The World of International Organizations Explained

Versailles centennial strikes modern nerve

The treaty signing on June 28, 1919 in the Palace of Versailles' Hall of Mirrors (ARÊTE/Public Domain)

A century ago, a treaty signing on the outskirts of Paris helped end World War I but raised questions about the reliability of American leadership. On Friday, experts at a U.S.-led conference in Paris marking the centennial said many of those same questions remain today.

The first of a pair of academic-sponsored centennial conferences kicked off exploring the significance of the Paris Peace Conference at the Palace of Versailles in 1919. Leaders, diplomats, academics and policy-makers insisted there were some troubling, modern parallels.

“It is interesting to note that many of the questions that we were asking in Versailles 100 years ago we are asking today in the United States,” Nicholas Burns, a Harvard University professor of diplomacy and international politics and veteran U.S. diplomat and ambassador, told the conference.

“One of the most important issues at Versailles 100 years ago was how the U.S. would lead in the League of Nations,” he said, referring to the failed precursor to the United Nations. “We have to ask a similar question today: Will the U.S. lead as the world’s greatest power or will we retreat?”

The isolationist United States was drawn into World War I only in 1917, almost three years after it began, once German submarines began targeting and sinking American merchant ships. That hastened an end to the 20th century’s first major catastrophe, a four-year global war that also laid the groundwork for the post-World War II era of nations increasingly pursuing their interests through international organizations, security pacts, trading and political treaties.

The May 24 to 26 conference hosted by the American University of Paris and Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs is focused on the ramifications of the imperfect 1919 peace settlements that ended the first global war, according to a statement from the universities.

Stephen Sawyer, a conference chair and history professor at the American University of Paris where he directs its Center for Critical Democracy Studies, said that “our ambition in convening this conference has been precisely to present a more global vision of Europe within the world.”

Lasting consequences

The Armistice of 1918 negotiated by military authorities made possible the Paris Peace Conference at the Quai d’Orsay that began in January 1919 under French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau’s leadership.

British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson and Italian Prime Minister Vittorio Emanuele Orlando made up the rest of the “Big Four” at the conference, which led to the Treaty of Versailles and League of Nations at Geneva, both effective in January 1920.

The Treaty of Versailles demanded that “Germany and her Allies accept the responsibility for causing all the loss and damage to the Allied Powers.” That imposed heavy war reparations on Germany plus Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire.

“Germany never became a peacetime country, it remained a wartime country into the 1920s,” Erik Grimmer-Solem, a history professor at Wesleyan University, said of the impacts of those reparations on Germany after it lost World War I.

Despite its demise in 1946 after failing to prevent World War II, the League of Nations and its successor, the United Nations, which officially came into existence in October 1945, ushered in a new era of reliance on international organizations, treaties and trade accords to avert more war. Another purpose of global governance — based on international law — arose, too.

“The failure, politically, of the mission of collective security of the League of Nations must nevertheless not make one overlook its success in what was from the beginning to be a secondary aspect of its objectives: international technical cooperation,” according to U.N. historical records.

Last November, dozens of world leaders warned about threats to multilateralism from the 21st century rise of populist nationalism. Their warnings came during a weekend of commemorations for the centenary of Armistice Day, marking the 1918 Armistice between the German-led Central Powers and the Allies — Belgium, Britain, France, Italy, Russia, Serbia and the United States.

The Armistice was signed on November 11, 1918 at 5 a.m., exactly six hours before the cessation in fighting — widely noted for its occurrence on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of the year.

On that occasion last year, French President Emmanuel Macron led a procession on the Champs-Élysées towards the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, showcasing the city’s role as the great prize and spiritual center of the war’s Allied resistance. U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, both nationalist authoritarians, pointedly skipped the symbolic walk.

“Patriotism is the exact opposite of nationalism. Nationalism is a betrayal of patriotism,” Macron said in a pointed rebuke of Trump’s “America First” agenda, including the U.S. president’s repudiation of international organizations and treaties and imposition of trade tariffs on China and staunch U.S. allies. “By putting our own interests first, with no regard for others, we erase the very thing that a nation holds dearest, and the thing that keeps it alive — its moral values.”

Then last January, German Chancellor Angela Merkel again pushed back at the rise of populist authoritarians, saying the world must keep a “clear commitment” to multilateralism.

“Anything else will only end in misery,” Merkel told the World Economic Forum’s annual gathering at Davos, Switzerland, where she warned against “the fragmentation of the multilateral world” — nations pursuing common goals often through international organizations and treaties.

Noting there has been a “certain amount of disquiet in the international system,” Merkel’s thinly veiled criticism of Trump at the elite forum was accompanied by a more overt critique of Britain’s paralysis and confusion over its planned departure from the European Union.

“I will come out strongly in favor of a multilateral order, not ending with the E.U., but one that gives good answers to the challenges of tomorrow,” said Merkel. “Global architecture will only work if all of us are willing and ready for compromise.”

Merkel was not alone among world leaders at Davos urging greater international cooperation and free trade. “U.S.-China trade friction is one of those risks and Japan traditionally has said tit-for-tat trade-restrictive measures are of no benefit,”Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said.

China’s vice president Wang Qishan also took on the Trump administration’s policies. “Shifting blame for one’s own problems onto others will not resolve the problems,” he said. “What we need to do is make the pie bigger while looking for ways to share it in a more equitable way.”

The world of international organizations explained.

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