The Center for Critical Democracy Studies

AUP Welcomes Top Scholars

for Versailles Treaty Centennial Conference

June 28, 2019 will mark one hundred years since the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, an event that reshaped the world following the end of the First World War. To commemorate the occasion, scholars, historians and diplomats convened on May 24–26 for the Paris Centennial Conference, the first of a planned pair of conferences to be hosted by the Center for Critical Democracy Studies at The American University of Paris (AUP) in partnership with the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard Kennedy School. AUP was a natural choice to host such an international conference; its student body hails from over a hundred countries, and it serves as a meeting place of informed and globally minded people who will shape the future of international relations. Conference venues included the Cercle de l’Union Interalliée, a prestigious social club founded following US entry into the First World War; the Franco-American friendship association France-Amériques; and AUP’s Student Life and Learning Commons, which was officially inaugurated at the opening of the conference.

The inspiration for the Centennial Conferences came when Craig R. Stapleton – a former US ambassador to both France and the Czech Republic, as well as an AUP trustee – read Margaret MacMillan’s bestselling book Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World. MacMillan – a celebrated historian and author; Professor of History at the University of Toronto; the former Warden of St. Anthony’s College, Oxford; and the great-granddaughter of David Lloyd George, the UK prime minister in 1919 – was one of four keynote speakers at the three-day conference, along with historians Adam Tooze (Columbia University), Priya Satia (Stanford University) and Tze-ki Hon (City University Hong Kong). Other prominent speakers included Georges-Henri Soutou (Institut de France) and Alain Chatriot (Science-Po Paris).

Also in attendance were diplomatic representatives such as conference co-organizer R. Nicholas Burns, Director of the Future of Diplomacy Project at Harvard Kennedy School and a former US ambassador to Greece and NATO. Burns has, in total, worked for over 27 years in the US government, including as Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs. He was joined by Christopher Hill, a former US ambassador to Iraq, the Republic of Korea, Poland and the Republic of Macedonia (now North Macedonia); retired four-star general John W. Nicholson, Jr., a former commander of both US Forces Afghanistan and the NATO-led Resolute Support Mission; and Philip Zelikow, a lifelong diplomat, former executive director of the 9/11 Commission, and a National Security Council advisor to former US presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Zelikow is also dean of the Graduate School and director of the Miller Center at the University of Virginia. The assembled diplomats discussed how the interwar period relates to present-day political issues – bringing with them previously untold stories of the First World War, rife with revolution, political intrigue and obstruction – and portrayed a world that was, at the time, spinning into modernity at a dizzying rate.

After the deconstructive turn of the conference’s global approach to the First World War, MacMillan’s final keynote, returning to the complex and intersecting roles of the great powers, created a space in which several generations of First World War scholars could respond to each other and discuss how the field has changed.

The conference aimed to take a fresh approach to examining the events before, during and after the Paris Peace Conference of 1919. The three-day event saw eminent and emerging scholars share new perspectives on the legacy of the Treaty of Versailles, while drawing many comparisons to our own political epoch. The conference featured panels on the First World War’s lasting impact on France, Central and Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and China and East Asia, as well as a panel devoted to international law courts and ideas of justice. Presentations and discussions were punctuated by lunches with ambassadors and public policy makers, giving attendees an intimate look at modern foreign policy.

The first panel, “The Paris Peace Conference and Central Europe” – a cross-examination of economics, politics, military affairs and public opinion in interwar Germany – set the tone of national reexamination. The Treaty of Versailles vilified Germany for provoking the First World War; the Central Europe panel explored the consequences of this on the German imperial mindset and discussed how retribution for colonial advancement left a bitter taste in the mouth of the nation. Here, audience members heard from Philip Zelikow, who recounted White House intel on Woodrow Wilson that had long been kept secret. In 1916 Kaiser Wilhelm II made a top-secret plea to Wilson to mediate a “neutral peace” deal between European nations; Wilson likewise heard a similar appeal from the government of the United Kingdom. Due to obstructions within Wilson’s cabinet and from his own advisors, as well as the pressure of the upcoming US election, the deal came to nothing and was swept under the rug of history. The discussion was kept secret, thus furthering the view that the damage of the First World War was inevitable and that the lead-up to the Second World War was an unavoidable result of events occurring during the interwar period. 

The next panels – “Versailles in China, May Fourth in the World: Intellectuals, Protests, and Networks,” “Asia and the Paris Peace Conference,” and “The Middle East and the Paris Peace Conference” – shifted away from the traditional Eurocentric focus of First World War studies. Panelists pointed to the May Fourth Movement – a direct result of disappointment at the Paris Peace Conference – as the main vehicle for change in Asia post-1919. Following the Chinese government’s concession to the proposal to allow the Japanese to maintain control of Shangdong province, Chinese students took to the streets in what would become a national wave of protests. China subsequently refused to sign the Treaty of Versailles. The following years saw a rise in nationalism and the prevalence of militaristic leaders who sought to compete with colonial powers in the West. Panelists and attendees also discussed the ongoing ramifications of these events on the mindset of 21st-century China and its ascension to its current position of world superpower. In a panel discussing the implications for Asia beyond China, Kevin Pham (UC Riverside) presented evidence that Ho Chi Minh, having been inspired by Woodrow Wilson’s ideas of nationalism, democracy and personal freedom, turned instead to Marxism–Leninism after being snubbed by Western diplomats in Paris.

The “International Law in the Wake of Versailles” panel discussed the legal implications of attempting to establish a world order. The panel featured four juris doctorates who dug deeper into the tensions between right and might, and between judgment and punishment. The First World War was an unprecedented and bruising collision between nations and ideologies; amid the chaos of conflicting narratives, no single perspective emerged as universal. With reference to other region-specific panels, this panel explored how the dissatisfaction felt outside of Europe following the Treaty of Versailles originated from perceived injustice on a global scale.

The conference provided the opportunity for academics and policy makers to come together and discuss contemporary issues. Conference attendees were joined for lunch by Nikolaus Meyer-Landrut, the German Ambassador to France and the Principality of Monaco, who has had a long career in international diplomacy and has been involved in the negotiation of multiple European peace treaties. He argued that the top priorities should be preserving European unity – a bond originating in the European peace project and inspired by Enlightenment ideologies – and supporting the Atlantic Alliance between Europe and the US. In a lively Q&A, attendees discussed the role of social media in promoting divisive discourses, the importance of political alliances and how to prepare future generations to uphold peace.

A long-anticipated highlight of the conference was the public policy conversation among Nicholas Burns, Christopher Hill, Philip Zelikow and John Nicholson. At the behest of moderator Elizabeth Ballantine, an AUP trustee, they discussed the dynamics of working for peace at the top levels of US government. The moment granted audience members a chance to apply content from earlier panels to modern-day examples and to get a sense of how peacemakers in 1919 might have felt taking on such issues. The discussion covered topics from unrest in the Middle East to the diplomatic challenges during modern American presidencies and the diplomacy of President George H.W. Bush, which they deemed material to the successful reunification of Germany, to the breakup of the Soviet Union and to improved relations with Russia.

The keynote speakers provided varied perspectives on the ongoing legacy of the Treaty of Versailles. Adam Tooze discussed the economic standing of the warring nations – a sort of “war by the numbers” – and the power of the dollar. Priya Satia examined how Allied victories in the Middle East, though largely unacknowledged at the time, had an unspoken role in maintaining British morale. Tze-ki Hon said of 1919: “There is a ‘peace conference moment’ [in Europe]. In Asia, this is a moment of frustration.” Both Satia and Hon spoke of the rise of strongman leaders and growing mistrust of the West in the Middle East and Asia respectively. In addition, a French roundtable saw Alain Chatriot of Science-Po in conversation with eminent historian Georges-Henri Soutou. They discussed the prominent figures present in Paris during the 1919 conference and the influence of France in the discussions.

The conference culminated with Margaret MacMillan’s much anticipated keynote; she had been cited as a reference point by many panelists and diplomats throughout the conference. MacMillan explained that when she began studying the First World War very little research existed on matters outside of Europe. She was encouraged by the arrival of new perspectives – particularly those of women and non-Europeans. After the deconstructive turn of the conference’s global approach to the First World War, MacMillan’s final keynote, returning to the complex and intersecting roles of the great powers, created a space in which several generations of First World War scholars could respond to each other and discuss how the field has changed.

At the closing dinner, Nicholas Burns offered some family stories from the First World War and discussed the importance of alliances to international diplomacy. The second Centennial Conference, looking back on the impact of Paris 1919 on 100 years of diplomacy, will be hosted at Harvard University by the Belfer Center in 2020. For more information, or to watch coverage from the Paris edition, visit the conference website or follow AUP on Facebook and Twitter.