Ideas & Insights / All Perspectives / Ideas & Insights

What Can World War I Teach Us About Peacebuilding Today?

Philippe Leroux-Martin — Director, Governance, Justice & Security, United States Institute of Peace

Paris Peace Forum shows the need for realistic perceptions of international stability and state fragility

A recent piece in The Economist reflecting on the Armistice of November 11, 1918, noted that: “The first world war happened because a generation of Victorian leaders took for granted the stable order that prevailed in most of Europe for decades.” Many of the participants at the Paris Peace Forum, which opened on the centenary day of the 1918 Armistice, could hardly be blamed for wondering if another generation of leaders is being tempted by similar illusions.

Divisions and Fractures

Participants making their way to the Paris Peace Forum faced sobering news. While the Forum was taking place, the French newspaper Le Monde was running an extensive series of articles focused on “le divorce” between Europe and the United States. Simultaneously, the French minister of foreign affairs was asked on national television to what extent the United States could still be called an ally of France.

Why does this matter? Some of the recent thinking on the nexus between governance, fragility, and conflict has assumed a certain amount of stability in the international system. Suggesting that international actors can be better at tackling complex multidimensional governance problems in fragile states by cooperating more effectively presupposes that the very conditions enabling such cooperation exist.

Those harboring narrow conceptions of fragility may have to reckon with a new reality. Fragility is not simply a phenomenon concentrated in a limited number of states at the periphery of rich and powerful ones. It also extends to the interconnections between richer countries and the governance structures of the very international institutions meant to support countries with particularly acute problems of governance.

Not only can fragility spread across the system as a whole, but its effect on multilateral institutions is likely to encourage even more fragility.

Rather than taking refuge in narrow conceptions of fragility, the Paris Peace Forum invited us to recognize that fragility is neither static nor confined to a specific segment of the international system. On the contrary, not only can fragility spread across the system as a whole, but its effect on multilateral institutions is likely to encourage even more fragility. International divisions are likely to yield weaker and more diffused support for governance in countries with more pressing development needs. This is the new reality in which strategies seeking to tackle fragility and conflict will now have to be developed.


The Forum also aptly illustrated how technology is rapidly changing the dynamics of governance and fragility challenges. There was good news. Some events showcased the potential of blockchain technology to instill greater transparency, efficiency, and accountability in the delivery of services in conflict-affected environments.

However, other events focused on ways in which many new platforms such as Facebook and Google have been used to spread disinformation and divisions and fuel violence. Representatives of tech companies used the Forum to explain how they are now deactivating problematic accounts or using machine learning to contain the spread of violent extremist content online.

Managing conflict now requires the capacity to continuously adapt to technological destabilization.

While encouraging, once the fog of technological innovation and sophistication dissipates, one was left to see such countermeasures for what they were: countermeasures. No matter how sophisticated responses devised by tech companies may be, they can only partially constrain some of the destabilizing impact of technology on conflict dynamics post facto. The Forum emphasized a reality already known to many peacebuilding practitioners: managing conflict now requires the capacity to continuously adapt to technological destabilization. Violence in fragile states may indeed be the product of opaque digital political campaigns designed by firms in Europe.

As such, the Forum may have forced a more realistic conceptualization of fragility as a fluid, dynamic and resilient phenomenon. Addressing fragility and conflict—already a difficult effort—just got harder in the minds of many leaving the Forum.

That may be an encouraging development. Just as the willingness to take stability for granted may have pushed a previous generation into one of the deadliest conflicts to afflict humanity more than 100 years ago, similar tendencies are unlikely to serve us well today. More realistic perceptions of stability and fragility are likely to generate better responses.

On November 11, standing by the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier under the Arc de Triomphe, French President Emmanuel Macron invited more than 70 heads of state to be united in their hopes rather than opposed in their fears. The Paris Peace Forum was a timely reminder that the costs of passively drifting toward fear and division are too great. Many came to this realization on November 11 in Compiègne 100 years ago. Hopefully, many renewed their commitment to peace in Paris this year at an important moment.

Leave a comment