Sunday, September 13, 2015

Another Thirty Years War?

We have now had almost non-stop war in the Middle East since the US (with UK and the 'Coalition of the Willing') recklessly and illegally invaded Iraq in 2003. It is war since 2001 if we include Afghanistan in the extended Middle East. War and chaos seem set to last for a lot longer, with no end in sight for the conflicts in Syria and Yemen or the mayhem in Libya. It could very well end up rivalling in duration, barbarity and consequence an earlier catastrophic conflict.

I refer to the Thirty Years War in Europe in the early part of the seventeenth century. Although referred to now as a singular 'war' it was actually a series of conflicts, centred on the German states. According to historians,it was one of the longest and most destructive conflicts in all of European history.

Most of the following brief outline of the War is taken from Wikipedia (

It was initially a war of religion between Protestant and Catholic principalities in the disintegrating Holy Roman Empire. But nearly all of the great powers surrounding the area of what is now Germany, got drawn into the conflict.

Following the various conflicts takes some effort (see Wikipedia article for a chronology). The religious dimension involved three factions - Catholics, Lutherans and Calvinists. The political dimension involved the great power conflict between the Hapsburg Empire (which comprised Spain and territories in Austria, the Low Countries and Italy) and France with the Ottomans involved in the east.

The Scandinavian (Danish and Swedish) kingdoms became involved opportunistically hoping to gain territory and influence in northern Germany and Poland.

The War along with accompanying famine and disease had a devastating effect on the German states and those surrounding it in Italy, the Low Countries and the Czech lands. It is estimated that the male population of the German states was reduced by almost 50 percent overall, with the losses in some areas much higher. For example Wurtternberg lost three quarters of its population. Villages were particularly hard hit, because mercenary armies were often not paid and relied on plunder for sustenance.

The War also had the effect of bankrupting most of the combatant powers. 

 All in all it was a complete disaster.

The current wars in the Middle East have a lot in common with the Thirty Years War. There is the religious conflict - Sunni vs Shia (and Alawite) with each side backed by a regional power (Saudi Arabia as champion of the Sunnis and Iran as champion of the Shias). There is great power involvement - the USA on the side of Saudi Arabia and Russia on the side of the al-Assad regime in Syria. And then there is Turkey hoping to gain territory and influence in northern Syria.

The Thirty Years War ended with a series of treaties between all of the combatant parties, collectively known as the Peace of Westphalia. This laid the ground for the future international system which held more or less until the early years of our century. Wikipedia describes it as follows:

The Peace of Westphalia established a new system of political order in central Europe, called Westphalian Sovereignty, based upon the concept of co-existing sovereign states . Inter-state aggression was to be held in check by a balance of power. A prejudice was established against interference in another nation's domestic affairs.

Note the prejudice against interference in another nation's domestic affairs. While this principle did not prevent great power wars, such as the two World Wars of the Twentieth Century, it did more or less stop the ongoing interference into the affairs of other sovereign nations, which can lead to perpetual war.  Unfortunately this principle has been seriously violated since the ending of the Cold War.

In the last decade of the Twentieth Century the US invaded Panama, bombed Serbia and Sudan, and was heavily involved in the fight to unseat the elected government of Nicaragua. Things have got much worse.  In the Twenty-First Century with the US, along with some NATO allies, conducting all-out invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Aerial bombardment of Libyan government forces, conducted by NATO, achieved the goal of unseating Muammar Qaddafi, but left the country in chaos without a government. The US has fired missiles from drones and aircraft in Pakistan and Yemen in targeted killings, with unknown numbers of civilian casualties. For the last few months Saudi Arabian forces have been bombing Yemen, with US support and cooperation, and there has been hardly a murmur of protest. 

This is not to say that the US might not have real enemies in some of the places it has invaded or bombarded.  But there are other means of solving conflicts short of military intervention. Ending conflicts by diplomacy rather than warfare was one of the aims of the Westphalian peace.

Of course the US is not the only power to violate the non-interference principle - Israel is another serious violator, along with China and Russia - but it has certainly been the worst. The goal of 'regime change' in countries directly opposed to US interests, has become almost a principle of US foreign policy. 
And it is a very dangerous one.  

The end of the Cold War opened all kinds of opportunities for the West. Unfortunately these opportunities have been abused. The lessons learned from the catastrophic Thirty Years War and its ending in the Peace of Westphalia seem to have been forgotten. And another Thirty Years War seems to be a distinct possibility.

No comments:

Post a Comment