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Jemima Khan meets Nick Clegg: “I’m not a punchbag – I have feelings”

The NS guest editor Jemima Khan talks to the Liberal Democrat leader about life on the far side of power and what it’s like to be a cut-out.

Nick Clegg and I smile genially at each other across the table of a standard-class train carriage. He is on his way to his constituency in Sheffield to talk about manufacturing. Pale-faced, pale-eyed and so tired he appears taxidermied, he looks like he could do with a holiday, except he's just had one – skiing in Davos with his children as the Libyan crisis escalated (for which he was lambasted).

Nick Clegg is the Tim Henman of politics: a decent man for whom Cleggmania represented the peak of his career, his Henman Hill moment. Then he became the Deputy Prime Minister and, shortly after, an effigy.

The carefree, cloud-cuckoo days of opposition, when he had a platform and little criticism, are long gone. At last year's Liberal Democrat spring conference, a fresh-looking and ebullient Clegg had gesticulated and boomed: "We see the same old broken promises. No wonder people feel let down." A year on, he was less combative, more ambivalent. His many critics pointed to his own broken promises and let-down voters.

Clegg concedes that it has been a "very sharp transition". "Of course it has had a dramatic effect on how I'm perceived, the kind of dilemmas I have to face," he says. "I don't even pretend we can occupy the Lib Dem holier-than-thou, hands-entirely-clean-and-entirely-empty-type stance. No, we are getting our hands dirty, and inevitably and totally understandably we are being accused of being just like any other politicians."

His point – and it seems a fair one – is that the British public voted, no one party won and that coalition government, by definition, is a compromise. "A whole lot of things are happening that would just never in a month of Sundays have happened without the Lib Dems there," he says. The morning of our meeting, he claims to have "squeezed out of [George] Osborne" a promise of a green investment bank, not simply a fund. "We've done more on liberty and privacy," he adds, "in the past ten months than Labour did in the past 13 years."

All this has done little to dilute the vitriol of his opponents. John Prescott has likened him to Jedward, the risible and tuneless twins from The X Factor. Ed Miliband has called him "a tragic figure", one too toxic to share a platform with ahead of the referendum on the Alternative Vote. Clegg insists that none of this bothers him. "I see it exactly for what it is. [Ed] is a perfectly nice guy but he has a problem, which is that he's not in control of his own party, so he constantly has to keep his troops happy and he thinks that ranting and raving at me is the way to do it."

Since joining the government, and in particular since his U-turn on university tuition fees, Clegg has had dog mess posted through his door and been spat at in the street. It must upset him. "No, well look, I'm a human being, I'm not a punchbag – I've of course got feelings."

He pauses. "Actually, the curious thing is that the more you become a subject of admiration or loathing, the more you're examined under a microscope, the distance seems to open up between who you really are and the portrayals that people impose on you . . . I increasingly see these images of me, cardboard cut-outs that get ever more outlandish . . . One thing I've very quickly learned is that if you wake up every morning worrying about what's in the press, you would go completely and utterly potty."

After ten months in government, he has a guardedness that did not exist in the days when he told Piers Morgan he'd had roughly 30 lovers. These days he is tightly managed. I have already had a pre-interview briefing with one adviser, and now Clegg's version of Andy Coulson, who is sitting to his right, is busy taking written notes of our interview, as well as recording it. When Clegg gets sidetracked, he prompts him, head down, pen poised over notebook, deadpan: "You were talking about what you've achieved . . ."

Everyone seems painfully aware that my task as interviewer is to catch him out, to get him to say the wrong thing. Clegg's task, like all politicians, is to rattle off rhetoric, to be evasive and as uncontroversial as possible, and to fill up the tape with unquotable patter.

All of which makes interviewing him excruciating. He continues: "What we've achieved so far . . . I think just having a government with two parties in it is already such a big new thing. I know it has been born in a blaze of controversy because of the difficult economic decisions we've had to take . . . but if we're lucky, people will look back on it in 20 or 30 years' time as quite a normal thing in British politics that politicians can actually agree with each other from time to time.

“That in itself is quite big and radical. In the week or two leading up to the general election, every single newspaper was screaming from the headlines: 'A hung parliament will be a disaster, coalition politics will be a disaster. Nothing will get done.' And the extraordinary thing is that now we're being accused of almost exactly the reverse – of doing too much."

Of doing too much? Or of being too Tory? Clegg's dilemma is that, on the one hand, he is in danger of being seen as too close to David Cameron and the Conservatives, and losing credibility with his party and voters. On the other hand, he can't be too distant, because that would be damaging for the coalition and a gift for the opposition and the press, which is constantly looking for rifts.

Before the election, Clegg let it be known that he had turned down an invitation to dine with the Camerons at their home in Notting Hill. He wanted to maintain a distance. Perhaps wary of looking like he fits too easily into the port-swilling, waistcoat-wearing Bullingdon Club set, he is still keen to present Cameron as more working partner than friend.

“We don't regard each other as mates and actually I don't think it would be a particularly healthy thing if we tried to become personal mates," he says. "I don't think a coalition works unless you have a very careful balance between mutual respect and civility and also a certain hardness, as at the end of the day you are representing different views."

I've heard that they play tennis together. "No, no – well, er, I think we've played one game of tennis. Of course we meet from time to time but it's always basically to talk about what we're doing in government."

Who won?

“Ah no, that's a state secret," he jokes. (Cameron won.)

Earlier, at my pre-interview briefing, Clegg's adviser Richard Reeves, the former head of Demos, characterised being in the coalition as like being in a marriage – you both get to know instinctively which are the no-go areas.

Clegg concedes that there are "some areas where we flatly disagree" with the Tories, such as on Europe ("I think you can't make sense of this world unless you work together with other folk in the European neighbourhood") and taxation ("Our reflexes as Lib Dems are to try to give tax breaks to people on middle or lower incomes, whereas traditionally they are more interested in trickle-down economics"), but denies that there are "no-go areas". "Look, we're on completely opposite sides of the fence on the AV referendum."

He refuses to concede that signing the pledge to vote against an increase in university tuition fees before the election was a mistake. "That would be a cop-out. I did it. And I have a rather old-fashioned belief that you've got to stand by what you've done and take the consequences, good or bad." He insists that it was not one of his main manifesto priorities anyway. "I didn't even spend that much time campaigning on tuition fees."

Instead, he says, he spent "every single day and every single interview talking about the four things that were on the front page of the manifesto – namely the pupil premium, two and a half million quid for disadvantaged kids; changing the tax system, so you don't pay tax on your first £10,000; political reform; and sorting out the banks and rebalancing the economy."

That's all very well, but given that the Lib Dems are only ever likely to be in government as part of a coalition, how will he deal with pledges made in future election campaigns? Will there be pledges with caveats, depending on which party he clambers into bed with next? "I think that we need to be clearer about what are the really big, big priorities."

After his capitulation on tuition fees, there are many who now fear that nothing is sacred for the Lib Dems. He denies this. "If the Conservatives wanted to become as authoritarian as Blair and New Labour, I wouldn't have it – but it wouldn't happen, as it couldn't happen with us in [the coalition]."

Clegg is emphatic that he will not allow the Tories to disempower the Lib Dems' much-loved European Court of Human Rights. The problem with being in a coalition government is that it acts as a gag. There are times in the interview when Clegg looks so pained as to remind me of Colin Firth in the opening scenes of The King's Speech, particularly when issues of Rupert Murdoch and phone-hacking come up. I know what he'd have said if he were in opposition. The Lib Dems were always very critical of the Cameron-Murdoch cabal. Some Lib Dem MPs were victims of phone-hacking by the News of the World.

“My thoughts are," he begins haltingly, "that it has all come out much more into the open since the police investigation . . . and I think, you know, since those days it is becoming much more out there, and quite rightly. I've always said that the police have got to investigate and the CPS [Crown Prosecution Service] have got to take action. Look, I don't follow every twist and turn . . ." His press secretary looks up for the first time.

What of those, such as the Labour MPs Chris Bryant and Tom Watson, who believe that the Murdochs have too much power and influence over politicians? There's a long pause. "I think that the days when newspaper barons could basically click their fingers and governments would snap to attention have gone," he says.

Clegg is exceptionally loyal to David Cameron – I expect he is a loyal man by nature, not design – but there's a fine line between being loyal and sounding plain disingenuous. So, what does he think of the dinner party hosted over Christmas by News International's chief executive, Rebekah Brooks, at her Cotswolds home, attended by the Camerons and James Murdoch?

“I don't know anything about Oxfordshire dinner parties," he says. Of course he does. Everyone in politics knows about the get-together of Brooks, Cameron and Rupert Murdoch's son, and most agree that the timing of it was inappropriate, given that there was a criminal investigation under way over phone-hacking in the Murdoch empire, as well as ongoing negotiations with the regulatory authorities over the ownership of BSkyB.

“Well, I'm assuming that they weren't sitting there talking about News International issues," says Clegg. "Look, you're putting me in a very awkward spot. If you've got an issue with it, speak to Dave. I don't hang out in Oxfordshire at dinner parties. It's not my world. It's never going to be my world."

He looks pained. I feel sorry for him and I can't help telling him so. I was married to a politician and I remember the constant self-censorship and, in my case, the gaffes. I get the impression that Nick Clegg is an honest, straightforward man in a dishonest, unstraightforward world, in which nobody can say what they really think.

An interruption offers some blessed relief. A beaming middle-aged woman who has spotted Clegg on the train passes a note to his aide. It reads: "I couldn't resist such a unique opportunity to say, 'Stick With It!' The vast majority of us think the coalition are doing the right thing. We know it's tough but it's very necessary. All the best."

The press secretary looks triumphant. Clegg looks momentarily less beleaguered. He thanks the woman graciously and just as I am wondering if it was a set-up, Clegg jokes that it was. He often gets support from the public, he says, but the difference is that these days people whisper their congratulations, "as if it's a guilty secret saying anything nice about Nick Clegg". He should watch those slips into the third person – an early sign that a person is losing touch with reality.

Clegg was a strong opponent of the war in Iraq and for that he earned many supporters. His backing of the "surge" and British forces' continued presence in Afghan­istan is therefore surprising. There are rumours, which he denies, that he wanted to call for an immediate withdrawal of troops but that the former Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown, an ex-marine, persuaded him not to.

“In a sense," Clegg says, "we have brought our ambition to a much more realistic level. We've now got an exit date, which we didn't have before, and a much better set of weapons on the ground. And crucially you've got the British government saying to [President Hamid] Karzai – who I had dinner with recently – this cannot be won militarily. Once you're in that far and you've had that many people die and be maimed, I think it would be morally questionable to cut and run overnight."

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the real reason we continue to pour money into a war with no clear goals – and continue to line the roads of Wootton Bassett – is so that those in power will be able to keep on claiming that "they did not die in vain".

“Look, it's never perfect. It's not a neat world," says Clegg. He is above all a pragmatist for whom coalition, foreign policy and life are a balancing act. He accepts that there are moral problems with supporting Karzai's government, which has no authority outside the Afghan capital, Kabul, and which, according to the Transparency International corruption index, was last year the second most corrupt in the world. "Exactly – that's where it gets messy and imperfect."

Clegg is pleased to have "got more balance into the debate on Israel in the party". While he is "undimmed" in his criticism of Israel's illegal settlement activity and his "absolute horror of what is a humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza", he stresses that "Israel has legitimate security issues in a region where there is a threat to its existence".

He denies that there is a fundamental incompatibility between the west's rhetoric about democracy and our need for oil. "Do we have vital economic self-interest to keep lights on? Yes. Do I think that should be won at the cost of always being on the side of people who want to express themselves and want democracy? No."

He refuses to be drawn on whether he thinks it was bad timing for Cameron to tour the Middle East on a "UK trade mission"- a euphemism for peddling arms to despots – at a time when there are widespread protests in favour of democracy in the region. He will say, though, that the business of selling arms represents "a horrendous dilemma".

That we have sold arms to repressive regimes – tear gas grenades to Bahrain, armoured personnel carriers to Saudi Arabia, crowd-control ammunition to Libya – is "of course wrong", he agrees. "That's why we've suspended scores and scores of export licences. What guarantee do you have when you export product X to country Y, who seem totally hunky-dory, totally peaceful, and what happens when the country goes belly up? What we're doing is pragmatic rather than pure."

Even the language Clegg uses is moderate and qualified, interspersed with phrases such as "kind of" and "on the other hand" as well as rhetorical questions and unfinished sentences. He's unhyperbolic and ambiguous in a way that must be alien to most Tories. Whereas Cameron strikes me as a man with almost no self-doubt, Clegg seems more self-questioning and less bombastic. I suspect that he is as accom­modating and good at compromise in his marriage as he has been politically.

He smiles for the first time when he tells me that his Spanish wife, Miriam, has "got wonderfully strong opinions". It's clear for a start who chose the names for their three children, Antonio, Alberto and Miguel Clegg. They are being brought up as Roman Catholics, even though Clegg has said he is an atheist. The children are bilingual, speaking both Spanish and English fluently.

At one point, it was assumed that Miriam would be the one with the big career and he would be the thinker and take care of their children. After his eldest son was born, Clegg says: "Miriam was in a particularly intense period of her career and I was in a particularly relaxed period of mine . . . coming to the end of my time as an MEP, so I was very, very involved. I wasn't the primary parent – Miriam would get very annoyed if she were to read that – but I was very involved and you carry that on with you."

He has successfully managed to keep his family out of the spotlight, "to create a firewall" between his world and theirs, although he worries constantly that "what I am doing in my work impacts on them emotionally, because my nine-year-old is starting to sense things and I'm having to explain things. Like he asks, 'Why are the students angry with you, Papa?'"

Clegg refuses "to play politics" with his children, or to say whether or not they will go to a private school. While he's not "ideologically opposed to fee-paying schools existing", he is offended by the notion that it would be his decision alone, rather than one he would reach with Miriam. "I go: hang on a minute – what century are we living in?"

The same applies to what he might do in the future. He certainly does not want to be in politics all his life. "I think that's deeply unhealthy. I look at those people that got into politics when they were 16 and are still at it in their late sixties and think, 'My heavens above!'" Judging by the most recent opinion polls, he may not have the luxury of choice. Either way, he says, Miriam has made "masses of sacrifices putting up with me and politics" and this will be something they decide on together. He'd like to think, though, that he would go into education.

He is besotted by his "three lovely boys" and is most proud "by a long shot" of the family life he has created with Miriam. They manage to lead a relatively normal life, "not in a bunker in Westminster", and he tries to pick his children up from school and put them to bed at night at least two or three times a week.

He regrets that sometimes he doesn't always get the balance right, which makes him "quite miserable" and unable to do his job properly.Sometimes he has to tell them white lies if he is stuck in a meeting. At home, in the evenings, he likes to read novels and says he "cries regularly to music."

I receive a snapshot of his family life when, after the interview is over, I am invited to dine with other journalists at Chevening, the grace- and-favour house in Kent that Clegg shares with William Hague. Clegg arrives two hours late – he's been in protracted discussions over Libya – and looks corpse-like with exhaustion. The contrast with his vibrant, pretty wife, with her big bawdy laugh, could not be more stark. His children seem delightful – and delightfully normal.

Clegg has been accused of selling out, of providing a yellow fig leaf for the Tories' less attractive bits. But I expect that he would see opting out of the coalition or leaving politics altogether as the biggest cop-out of all. He is not consumed by politics – he has a fulfilling life away from Westminster – but he seems to have an old-fashioned sense of duty and believes that, without him there in the cabinet, the Tories would be up to far more of their old tricks. He might well be right – but will he be so easily forgiven by the voters?

“I have a faintly romantic belief that if over five years I just keep steadily trying to do the best I can, with all the difficult dilemmas we face, with not very much money, all those kinds of things . . . we will kind of come through. I think if people see that someone is trying to do the right thing and maybe they're not entirely succeeding, they kind of will go with you. And that's all you can do."

He suddenly looks very, very sad. A week later I glimpse him on television, on the front bench on Budget Day. Cameron sits to his left, looking ruddy and shiny, straight off the playing fields, ready for an interminable life of "Yeah, yeah, yeah" in the Commons. Clegg, by contrast, looks like he's in black and white – lost and out of place.

Later that evening, I get a text from his press secretary, offering me "a full copy of the note that lady passed on the train". He thought I might like it for my piece, "in case it needs some colour".

Jemima Khan is associate editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 11 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Jemima Khan guest edit

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