposed to be presented by Lester, but he fell ill after the first transmission and Attenborough was drafted in to replace him. Zoo Quest was exceptional for the time: filming in the wild, the team travelled to seldom-visited parts of the world. Attenborough later led missions to South America searching for anteaters and anacondas, remote Indonesian islands for the Komodo dragon, New Guinea and Paraguay for birds of paradise and armadillos. Some were never caught. Others - parrots, monkeys, pythons and bushbabies - he brought back to live in his house in Richmond, Surrey (where he still lives), cared for by his wife, Jane, and studied in wonder by their two children, Robert and Susan.

To boldly go

Attenborough's success pushed him through the ranks of the BBC. In 1965, he became the first controller of BBC2 and in 1969 director of programmes across BBC TV. But he was trapped behind a desk again. As he says: "It was very nice for me running a network for a few years, in the sense that it was very flattering for one's ego. But it's not much fun." So he resigned in 1973 and took up programme-making again, starting with a series in south-east Asia and research for Life on Earth, the first of nine Life series for the BBC that would shape the next 30 years of his career.

Alastair Fothergill, the former head of the BBC's natural history unit, was a teenager when Life on Earth was broadcast in 1979. "It was like the most gripping drama; I just had to watch next week's episode. I absolutely remember deciding that was what I wanted to do." Fothergill went on to make Trials of Life and Life in the Freezer with Attenborough, as well as The Blue Planet and Planet Earth (both of which Attenborough narrated).

After nearly six decades inside and outside the BBC, Attenborough has a better sense of the organisation's trajectory than most. "I think the BBC has strayed from the straight and narrow on a number of courses at the moment," he says. "The sails need to be trimmed and [it] needs to be refocused." And, in a rare flash of indignation about the politics: "But it is crucially important in our society and [represents] the highest aspirations of our society. I'm appalled anybody thinks otherwise." His warning to the government is clear. "If you remove the licence fee, it would be gone in a decade, finished," he says. Still, when I ask what he would be doing if he were back behind a desk at the BBC today, he replies, half joking: "Resigning, I think."

As it is, he has never stopped working. In 1997, he was filming a series in New Zealand when he received a phone call telling him that Jane had suffered a brain haemorrhage. He returned to Britain and was with her in hospital when she died. As he reflected later in his memoir Life on Air, he felt the focus of his life was gone. Jane had looked after the children and the animals, had met every flight he took home. She had made his career possible: "Now, I was lost." Work steered him through grief, and he has immersed himself in new projects ever since.

A hallmark of his career has been his desire to push back the boundaries (he introduced colour television to Britain on BBC2 in 1967). Now he is experimenting with 3D. On Christmas Day he appeared in Sky's Flying Monsters, squashed into a hang-glider as an animated pterosaur - a giant winged lizard, 65 million years extinct - whirled around him. "I was thinking, 'Gosh, a national treasure's going up in a glider,'" says Anthony Geffen, the show's producer. "And the helicopter with the rig was flying literally within feet of the glider to get him to speak to camera. It was hair-raising." But Attenborough, says Geffen, is always game. "He just goes in and likes to think the best will happen, and that nothing bad will happen." That adventurous spirit has never been quelled, nor has his work ethic. "David is rigorous," Geffen says. "He wants to get it right and he will get it right . . . He doesn't suffer fools gladly. If you get it wrong, you'll certainly know about it."

Yet he is also fun. The pair recently worked together again on First Life, a series on fossils. At the end of a day's shooting the crew would return to the hotel assuming that the presenter would be tired and retreat to his room. Far from it, Geffen says. "When we get back he's fired up and wants to go out and talk and drink red wine - and we're up till pretty late and off again very early." Attenborough will talk about anything, Geffen says; he reads extensively. "He's a very good partner in Trivial Pursuit, because he answers everything."

Not long after I met Attenborough, I went to hear him speak at the Institute of Education in London. The hall was packed, and even though it was a cold Monday evening in November, in the middle of term, the rows were full of children shuffling in excitement. At the end of the talk, their hands shot up to ask questions. He has always had this effect on children, has never lost what Dawkins describes as his "boyish enthusiasm". Perhaps that is why people can be overcome with affection for him. He is a voice and a face from our earliest years, when we sat too close to the television as a grey-haired man crouched behind a bush and explained something extraordinary about nature.

Stars in his eyes

Dawkins says that Attenborough's longevity and undimmed energy have made him arguably the most respected person in Britain. He quite seriously imagines what would happen if we had to elect a monarch: "David Attenborough would be the one person the whole country would unite behind. Attenborough for king!" Not that the man would relish the adulation. Geffen had to persuade him, when they made First Life, that the public would enjoy an additional film about Attenborough's life ("He didn't really want to make it because he likes to concentrate on what he's filming").

Eventually he agreed, and they took an extra crew on location for First Life to shoot Attenborough's Journey, tracing his lifelong passion for fossils. At the end, the presenter sits on a beach in Australia and muses on the circularity of choosing the very earliest creatures as the subject of what he says will be his final big series. "In that curious way, the end - of making my last series like this - is my beginning."

As Geffen says, this was unusually introspective. "He doesn't sit there, reflecting like that in a sentimental way, very often. He's not fundamentally sentimental about himself. He is very, very modest . . . but it's a rare chink we got out of him and quite a big moment: the final element of the whole strand of programming he's made for years and years." That this was as difficult to capture on film as a snow leopard in the wild reflects Attenborough's lack of self-interest. (Fothergill notes that, in Attenborough's films, he never says "I" - "he is clear that the stars are the animals".)

His boundless curiosity is instinctive. "That's what being alive is about," Attenborough says. "I mean, it's the fun of it all, making sense of it, understanding it. There's a great pleasure in knowing why trees shed their leaves in winter. Everybody knows they do, but why? If you lose that, then you've lost pleasure."

He seems uncharacteristically sombre for a moment. Then he says: "I feel regret that there are some people who've never even savoured it. It never occurs to people to wonder why a hummingbird and a hummingbird hawkmoth do the same things. It's a delight. So I suppose there are some people who don't do these things and are very happy and have perfectly happy lives. Who's to patronise them? But all I can say is that the pleasure of it all is not virtue, or high morality. It's just fun."

Sophie Elmhirst is an assistant editor of the NS.

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 10 January 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Here comes the squeeze

MUSÉE BARGOIN, CLERMONT-FERRAND, FRANCE/BRIDGEMAN IMAGES
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Ending the new Thirty Years war

Why the real history of the Peace of Westphalia in 17th-century Europe offers a model for bringing stability to the Middle East.

A man hangs upside down in a fire. Others are stabbed to death or tortured; their womenfolk offer valuables to save their lives – or try to flee. Elsewhere, women are assaulted and violated. In another image the branches of a tree are weighed down with hanging bodies, and a religious symbol is proffered to a victim as the last thing he will see on Earth. The caption describes the hanged men as “unhappy fruit”.

This could be Syria today: but it is Europe, in the mid-17th century, at the height of the Thirty Years War. The artist who recorded these horrors was Jacques Callot, who saw the French army invade and occupy Lorraine in 1633. He was perhaps the closest thing his time had to a photojournalist.

The Thirty Years War, within which the occupation of Lorraine was just a short episode, has been cited as a parallel in new discussions of the Middle East by a range of foreign policy practitioners, including Henry Kissinger and the president of the US Council on Foreign Relations, Richard Haass, academics such as Martin van Creveld and journalists such as Andreas Whittam Smith. Like the original Thirty Years War, which was in fact a series of separate but interconnected struggles, recent conflict in the Middle East has included fighting in Israel, the occupied territories and Lebanon, the long and bloody Iran-Iraq War, the two Gulf wars, and now civil wars in Iraq and Syria. As with the Thirty Years War, events in Iraq and Syria have been marked by sectarian conflict and intervention by peripheral states (and still more distant countries) fighting proxy wars. Both the Thirty Years War and the present Middle Eastern conflicts have been hugely costly in human life. The Peace of Westphalia that ended the Thirty Years War in 1648 has also featured in comment of late, usually along with the observation that recent events have brought about the collapse, at least in parts of the Middle East, of ideas of state sovereignty that supposedly originated with Westphalia.

Yet that is a myth, a serious and perhaps fatal misunderstanding of the Westphalian treaties. The provisions of the treaties in fact set up a structure for the legal settlement of disputes both within and beyond the German statelets that had been the focus of the conflict, and for the intervention of guarantor powers outside Germany to uphold the peace settlement. And, as we shall see, the real history of Westphalia has much to tell us in the present about the resolution and prevention of complex conflicts.

 

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Germany is the prosperous heart of the continent today, but in the early 17th century the “Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation” was the disaster zone of Europe. It was politically fragmented, with the various princes, bishops, towns and the emperor himself all vying for influence, greatly complicated by religious differences between Roman Catholics and followers of various forms of Protestantism. The empire lay at the centre of Europe and was thus the point at which the great-power interests of nearly all the main protagonists in the international system intersected: the French, the Habsburgs, the Swedes, the Ottomans and even the English regarded the area as vital to their security. So Germany both invited intervention by its neighbours and spewed out instability into Europe when the empire erupted in a religious war in 1618 that lasted three decades.

Domestically, the root of the Thirty Years War, just as with many Middle Eastern ­conflicts today, lay in religious intolerance. The security of subjects governed by rulers of the opposing religious camp was often at risk of their governments’ attempts to enforce doctrinal uniformity. With the creation of cross-border confessional communities, as well as antagonisms both within and between the territorial states, rulers became increasingly willing to intervene on behalf of co-religionist subjects of other princes – another parallel with the contemporary Middle East.

Initial attempts to solve these problems failed. After a series of wars following the Reformation, a religious peace was ­concluded at the imperial Diet of Augsburg in 1555. This was a milestone in the devel­opment of confessional cohabitation, because it embodied, for the first time, a recognition of the importance of creating a legal-political framework to manage religious coexistence. Although the treaty helped foster peace for many years, it was nevertheless deficient. First, the princes granted each other toleration only between themselves, not among subjects within their territories. The “Right of Reformation”, or ius reformandi, gave princes the power to impose their confession on their subjects: a form of religious compulsion later encapsulated in the phrase cuius regio, eius religio (“the religion of the prince is the religion of the territory”).

Rulers became increasingly willing to intervene on behalf of co-religionist subjects of other princes

This was a state-centred solution; it ignored the concerns of the princes’ subjects apart from guaranteeing their right to emigrate. Partly designed to undercut interventionist impulses by consigning confessional affairs to an inviolable domestic sphere, the treaty text stated: “No Estate [territory] should protect and shield another Estate or its subjects against their government in any way.” Second, the state-centred settlement was increasingly unsatisfactory for most Protestant states, as it had inbuilt structural advantages for the Catholic side. Calvinism was not recognised and remained officially a heresy. Furthermore, the Catholic princes began to rely on majority voting to sideline Protestants at decision-making assemblies such as the Reichstag or Diet, which in effect
was the German parliament. And the Catholic Church embarked on a major evangelising effort to reverse the effects of the Protestant Reformation through popular preaching – the Counter-Reformation, a prime mover for which was the Jesuit order. Taken together, these factors left Protestants feeling increasingly under pressure, and more radical Protestants were constantly trying to revise the settlement. The formation of hostile princely religious alliances – the Protestant Union in 1608 and the Catholic League in 1609 – was symptomatic of the general “war in sight” atmosphere characterising central Europe at the turn of the 17th century.

The resulting war was, just like the current Middle Eastern conflict, a set of interlocking political-religious struggles at local and regional levels. These provoked and enabled extensive external interference, which in turn exacerbated and prolonged the conflict. Non-state and sub-state actors played important roles in that epoch as they do now: corporate groupings of noble subjects (estates) and private military entrepreneurs; terrorist groups and aid organisations. The war began as an insurrection of the Bohemian nobility against their Habsburg rulers, and soon escalated into a much broader confessional conflict within the empire. But it also became a struggle between competing visions of the future political order in central Europe – a centralised imperial monarchy against a more federally organised, princely and estates-based constitution – which in turn folded into the long-standing Habsburg-Bourbon struggle for European supremacy.

The war was immensely destructive: arguably the greatest trauma in German history. It resulted in an overall loss of about 40 per cent of the population, which dropped from roughly 20 million to 12 million. The war was not merely quantitatively, but qualitatively, extreme. Such atrocities as the massacre and burning of Magdeburg in 1631, which killed over 20,000 people, resonate in the German popular imagination to this day. The war also caused its own refugee crisis. Cities such as Ulm hosted huge numbers relative to their pre-war population – 8,000 refugees taken in by 15,000 inhabitants in 1634, a situation comparable to the one faced by Lebanon today, where one in four people is a Syrian refugee. The resulting shifts in the religious balance often sparked unrest in previously quiet areas, a phenomenon we are beginning to see in the Middle East as well. In those days no one had come up with the concept of toxic stress – but the trauma was no less for that.

 

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Eventually, the war between the Holy Roman emperor, the princes, Sweden, France and their respective allies was brought to an end by the now-famous Treaties of Münster and Osnabrück (collectively known as the Peace of Westphalia). In roughly the past century and a half, however, their nature and implications have been completely misunderstood. The misconception – still frequently repeated in many textbooks, in the media, by politicians, and in standard works on international relations – maintains that the Peace, by granting the princes sovereignty, inaugurated a modern “Westphalian system” based on states’ sovereign equality, the balance of power and non-intervention in domestic affairs. This fallacious notion of Westphalia was later picked up uncritically by political scientists, scholars of international law and historians, leading to the remarkably persistent and widespread Westphalian myth.

The real Westphalia was something quite different. Although the Right of Reformation was officially confirmed, it was in effect nullified by the imposition of the “normative year”. This fixed control of the churches, the right of public worship, and the confessional status of each territory to the state it had been in, on 1 January 1624. This was an innovative compromise arrangement that set a mutually acceptable official benchmark for faith at a point in time at which neither side had gained supremacy. By establishing a standard applicable to all, it also represented a convenient means of avoiding the conflicts of honour inherent in early-modern negotiations in which princes were asked to make concessions.

The practical outcome was that a princely conversion could no longer determine the religious affiliation of the subject population in question. The imperial judicial tribunals retained extensive authority to enforce the confessional and property rights of princes’ subjects (many of which were stipulated at Westphalia). The external guarantors, France and Sweden, were granted a right to intervene against either the emperor or the princes, in order to uphold Westphalian rights and terms. So, this “true Westphalia” is better characterised as an order of conditional sovereignty.

Princes were entitled to rule for life, but crucially were required to respect their subjects’ basic rights, such as religious freedom (including that of Calvinists), enjoyment of property and access to judicial recourse, while also respecting the rights of fellow rulers. If they failed in their duties towards their subjects or the empire they could in theory and practice become targets for intervention, which in some cases entailed deposition from power.

That central Europe avoided another religious war after 1648 shows the success of Westphalia’s conflict regulation mechanisms. At a time of renewed religious dispute in the early 18th century, a statement issued by the Protestant party at the imperial Diet commented on the improvements that Westphalia had brought to the imperial constitution, stating: “The refusal of Territorial rulers to accept that other fellow states protect foreign inhabitants and subjects was one of the greatest causes which led to the wretched Thirty Years War. It is precisely this wound which has been healed by the Peace of Westphalia.”

Westphalia was thus seen as a corrective measure, opening up domestic affairs to mutual and reciprocal scrutiny, on the basis of clear principles agreed by all. It provided an effective system for the “juridification” of conflict, whereby confessional strife (which certainly continued) was channelled into a legal-diplomatic framework and defused through litigation and negotiation, if necessary with the threat of external intervention by a guarantor power, rather than being settled by warfare.

 

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Where in 17th-century Europe Protestants were alarmed by the revanchism of the Catholic Counter-Reformation, through which the emperor (with the support of his Spanish Habsburg cousins) sought to restitute property and lands confiscated from the Catholic prince-bishoprics by Protestant princes during the previous century, so in the Middle East today Shia communities feel under pressure from the new wave of aggressive Wahhabi/Salafi jihadism which similarly regards their faith as heresy and abomination. Or, if you choose to accept the Saudi or Wahhabi version, you could regard Iran and the Shias as the threatening hegemon. One way or the other, both Iran and Saudi Arabia feel insecure in the region, menaced by enemies, to a degree paranoid and liable to miscalculate the true nature of the threat to them and their faiths.

Moreover, the position can change. After the Swedish intervention in Germany in 1630, the Catholics, previously triumphant, were thrown on the defensive and their worst nightmares began to come true. For an eventual settlement to become possible, it was necessary for disillusionment with religious aggrandisement to set in. That might still seem to be some way off in Syria and Iraq now; yet perhaps not so far off. At an earlier stage some Sunnis at least, in Iraq and elsewhere, became disillusioned with al-Qaeda when it was seen to be able to offer no more than continuing violence, with no prospect of any kind of victory. It will be necessary first to defeat Da’esh, or Islamic State, but disillusionment with it could set in quite quickly when its millenarian project is seen to suffer severe setbacks. It will nonetheless be necessary to deal with the Wahhabi origins of the jihadi problem, in Saudi Arabia, as Michael Axworthy argued in his New Statesman article of 27 November 2015.

It would be highly desirable as part of a wider Westphalia-style settlement also to make progress towards a solution of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Yet such a settlement should not be seen as necessarily dependent on that. The Israel/Palestinian question is not an important factor in the present situation in Syria or Iraq, nor has it been among the prime concerns of al-Qaeda or Islamic State, which have both been much more focused on toppling Arab states in the Middle East.

Another aspect of the conflict in the Middle East is that both Iran and Saudi Arabia see themselves as the legitimate leader of the community of Islam as a whole. Just as Christendom was pulled apart by religious conflict in the 17th century, yet Catholicism and Protestantism were still horribly bound together, like cats in a sack, by a shared history and shared faith, so too with contemporary Islam. The traditional territory of Islam is still, in some sense, a coherent whole in the minds of Muslims. In a way reminiscent of that in which the Holy Roman emperor’s authority was still recognised by the Protestant states of the empire, albeit reluctantly and with bitter resentment, so Shia Muslims have to accept Saudi Arabia’s de facto guardianship of the holy places of Medina and Mecca. A settlement in the Middle East could take strength from the lingering sense of a common heritage in the region.

 

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The creation of Iraq, Syria and Lebanon as sovereign states after the First World War owes something to the European state model that is linked in the minds of many to the mythical Westphalia. Some would say that the model was artificial and unsuited to the complex political reality of those countries; that the continuing collapse of Iraq and Syria (with Lebanon looking fragile) is at least in part a consequence of the bad match. But it may be less the borders of those states that have been the problem than the internal political nature of the states as they were established.

The new nations’ borders for the most part followed the boundaries of previous Ottoman administrative districts, including those abolished with much fanfare by Islamic State 18 months ago. Such is the ethnic, religious and tribal complexity of the peoples they contain that they are likely to be difficult to divide up in any less artificial or more satisfactory way. Any attempt to redraw borders extensively is likely to deepen and exacerbate the chaos. In the Westphalia settlement, with only a few exceptions, the pre-war borders of the German statelets were retained; it was the way the states related to each other and the confessional diversity of their subjects that changed. There is a lesson here.

Sectarianism, the interference of neighbouring states, the breakdown of earlier state arrangements, the exodus of refugees –all of these are features of a region that has become, as a recent New Statesman leader put it (quoting Karl Kraus), a “laboratory for world destruction”. Some in the contemporary Middle East are aware of past religious extremism and conflict in Europe and ask how we overcame it historically. Therefore, it is in no way patronising to offer the lessons of those past traumas: it is part of our shared human experience, our collective memory. That is what history is – or can be. The Westphalia myth, in supporting a notional model of the modern state which has failed in both Iraq and Syria, may have contributed to the terrible conflicts we have seen unfolding in recent years in those countries. The real Westphalia, by contrast, could contribute to a solution.

It showed ways to turn interference in wars into guarantees of peace

Its application to the Middle East requires an inclusive conference with representatives from all recognised states in the region, plus potential “guarantor” powers. The negotiations would have to start from the assumption that the “truth content” of the various positions has to be set aside for now, and would have to end with a recognition that sovereignty would be conditional and involve the transfer of some prerogatives to common institutions modelled on the old German imperial ­supreme judicial institutions and/or the Reichstag. Populations would not necessarily be guaranteed democratic participation in the first instance, but governments would be obliged to respect certain vital rights, including the free exercise of religion and, in certain circumstances, that of judicial appeal outside their local jurisdictions. Toleration would thus be “graded”, Westphalian-style, with the recognition of a dominant religion or system in each territory, but with safeguards for minorities. As with Westphalia, rulers would be constrained by duties towards their own subjects (for that is what they are, at present), but also towards respecting each other’s integrity as well as that of the whole system. The whole arrangement would then have to be placed under external guarantee of agreed regional and global powers.

All this requires political will and engagement, obviously, but it must begin with some intellectual legwork. To this end, the Forum on Geopolitics at the University of Cambridge has established a “Laboratory for World Construction”, drawing on expertise in both cases, to begin to design a Westphalia for the Middle East.

 

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There will be no a “quick fix”; the Westphalia negotiations took five years and ultimately failed to end the related war between Spain and France (which lasted until 1659). By 1648 the various warring parties in central Europe had reached a state of general exhaustion, and disillusionment with religious extremism.

But the lessons of the real treaties of Westphalia, which provided means for the legal resolution of disputes and showed ways to turn external interference in conflict into external guarantees for peace, could be a significant contribution to eventual settlement of the Middle East’s problems.

Bringing peace to the Middle East will not be easy, and many have failed before. Yet if it could be done in mid-17th-century Germany, a problem no less intractable, then anything is possible.

Brendan Simms is the director of the Forum on Geopolitics at Cambridge

Michael Axworthy is the director of the Centre for Persian and Iranian Studies at the University of Exeter

Patrick Milton is a postdoctoral fellow at the Free University of Berlin (POINT programme) and co-ordinator of the Westphalia for the Middle East “Laboratory for World Construction” at the Forum on Geopolitics

This article first appeared in the 21 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Middle East's 30 years war