The November 11, 1918 armistice brought an end to the devastating bloodshed of World War I. In the aftermath, tens of millions lay dead and tens of millions more were left injured or displaced. With the cessation of hostilities finally came a glimmer of peace. The war to end all wars had drawn to an end, and a better world to live in seemed within reach.
A century later, the 100th anniversary of the armistice brings a period of reflection. In Europe, French President Emmanuel Macron has embarked on a weeklong tour of remembrance, featuring meetings with top dignitaries, as well as visits to some of the most important sites of World War I. The commemorations are set to culminate this Sunday in the kickoff of a new annual gathering known as the Paris Peace Forum. Envisioned as a call to arms for global action, the gathering could provide a much needed boost to the liberal order in an era of conspicuous nationalism.
Macron, chief patron of the event, has emphasized the words “never again” in his public outreach. These words, he explained, were the promise made a century ago that the world should never again experience such calamity. In convening thousands of leading voices around the world, including top officials from more than 80 countries, Macron has committed France and its allies to a similar pledge. The Paris Peace Forum, in his mind, offers the opportunity to “reinvent multilateralism” and ensure that “peace gains ground” each day. Democracy and international cooperation, though can persevere.
This aspirational rhetoric hews to both the spirit of armistice and the demands of a complex and interconnected world. While international conflict akin to World War I seems a remote prospect today, a staggering array of global challenges threatens to undermine peace in the future. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change spelled out in no uncertain terms the environmental catastrophe that awaits in the absence of concerted global effort to limit greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate rising temperatures. This, along with ongoing biodiversity loss, pronounced economic inequality, a return to great power competition, and a sea of other troubles, amounts to a world order under siege.
At the same time, nationalists have taken the reins of power across much of the West. The “America first” policies of the Trump administration have contributed to the decline of United States leadership and a cracking international order. Europe, meanwhile, contends with uncertain Brexit negotiations, a Schengen Area where several nations have reintroduced border controls, and a populist governing coalition driving Italy toward fiscal disaster. All of this comes at a time when German Chancellor Angela Merkel has confirmed her looming abdication, leaving Europe and liberal internationalism in desperate need of a new champion.
The Paris Peace Forum, then, arrives at a pivotal moment. For all its benefits, globalization has produced a galaxy of cross border challenges, and to a large degree has stoked the nationalist sentiment now bedeviling the liberal order. Mobilizing a constituency for international action, as the forum promises to do, has never been a more pressing goal. A powerful set of backers, in the form of Macron and the numerous partners enlisted, has devoted considerable resources to accomplishing this objective. With many of the most influential individuals in the world slated to speak or attend, the event could well rally support for liberal internationalism.
Success in this mission, however, is far from assured. His popular image as a would be monarch, as well as his plummeting approval ratings at home and uninspiring track record on reform, leaves the ability of Macron to serve as upholder of the liberal order in doubt. Moreover, the Paris Peace Forum suffers from a serious lack of momentum. President TrumpDonald TrumpFormer Sen. Heller to run for Nevada governor Overnight Defense & National Security — Milley becomes lightning rod Joint Chiefs Chairman Milley becomes lightning rod on right MORE plans to skip the event, and lackluster marketing has made for a major international gathering of which few are aware, an inauspicious sign for a meeting intended to galvanize support for collective action.
The fanfare associated with the 100th anniversary of World War I should give the forum at least some time in the limelight, as should opening remarks from Merkel and United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres. The cloud hanging over the former of these figures, however, could bode ill for an initiative that looks in some ways to be faltering in its inaugural year. A brief bout of public attention may not suffice.
As the Paris Peace Forum gets underway, echoes of the past are sure to reverberate. While the armistice has remained a symbol of hope over the years, history has been far less kind to the accords that followed. The Paris Peace Conference, which led to the Treaty of Versailles and the formal conclusion of World War I, has come to be known as a diplomatic misadventure, one that laid the groundwork for the rise of fascism and World War II. The better part of a century ago, the promise of peace proved fleeting, as “never again” gave way to the dissolution of order and the return of war. Paris will soon play host to another historic gathering. With the world again at a crossroads, peace cannot afford to fail.
Kyle Evanoff is a research associate focused on international economics and United States foreign policy with the Council on Foreign Relations.