Commemorative functions provide opportunities to push contemporary agendas and score points. They are also used for self-promotion and myth making. These aspects were on display in Paris at the centenary event on November 11 of the Armistice which ended World War 1. French President Emmanuel Macron had invited world leaders for the remembrance and around sixty took part. The host seemed more concerned on focussing on his political philosophy instead of recalling the memory of the twenty million who were killed in that war. President Donald Trump, the most significant guest, petulantly attacked the host prior and after the event.
Addressing the assembled leaders, with the Arc de Triomphe behind him, Macron cautioned, "old demons are resurfacing. History sometimes threatens to take its tragic course again and compromise our people of peace. Let us prioritise to place peace over everything". This peroration for peace came after Macron had extolled the virtue of patriotism and condemned nationalism. He said, "Patriotism is the exact opposite of nationalism. Nationalism is a betrayal of patriotism. In saying, 'our interests first, whatever happens to others', you erase the precious thing a nation can have, that which makes it live, that which causes it to be great and that which is most important: its moral values".
Some points of the French President may be dismissed as specious or irrelevant from the viewpoint of statecraft. In an age of nation-states remaining the primary unit of the global system, can a distinction be really drawn between nationalism and patriotism? The prioritisation of peace is fine but when have the "old demons" ever been exorcised? Are they not always present in different shapes and forms contributing to states' policies and actions? And, finally, when has morality been the basis for state behaviour?
However, Macron words that go to the heart of the present debate are these: 'our interest first, whatever happens to others'. Is a reconciliation possible between the two ends of the spectrum– national and common interests? Vice-President Venkaiah Naidu who represented India at Paris provided a perspective, in his intervention, at the Paris Peace Forum. The forum is a Macron initiative to focus on collective action and international consensus building to address global issues. It seeks to emphasise an approach which is diametrically opposite to Trump's that is putting emphasis on unilateral actions, including breaking multilateral agreements like those relating to Iran's nuclear issue and climate change.
Naidu participated in a panel on Global Governance along with the Swedish Prime Minister, the current President of the United Nations General Assembly and the Chairperson of the African Union. He correctly argued that the first duty of national leaders was to their own people. They were accountable to them. In a clear but implicit reference to the Indian situation he said that there had to be a focus on poverty alleviation and growth. Going further, he said that nationalism and multilateralism could be reconciled through pursuing domestic policies that were in harmony with international norms, the democratisation and strengthening of the institutions of international governance and with all countries following international laws. This is a good and wise path but current trends point in the opposite direction.
Naidu did well to draw attention to the United Nations Security Council and its current representational inadequacies. He asked how can India, a country with seventeen percent of the world's population not be represented on it? The fact is that all countries recognise the need for Security Council reform but there are so many contradictory impulses that it will not be accomplished early. India's credentials to be a permanent member of the Council are better than France and, even more, Britain. These countries are there only because they were the victors of Second World War. More than seven decades have passed since the end of that war and the world has entirely changed but not the Council. That impacts on its efficacy as well as its legitimacy.
If the champions of multilateralism are really serious to promote it and combat unilateral urges they will do well to be in the forefront of a movement for reform. That is not so. It only indicates that they want many countries to act multilaterally where their interests demand collective action and not otherwise. For instance, the Swedish Prime Minister listed out three areas of global concern—climate change, terrorism and migration. It is true that global approaches are needed to make progress on these vital issues but all countries take segmented and selective approaches. France has been no different.
Commemoration events also shed light on contemporary realities and national egos. The First World War began as a European war with France, Russia and Britain allied against Germany. Later, the US joined the war. While Trump agreed to take part in the Paris event as did Russian President Vladimir Putin the British held their own function. Thus, the British Prime Minister was not present in Paris. Earlier Britain was more powerful than France but now the tables have turned and, with Brexit, Britain's status is only going to fall further. Hence, the British commemoration was low key and global attention remained focussed on Paris. The current Britain and France power differential was demonstrated in another way too— German Chancellor Angela Merkel was by Macron's side while only the country's President was in London.
The wheels of history turn all the time but no one can really predict precisely how! Only estimates can be made.