The vibes are not great as world leaders, including Donald Trump, head to Paris this weekend to mark the 100-year anniversary of the end of World War I and join a summit organized by French President Emmanuel Macron on global cooperation and peace.
Macron, who will meet one-on-one with Trump, was once touted as a potential Trump whisperer for his chummy relationship with the U.S. president. But the “bromance” failed to persuade Trump to remain committed to the Paris Climate accord or Iran nuclear deal, or to refrain from lambasting key multilateral institutions like the European Union and NATO.
Trump, who was notably impressed by the French military parade he watched with Macron on Bastille Day last year, will attend the World War I celebrations—he announced in August he would be going in two tweets lambasting the D.C. government for the “ridiculously high” price it quoted him on holding a similar parade back home—but he will be skipping the peace forum that follows the event. The French government reportedly didn’t push very hard for Trump to stick around for the meeting, which is not a surprise given his performances at other recent multilateral gatherings such as this summer’s G-7 and NATO summits.
Here in the U.S., much of the coverage of the lead-up to the gathering has focused on the question of whether Trump would meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Kremlin had initially promised a “long and thorough meeting” between the two leaders, but Trump denied it on Wednesday, and the only scheduled meeting between the two will be at a working lunch attended by other leaders. (It’s worth noting that the two did hold an initially undisclosed meeting on the sidelines of a meal at least year’s G-20 meeting.)
Whether they meet or not, the awkwardness around the gathering will highlight the two-sided nature of the current U.S.-Russia relationship. Trump continues to defend his controversial relationship with Putin and brush away criticism of the Russian leader. In October, he formally invited Putin to visit Washington. During Wednesday’s contentious post-election press conference, Trump couldn’t even bring himself to acknowledge that Putin had annexed Crimea from Ukraine, instead putting sole blame on Barack Obama. But at the same time, U.S.-Russian relations are hardly warm right now. Last month, the U.S. withdrew from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, citing Russian violations. U.S. Cyber Command has reportedly begun launching offensive operations to counter Russian election interference. And this week, the Treasury Department slapped new sanctions on Russian entities over the continuing occupation of Crimea.
Putin, for what it’s worth, will be attending the peace forum, which, as Politico’s Paul Taylor notes, will only serve to highlight that he has paid little international price for actions including annexing Crimea, backing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s war crimes, and ordering an attempted assassination on British soil.
Russia is far from the only area of concern in the realm of global peace. Rising U.S.-Iran tensions following last week’s re-imposition of sanctions have raised the prospect of a new U.S. conflict in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia’s brutal military intervention in Yemen continues unabated. (Macron, for all his talk of peace building, has been just as dismissive as Trump of the notion of halting arms sales to Saudi Arabia in the wake of the Jamal Khashoggi killing.) Experts warn that the U.S. and Chinese forces are playing a “game of chicken” in the South China Sea that could quickly spiral into armed conflict as trade tensions between the two superpowers rise. The North Korean nuclear crisis has been on the back burner following this year’s improved relations between the regime and its South Korean neighbor as well as the United States, but Kim Jong-un has shown no signs of any willingness to actually give up his newly acquired weapons.
Europe itself is far from united on this centennial. The likelihood of a “no-deal Brexit” grows every day, with serious potential implications for both the global economy and the hard-won peace in Northern Ireland. The EU’s center-right bloc is currently engaged in a round of soul-searching over whether to cut ties with Hungary’s autocratic far-right ruling party. From Italy to Poland, euroskeptic populist leaders, driven by the backlash to increased levels of migration as well as often unaccountable governance of the EU itself, are gaining ground.
Throw in the dire recent U.N. report warning of the disruptions that will be caused by even a small amount of climate change, and the recent election of a combative authoritarian president in Brazil, and it’s not a pretty picture when it comes to prospects for global cooperation and peace building.
One could say all these conditions make it a better time than ever for Macron to hold a forum premised on learning from the mistakes that led up to World War I and the failure to secure the peace after it. But one might also wish he were in a stronger position to lead it.
With German Chancellor Angela Merkel planning her retirement, Macron had hoped to use the gathering to cement his status as the leading defender of the liberal international order, but that will be a hard case to make with his popularity plummeting at home and his international efforts bearing little fruit.
For all the social upheavals of recent decades, it’s also been a remarkable era of global peace compared with the early and mid-20th century, with military conflict between countries becoming rare and conflict between major powers nearly unheard of. Macron’s forum is intended to remind world leaders of the importance of continuing that era. Hopefully it won’t be remembered as a farewell to that era.