Former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta is only the latest in a string of notables to describe the current conflict against ISIS as the beginning of a “Thirty Years War.” Indeed, across the editorial pages and throughout the green rooms, this analogy seems to be in vogue.
The phrase does have its immediate temptations. It’s a way to sound historically minded and aware of the context surrounding sectarian violence in the Middle East. By mentioning the long struggle between the Catholic and Protestant states of Central Europe, and comparing it to the Sunni-Shia proxy war erupting in Syria, one can advocate for intervention obliquely. After all, didn’t Gustavus Adolphus intervene just in time in Pomerania and save Europe from the Catholic yoke? So, the story goes, must another Western power introduce the Westphalian nation-state ideal to this ill-begotten corner of the world.
Ultimately, this obscures more than it reveals. There’s no fancy metaphor to explain the simple fact that the Islamic State of 2014 and the Bohemia of 1618 are entirely different places, in entirely different contexts. Keep in mind that the Thirty Years War reduced the population in parts of Germany by half. I don’t believe anyone has predicted that kind of calamity to result from ISIS’s brutality. It also paints a picture of a world where the Middle East is just a few centuries behind progressive Europe, and there’s nothing we can do but wait for the laggards to catch up.
Though some have said that the Sunni-Shia proxy war in Syria matches the France-Habsburg dispute of four centuries ago, one big difference is that France and Austria and the rest sent conventional armies to the field. Until Iranian and Saudi troops — and not just sponsored organizations — are fighting on the streets of Baghdad, this comparison won’t wash.
The analogy also serves as a way of explaining the current violence as a natural component of the lack of nationhood of the various peoples of the region. The Treaty of Westphalia, which brought the Thirty Years’ War to a close, is hailed as providing the basis for peace in Europe. If only, some suggest, a modern Treaty of Westphalia could be sussed out, then all the problems would go away. Rejigger the borders, and the Middle East will be at peace.
This too is overly simplistic, because national boundaries are not the only cause of the conflict. It has become conventional wisdom that the flawed 1916 Anglo-French agreement (Sykes-Picot) drawing modern Middle Eastern borders is a major cause of the instability. But this claim is often exaggerated: As Jennifer Gordon wrote in the National Interest, “Middle Eastern history and cartography existed long before 1916, and Syria and Iraq were distinct entities” for millennia, even if the borders were not always well-defined. So while the Sykes-Picot borders may be ill-advised, the argument that new ones would solve the problem is not supported by history, and ignores the major internal political obstacles to stability in Middle Eastern countries.
Even the European experience casts doubt on the notion that Westphalian nationhood is a panacea. It took Europe a few more centuries of political development — and no small amount of bloodshed — after the Treaty of Westphalia to arrive at its current state of peace and prosperity.
Expanding this idea further, can we stop using cheap historical shorthand in all but the most pressing situations? It’s time to rebel against the simplicity that characterizes so much of our foreign policy dialogue. Nowadays it seems that every backbench congressman is actually Winston Churchill, the specter of Munich is everywhere, and it’s always 1938. In our pressing desire to learn from history, we mustn’t make the mistake of using it rhetorically instead of analytically.
So indeed, let your metaphors run wild, but only in the service of actual deliberation. Westphalia and Munich both serve important instructional purposes, but not if they’re used as hammers to pound bad policy into nice language. The problems of today’s Middle East and 17th century Europe are fundamentally different in scope and cause, and it’s not generally useful to lump them together. Remember the words of Stephen Colbert: “There’s an old saying about those who forget history. I don’t remember what it is, but it’s good.”
Jack Weller, a sophomore studying political science, is a staff writer at Stanford Political Journal.