Wolfgang Munchau has a column in today’s Financial Times comparing the current eurozone crisis to the Thirty Years’ War of 1618–1648. Munchau makes clear that he doesn’t expect Europe to slide into war due to a break-up of the eurozone, yet he does predict the possibility of endemic north–south split, which mirrors the Protestant–Catholic rift that caused the original war and still marks Europe. Similarly, the division between Britain and the Continent, bitter in the 17th century, is, some fear, being played out again with David Cameron’s refusal this month to countenance a new EU treaty to deal with the crisis.
However, Munchau’s “grim lessons” parallel seems a bit misplaced to me, dusty as my European history is. Most of all, it would seem, by his own accounting, that we’re not in the Thirty Years’ War phase yet, but rather in the phase of the breakdown in relations that led up to it. So far, all of the EU’s institutions continue to function (as well as they ever did, anyway) and crisis management is being done in concert. Today’s EU seems more like the unwieldy Holy Roman Empire whose breakdown Munchau correctly identifies as causing the war. Usually, crises cause war, not the other way round. A collapse of the eurozone could well set off a years-long chain of events that would be the parallel that Munchau sees. But we’re not there yet. What comes out of the increasingly desperate and indecisive negotiations among Europe’s leaders will determine whether the whole project comes a cropper.
Perhaps more interesting is Munchau’s claim that the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia, which ended the war (as well as the Eighty Years’ War between the Spanish and Dutch), was the type of “comprehensive resolution” that Herman Van Rompuy, president of the European Council, seeks today. Yet the cure was worse than the disease, he believes. The treaty, according to Munchau, was an “unstable equilibrium” that “brought about the fragmentation of continental Europe, followed by 300 years of utter carnage.”
I’ll wager that most historians believe that the birth of the concept of state sovereignty that essentially emerged from the Treaty of Westphalia was, in fact, one of Europe’s great successes. The acceptance of the principle that each sovereign determines the religion of his own state (cuius regio, eius religio), which dates back to the 1555 Treaty of Augsburg, also set the stage for the emergence of religious freedom as a right. And, while it is true that the remainder of the 17th century and most of the 18th were periods of unrestrained warfare among European states, it ultimately was the actions of sovereign states that ended Napoleon’s attempt to forge a new Holy Roman Empire under his control. This led, pace Munchau, to a century of general peace, roughly from 1815–1914, with no significant threat to the overall system. The German wars of 1914–45 indeed resulted from a desire not merely to remake the map of Europe, but an attempt, like Napoleon, to unite it through arms.
Today Europe faces a great question indeed: whether a system of continual dilution of national sovereignty in order to create a pan-European government is more effective, stable, and just than one in which the continued sovereignty of numerous states allows them to determine their own destiny. Past attempts to recreate a Pax Romana in Europe were either all failures or led to disastrous results. Munchau’s fear of division might be tempered by a greater fear of forced consolidation.
— Michael Auslin is a resident scholar in Asian and security studies at the American Enterprise Institute.