Initiated by French President Emmanuel Macron, the forum was symbolic, taking place on the 100-year anniversary of the World War I armistice. The event was also timely given the current state of the world, where authoritarianism is on the rise and the permanent five members of the United Nations Security Council appear unable and unwilling to find common ground in solving some of the most deadly conflicts, including Syria and Yemen. The forum in particular focused on the need to reject nationalism and was a cri de coeur for governments, the United Nations and civil society actors to work together for the betterment of humanity.
Attending the forum on behalf of the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies, these are the five takeaways I observed.
First, Macron is positioning France and the European Union as staunch defenders of the liberal rules-based international order, standing up for human rights and global peace. It was clear that we are entering uncertain and dangerous times, where rising national populism is fracturing European values and unity, and the increasingly aggressive actions of authoritarian regimes like China and Russia were on the minds of many, harkening comparisons to the period before World War II.
Second, France and other Western democracies can no longer count on the United States as a reliable partner while Donald Trump is sitting in the White House. While German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau lent their support to Macron, Trump was a no show, even though he was in the country and other world leaders attended, including Russian President Vladimir Putin. From the US president’s disdain of the media and multilateralism, to his admiration of Putin but indifference to America’s traditional allies, there was a quiet consensus that the trans-Atlantic alliance that was built after 1945 is coming apart at the seams.
Third, almost everything related to conflict and peace had both a digital and emerging technology angle to it. Russian interference in democratic elections and misinformation campaigns were on the agenda, as were cyber-attacks against governmental and private sector infrastructure. So were the actions of violent extremist groups who use social media platforms as a weapon of war. Last but not least, the growing race between governments to dominate artificial intelligence was an important topic. Those interested in peace need to take these issues much more seriously and there was consensus that France and its allies need to catch up in this area in particular. France was able to garner the support of 50 states and key industry leaders, such as Microsoft, to support the regulation of cyber-weapons. Neither Russia, China nor the US supported this French led-initiative.
Fourth, to effectively prevent conflict and global instability, cooperation between states and civil society groups is key. Many of the challenges facing the world require innovative thinking and solutions that not one actor alone can produce or implement. Over 100 global governance projects were featured at the forum, selected on a competitive basis from a vast array of NGOs, foundations, think tanks and private sector companies from across the planet. Many of these projects serve as examples of this cooperation and it is expected some of these will be supported and scaled up in the year ahead.
Fifth, there is an urgent challenge of means. While France, Germany, Canada and the European Union appear ready and willing to band together and support the multilateral institutions that underpin the liberal international order, questions arose as to whether they have the hard and soft power to do so, given Trump’s unwillingness to support what the United States once played a leadership role in creating in the aftermath of 1945. Over the weekend, Macron suggested the European Union needed to assemble its own military to counter not just China and Russia, but the US as well. This resulted in a series of angry tweets and comments by Trump, but surprisingly Germany supports the idea of creating a European army.
The forum brought together like-minded states and people but it is clear that instability is on the horizon, if not already here. Macron and the French government are to be applauded for showing leadership on the issue of global peace.
Europeans understand what is at stake. Hopefully Canadians do as well. A breakdown of the liberal international order and a splintering of the Western alliance will have a profound impact on Canada and our collective security. Multilateralism and peace are preferable to untamed great power rivalries.