Book Review: Trial of a Thousand Years

Trial1000Yearsby Steve Lancaster10/30/15
Trial of a Thousand Years is a short work, and like many short books the author has packed the book with concepts and thoughts. It is an underliner and glossers feast of history, diplomacy and the grand scope of the Westphalian state system from 1648 to the present. Hill begins with the period at the end of the Roman Empire in the fourth and fifth centuries and Christianity as a replacement for Roman Imperial rule, and the end of the Roman international system.

The focus of Christianity was not only international but also had a religious basis, “Christianity defined its project as building a world order to overcome paganism. Thus the rise of Islam came as a profound shock.”(9). Hill continues to cast a comparison between West to the East, “When Pope Innocent III declared that the Lord had entrusted to Peter not only the Universal Church, but the government of the whole world, the Holy Roman Empire took as its aim a world-state in which the emperor would be the universal sovereign’ (9).

In Islam, “a universal faith, expected the submission of all men and women, who must either accept the message of the Prophet or pay tribute as subject peoples, all under the Prophet’s successor, the caliphate”(10).  Hill explains the differences between the two systems. For the Christian the temporal rules side by side with the spiritual, “The pope would be the vicar of God on earth, representing the City of God and guiding men’s souls thither; the emperor would maintain order over men’s bodies so that the greater work of God might proceed with as little disruption as possible in what was, after all, a fallen world. “ (10).  In Islam, “The power of the caliph was limited in only one respect: he, like every Muslim, must submit to sharia, the law grounded in the will of God— so there was no room for the distinction that arose in Christendom between canon law and the law of the state” (10).

The groundwork is set for confrontation between two world systems. For nearly one thousand years religion is the driving force of conflict between the Christian West and the Islamic East. A dramatic change occurs with the peace treaties ending the Thirty Years War in 1648. The treaties of Westphalia not only end religious conflict in Europe but also establish rules for relations between states. The first of which was that no state would engage in war for religious reasons. Other basic requirements serve to expand how members of the system would recognize each other,” If your state abides by the few requirements, you may follow— bounded by accepted international norms— virtually any substantive policy, including an established religion, and still be recognized as a legitimate member of the international community”(32).

The nation-state system of European heritage later adopted, formally and informally, worldwide over the next 350 years is the international diplomatic standard. Hill explains that the system has undergone several refinements during this time. Foremost of those changes was a realization that although the state system allowed great autonomy for internal governance of nations some additional standards are necessary for behavior of a nation. Two of these standards related directly to Islamic nations. The first of which related to slavery, England ended the slave trade in 1833 and France in 1848. Second was the issue of polygamy, practiced primarily in Africa, parts of Asia, Islamic nations and a minor religious group in North America.

Hill asserts that these standards effectively disqualified the Moslem nations from full membership in the state system, “The modern international system expected that states, whatever the religion professed by their rulers or people, would deal with one another on a secular basis.” (154). In the United States the slavery issue was resolved by the victory of the Union over the Confederate in 1865 while the polygamy issue was resolved when the Utah territory renounced its practice and was admitted to the union in 1896. “In the presidential election of 1856, the Republican Party platform pledged “to prohibit in the territories those twin relics of barbarism: polygamy and slavery.” (p. 58) It is significant that American diplomatic missions were changed to embassies and the principal diplomat went from minister to ambassador about the same time. In this manner the United States formally joined the international system.

The current international system with the full participation of the United States is a little over 100 years old. Two major changes have been made in the 20th century. The first at the end of WW I The Versailles Treaties and the formation of the League of Nations formally created a world organization based on the Westphalian ideals.  The second major change was the creation of the United Nations after WW II, and the failure of the League of Nations. Hill asserts that the Westphalian state system, bent and slow moving, is still the best institution to deal with the countering Islam.

Hill remains confident that the modern state system is relevant to continue the orderly relations between the relations of states. He is troubled that Islam seemly is unable to reconcile the needs of religion and the needs of the Islamic state. Hill summarizes that, “ the modern world did away with religion. But, of course, it didn’t. Out in the world beyond Western Europe, religion was vibrant and in many places dominant. And the international state system now confronts its first truly religion-driven war since 1648”(p. 156).


Ambassador Charles Hill is a senior fellow of the Hoover Institution and has a long history as a diplomat. Hill, Charles (2011-04-14). Trial of a Thousand Years, World Order and Islamism (Hoover Institution Press Publication). Hoover Institution Press. Kindle Edition.

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One Response to Book Review: Trial of a Thousand Years

  1. Timothy Lane says:

    The Treaty of Westphalia largely ended religious wars in Europe, but not totally so. Disputes between Catholics and Protestants still played a major role in German wars of the following century or two as well as in England as late as 1688 (and to a lesser extent even later, such as the Gordon Riots). The struggle between Catholics and Orthodox played at least some role in Eastern Europe, though it was far less important than the struggle against Islam.

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