Leader: The lessons of Europe’s Thirty Years War

In the West, the temptation for many is to turn away from events in the Middle East. How can outside actors hope to solve such an intractable problem, especially one with religion at its heart?

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Wars can be short, such as the two-month conflict in the Falkland Islands in 1982. They can also drag on for years, as with the two world wars in the 20th century, and claim millions of lives before peace returns. But sometimes it takes much longer – decades, even – for a war, or a series of interconnected wars, to be resolved and a new order to emerge. We are living in one of those times.

Since the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, the Middle East has endured a succession of conflicts: repeated fighting in Israel and the occupied territories and Lebanon, the Gulf wars, the Iraq War, and now the civil wars in Syria and Yemen, notwithstanding the long cold war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. As such, it is no wonder that many foreign policy specialists refer to the lasting turmoil as the Middle East’s Thirty Years War.

In the West, the temptation for many is to turn away from events in the Middle East and to wish that they were not so, or simply to despair at their complexity. How can outside actors hope to solve such an intractable problem, especially one with religion at its heart?

Yet this does not mean that one should not try, especially as Europe is suffering its worst refugee crisis since the end of the Second World War. As Brendan Simms, Michael Axworthy and Patrick Milton write in their cover essay, starting on page 22, the Thirty Years War in Europe seemed equally intractable in the early 17th century, when the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation was the disaster zone of Europe. Political divisions, with various princes and cities competing for power, were exacerbated by rivalries between Catholics and Protestants.

Religious differences and intolerance – as in the case of the Middle East today, where Sunni-Shia tensions inflame the crises – powered the interlocking wars that began in 1618, causing mass death and displacement. Outside powers were sucked in, worsening and prolonging the conflicts, as indeed is happening in the Middle East today, with Saudi Arabia and Iran in particular using their wealth and might to fight proxy wars.

Eventually the Thirty Years War – “arguably the greatest trauma in German history” – ended as a result of the treaties known today as the Peace of Westphalia. This did not result, as is often stated, in a new “Westphalian” system based on states’ sovereignty, balance of power and non-intervention in domestic affairs by foreign countries. Rather, it was an order of conditional sovereignty, with the external guarantors, France and Sweden, given the right to intervene if the treaties’ terms were violated. And it was successful: by opening up domestic affairs to reciprocal scrutiny, disputes were settled through litigation and negotiation, rather than warfare. Central Europe thereafter avoided religious conflict.

Could a similar process succeed in the Middle East today, starting with a conference involving the countries in the region and “guarantor” powers? It is unlikely. But it is one that merits exploring, given the tragedy of the Syrian War (now a theatre for great power rivalry) in particular and the lack of plausible solutions.

Scotland’s oil problem

The main economic case for Scottish independence was based on the belief that the country was “on the cusp of the second oil boom”, as the Scottish National Party’s Nicola Sturgeon said a month before the referendum. The SNP released a blueprint for independence predicting that the oil price would rise to $110 a barrel (it was $100 at the time of the referendum in September 2014). Instead, it has since slumped to $28 a barrel and is expected to fall even lower.

Scots concerned about the nation’s economy should perhaps be grateful that the referendum on independence was lost. Had Scotland voted to leave the United Kingdom, it would now be negotiating its independence settlement just as the oil market was collapsing.

Yet the undermining of the economic case for independence has had no electoral consequences for the SNP, which remains on course to win a landslide victory in the Holyrood elections in May. It seems that clear-eyed facts are no match for the emotional appeal of nationalism. 

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