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This Week in History:
October 24 - 30, 1648
The Treaty of Westphalia

October 2010

Treaty of Westphalia
by Gerard Terborch

With the entire planet facing the potentially imminent outbreak of perpetual religious war, set off by a trigger-happy United States, the attention of sane citizens should appropriately turn to the principle of international law established 362 years ago, with the adoption of the Treaty of Westphalia. That Treaty, brought about through the leadership of Cardinal Giulio Mazarin, the Prime Minister of France and ally of Pope Urban VIII, ended a period of more than 130 years of religious warfare, warfare that is estimated to have cut the population of parts of Europe in half, as well as destroying its agriculture, industry, and basic economic infrastructure.

The principles behind what is often called the Peace of Westphalia, have long been credited with establishing the system of national sovereignty on which the basis for cooperation and peace among nations has been established. While permitting empires to co-exist, alongside monarchies, and, potentially, republican forms of government, the Treaty attempted to curb the predatory nature of imperial governments (such as, particularly, Hapsburg Austria and Spain), in the interest of maintaining a state of peace.

Today, the growth of supranational government— through agencies such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the United Nations— has gone a long way toward destroying the system established by Westphalia. Prominent geopoliticians, like Henry Kissinger, have come forward to defend this shift, as an inevitable symptom of "modernism." And now, with the lunatic drive toward the establishment of an outright Imperial doctrine by the Bush Administration, the principle of national sovereignty is being directly challenged. "If we don't like your face, or your scientists, or your ideas, or your history, you don't have a right to exist."

Lawfully, the ripping up of the Treaty of Westphalia is likely to launch a new global religious war, at least as bad as, and probably much, much worse than, the deadly one that dominated the 16th and first half of the 17th centuries. In hope of bringing people back from the brink, we review the essential content of that Treaty, signed on Oct. 24, 1648.

Peace Between Nations

The Peace of Westphalia brought together Protestant and Roman Catholic nations, and the Holy Roman Empire, all of which had been at war with each for decades, and had been responsible for the slaughter of thousands of the other's citizens. The key guarantors were France and the Holy Roman Emperor of Austria, but the Treaty as well included their allies in the war, such as Denmark, Sweden, and so forth. For the first time, these nations recognized each other as having equal legal standing, and the right to exist. The treaties between them were recognized as binding.

To carry this out, required something more than pragmatic accommodation. The Treaty's chief inspiration and organizer, Cardinal Mazarin, proceeded from a principle of tolerance, especially religious tolerance, that could be called the principle of political generosity. Specifically, Mazarin succeeded in getting the former enemies to adopt the goal of cultivating the advantage and honor of the other.

Article One of the Treaty read as follows:

"A Christian general and permanent peace, and true and honest friendship, must rule between the Holy Imperial Majesty and the Holy All-Christian Majesty, as well as between all and every ally and follower of the mentioned Imperial Majesty, the House of Austria ... and successors.... And this Peace must be so honest and seriously guarded and nourished that each part furthers the advantage, honor, and benefit of the other.... A faithful neighborhood should be renewed and flourish for peace and friendship, and flourish again."

Read that again carefully. What is being called for here is no less than Christian charity, in which the interest of one nation is mandated to be inextricably linked to promoting the interest of the other. The very opposite of the war of each against all, or competition for hegemony.

One might try to argue that such a high principle was only appropriate because all of the states involved were at least nominally Christian. Yet, within natural law, such an interpretation would not be allowed. Christ did not call for checking out another person's religion, before ministering to him or her.

Article II of the Treaty was no less astounding, in its call for applying the principle of love of mankind, to international relations. It read, in part:

"On both sides, all should be forever forgotten and forgiven. What has from the beginning of the unrest, no matter how or where, from one side or the other, happened in terms of hostility, so that neither because of that, nor because of any other reason or pretext, should commit, or allow to happen, any hostility, unfriendliness, difficulty, or obstacle in respect to persons, the status, goods, or security himself, or through others, secretly or openly, directly or indirectly, under the pretense of the authority of the law, or by the way of violence within the Kingdom, or anywhere outside of it, and any earlier contradictory treaties should not stand against this.

"Instead, all and every, from here as well as from there, both before as well as during the war, committed insults, violent acts, hostilities, damages, and costs, without regard of the person or the issue, should be completely put aside, so that everything, whatever the one could demand from the other under his name, will be forgotten in eternity."

Can you imagine a policy any more opposite to that of the Cheney cabal today, those who call for preemptive punishment of nations on the basis of past sins, or those they are suspected of contemplating for the future? No wonder that the likes of Kissinger wish to eliminate the Treaty of Westphalia, as a basis for international law.

A Principle for Survival

One cannot argue, of course, that the principles of this Treaty were perfectly carried out. The Spanish Hapsburgs, for example, continued to attack France for years after the signing of the Treaty, until the time when Mazarin was able to convince the Viennese Hapsburgs to rein them in. And there were many other wars, carried out both against peoples not included in the Treaty (the "colonies"), and eventually among the European signers themselves.

But, as in the case of the American Declaration of Independence and Constitution, the guiding principle is all-important. Without the passionate, explicit commitment to the ideas of improving one's neighbor, and forgiving and forgetting the sins of the past, there is no hope for establishing the basis for a lasting peace.

When we speak of the need to revive the sovereign nation-state system, let's look back to those principles of the Treaty of Westphalia, and work feverishly to re-establish them— before another hundred years of war, and collapse of civilization, ensues.


The original article was published in the EIR Online’s Electronic Intelligence Weekly, as part of an ongoing series on history, with a special emphasis on American history. We are reprinting and updating these articles now to assist our readers in understanding of the American System of Economy.

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