Historically, at the end of major wars, the great powers in the world have drawn together to consider two questions. First, what brought states to enter the last conflict to begin with and second, how the same kind of war can be averted in the future. It is well known that at the end of the Thirty Years War in 1648, the first time these questions were considered was in Westphalia, in what was to become Germany.
A similar effort was undertaken at the end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815, when both the victors and the vanquished initiated the Concert of Europe, which brought the European powers into a system of regular consultations that lasted for 99 years, until 1914, with the outbreak of World War I. States tended to seek an optimal solution to international problems that would address both the requirements of international justice and the realities of the balance of power. In the interwar period, those stressing justice came to be known as “idealists,” while those returning to the balance of power were dubbed as “realists”.
Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger grasped these processes in diplomacy that were emerging with defining rules of international behavior after the end of the Cold War and the beginning of the Arab spring years later. In 2014, he wrote a book boldly entitled World Order which sought to encapsulate the nature of the diplomatic challenge that the world was now facing.
Kissinger’s timing was right on the mark. Clearly there was a new global chaos that needed to be addressed. It can be said that states don’t normally get into this level of analysis when they set their foreign policy agenda. They convene in order to put out the fires of the last crisis; asking how to stabilize the Balkans, or what to do about the South China Sea, or how to contend with piracy in the horn of Africa. Yet every few decades a more expansive kind of diplomatic introspection becomes necessary when the past assumptions of foreign policy no longer seem to be applicable.
No set of international understandings was more significant for the emergence of the modern Middle East than those that were concluded at the end of World War I, when the Ottoman Empire, which once stretched from what is today Algeria in the west to Iraq in the east collapsed. Nearly 100 years ago, in April 1920, the San Remo Conference in Italy established a state system that was intended replace the Ottoman Empire, the borders between its constituent elements, and finally how many of these states would emerge from the League of Nations Mandates that the great powers insisted using as an interim measure at the time.
The understandings reached at the end of World War I have been under an unprecedented assault in the last two decades. When ISIS came to power in remote parts of Syria and Iraq, the border separating those two countries seemed to have suddenly evaporated. But the defeat of the ISIS self-declared caliphate has not decisively repaired that situation. With the growing power of pro-Iranian militias in Iraqi territory, the border between Iraq and Iran appears to have become increasingly compromised.
The northern flank of the Middle East faces similar problems. Turkish-backed militias have taken over whole stretches of the Turkish-Syrian border area. It is another Middle Eastern boundary that has melted down significantly. A Turkish safety zone has begun to emerge that extends roughly 32 kilometers into Northern Syria. The disposition of territory from 1920 does not appear to be enduring looking back retrospectively from 2020.
Then there is the case of Israel. The League of Nations Mandate that came out of the San Remo document from 1920, spoke about the “historical connection of the Jewish people with Palestine,” It called for “reconstituting” the Jewish national home. Yet today with what is called the delegitimization of Israel, what was axiomatic 100 years ago is regularly being questioned in many international bodies from UNESCO to the UN Human Rights Council.
This history is not irrelevant or outdated. It is critical to spread if the war of ideas is to be decisively won. Ironically, this will happen if Israel understands that advancing the justice of its cause requires more than expertise in current affairs, but also a far deeper understanding of what were the founding principles which led to the eventual acceptance of the idea of Jewish statehood nearly a century ago.