As Donald Trump flies in to Paris for a remarkable gathering of world leaders to honour the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day, the event marks a moment to reflect on the realities of the peace of yesterday and the peace of today. On Sunday, he will stand alongside Emmanuel Macron, Angela Merkel, Vladimir Putin to mark the centenary of the end of the First World War, in which all their nations fought and, as we now know, failed to win peace. Theresa May, however, will be in London to attend the ceremonials at the Cenotaph, and understandably so.
One hundred years ago the guns fell silent on the conflict, which was once described as “the war to end all wars”. If only. The fault lay in the design of the peace. Then, America was led by Woodrow Wilson, a president of high moral courage and with a vision of a new, cooperative international order. His was the New World, which had come to save and enlighten the old. His was a dream to create a global league of nations to arbitrate disputes over territories, to settle arguments by jaw-jaw rather than war-war, and to guarantee the new order through American patronage of a new system of collective security.
Within months Wilson’s dream was vetoed by a recalcitrant Republican-Senate congress and he was shortly supplanted by a string of Republican presidents, with the most isolationist and protectionist instincts enduring until the arrival of the present occupant of the White House. The contrast between Wilson’s internationalism and principles stands in stark contrast with the belligerent approach of Donald Trump, who, with the exception of North Korea, cannot see an international opponent without starting a war against them, be it diplomatic, economic or actual.
Where are the lessons of history that we learnt so well from the generation that followed the Second World War? The lessons that laid the cornerstones of western political and economic security through the United Nations, Nato, the IMF, the World Trade Organisation, the World Bank and other bodies? Mr Trump seems to want to do nothing more than walk away from them, and abandon the historic mission first discovered in 1917, when America entered the war, decisively, on the side of Britain and France.
Nor, a hundred years on, are Russian-American relations less complex. Then the advent of a hostile communist regime was something the Americans sent troops to fight, and long after refused to even recognise. Today, as we know, the White House has made its displeasure about Mr Putin’s expansionism and interference in American affairs clear on some occasions; but all of this sits next to allegations that he used Russian intelligence – via collusion or interference – to win the 2016 presidential election, and is thus said to be under Russian influence.
Of the great powers, as they were once called, only the Franco-German relationship stands stronger today than a century ago, and though their co-leadership of the European Union, they are closer now than ever before, sharing a currency, the political structures of the EU and a pledge to build an “ever closer union” in Europe.
It is poignant indeed that Ms May will be absent from the gathering in Paris, albeit on perfectly justifiable grounds. For Britain too is entering a period of unnecessary ambiguity, working hard, desperately so, to extricate itself from the EU, which has helped to maintain peace in the continent since 1945 – in effect ending Europe’s three-decade long civil war, one that had been interrupted only by the armistice of 1918.
So much will be lost by Brexit, whatever form it takes, that it is difficult to try and rank the various detriments. The potential loss of national security, though, must rank high. Among all the scare stories about a European army, no one sees to have paused to ask whether a closely knit European defence arm, as part of Nato, might prove a more effective deterrent than Britain’s defence forces alone.
In 1918, the UK was still a global superpower, with its empire reaching its peak as it boasted the largest navy in the world. Its major European rivals and Russia diminished, and only the US posed a credible challenge for economic and military supremacy. We are so far from those days now, yet it seems difficult for some to accept that Britain has such denuded power and status. Membership of the EU and Nato and a permanent seat on the UN Security Council were designed to enhance that influence. It has served Britain well. In 1918, they might have been forgiven for thinking that the future peace of Europe and the world was assured by a new spirit and new international organisations. The rise of fascism was far from certain, and even the communist regime in Russia was not yet established. Although John Maynard Keynes was shortly to begin his career as the saviour of economics, we did not understand then what we do now, about the folly of protectionism and state control of industries.
The war of 1914-18 casts a long shadow. The violent politics of the Middle East, for example, can trace much of their origins to the 1917 Balfour Declaration that pledged the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine, and the dismemberment of the Turkish empire, with the creation of then-new entities such as Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Syria. We are still dealing with that legacy. Still, the future could not be easily foreseen back then.
In 2018, the world has no excuses for failing to recognise the dangers from extremists to the peace and prosperity that we have for too long taken for granted. We should remember the fallen; but we should also remember the mistakes.