World leaders marked the centennial of World War I's conclusion on Sunday in Paris, France. Bringing together more than 80 representatives from around the globe, the commemorations were shadowed by heavy symbolism and the attitudes of certain participants.
The chemistry between French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Russian President Vladimir Putin's late arrival and an otherwise grumpy Donald Trump's joy at the sight of the Russian leader were some of the more noteworthy details. Yet the main point wasn't a clash of symbols, but where today's leaders stood on the centennial of a war that claimed 40 million casualties as a result of aggressive nationalism(s).
Although world leaders did not make any speeches in Paris, some – including Macron, Trump, Putin and Erdoğan – voiced their opinions on the future of the world. Macron and Putin made themselves available for interviews, whereas Trump took to Twitter. Erdoğan, in turn, made headlines by penning an op-ed essay for the French newspaper Le Figaro.
Let's start with the host, Emmanuel Macron. Facing an uphill battle in his efforts to transform the French state, the young politician enjoys hosting international summits and events, which make it possible for him to cover up his domestic problems with a coat of foreign policy activism. Last weekend's commemorations, in this sense, represented a successful public diplomacy effort. Yet Angela Merkel's pending retirement from politics puts an additional burden on Macron's shoulders. Having emerged as the sole leader with the potential of promoting the European Union's "values" and "future," the French president took it upon himself to warn the world against the dangers of rising nationalism. Claiming that patriotism was the opposite of nationalism and that nationalism was a betrayal of patriotism, Macron positioned himself as the opposite of Trump's America. As such, he distanced himself from the U.S. president, with whom, some claimed, he enjoyed a close personal relationship. At the same time, Macron signaled his eagerness to take over as vanguard of the Western alliance's values from Angela Merkel. In addition to stressing the importance of multilateralism, liberal values and institutions, the French leader emerged as a critic of the new wave of nationalism embodied by Trump's campaign slogan: "America First." Shortly before the commemorations began, Macron touted the idea of creating a European army against global threats including the United States. Still, the rise of far-right and far-left movements in Europe at the expense of mainstream alternatives suggests that Macron's European mission stands to face major obstacles down the road. Without close cooperation between France and Germany, it will be virtually impossible to silence the advocates of "Italy First" or "Hungary First" effectively.
U.S. President Donald Trump, seen by many as the reason behind the rebirth of nationalism in the West, said that he found the idea of a European army "insulting." His administration doesn't want to reduce the U.S. military footprint in Europe but instead calls on Europeans to pay for the cost of keeping U.S. troops there. Macron and Merkel, in turn, have been talking about alternative ways to defend and secure the continent. They understand that the U.S. withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty) will further weaken Europe in the face of Russian threats. Therefore, Trump's position – that the U.S. will join global military alliances, including NATO, provided that their costs are covered fairly – isn't exactly popular in Europe. Instead, Europeans seem to blame the resurgence of selfishness in the international arena on President Trump.
Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin sticks to his guns and watches from the sidelines as the crack within the Western alliance continues to deepen. To be clear, the Americans aren't exactly trying to stop him: Following in the footsteps of his predecessor, Barack Obama, President Trump has created plenty of opportunities for the Kremlin to further its strategic interests. No wonder why the Russian president was quick to support Macron's proposal for the creation of a European army. Let us recall that Macron has been talking about potentially forming a strategic alliance with Russia and Turkey for some time. As Europe parts ways with the United States, it desperately needs that new alliance to stay afloat.
Having increased his clout by concluding the Idlib cease-fire agreement, hosting the Four-Nation Summit on the situation in Syria, and skillfully responding to the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan sent a number of powerful messages to the international public in an op-ed essay for Le Figaro. He pointed out that the only way to promote lasting peace was not to repeat the mistakes made by colonial powers as the post-war international order emerged. Erdoğan called on Western powers to stop trying to negotiate new Sykes-Picot agreements in the Middle East and North Africa, and urged them to support Turkey's fight against terrorists. The Turkish president's warning is crucial to the future of European nations, including Turkey.