The occasion was supposed to show unity and cooperation and to reflect on one of the most horrific events in human experience.
Yet, the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day marking the end of the First World War, celebrated in a grand ceremony hosted by French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris this week, did not show world unity.
If anything, it showed disunity and a crack in the current international order that was born from World Wars I and II. It showed that there were more differences and divergences than there was consensus and understanding on the core issues of concern to the world today.
Instead of a collective celebration in which world leaders could stand shoulder to shoulder, the dark shadows of the past were looming. US President Donald Trump, in particular, looked very much alone, standing on the outskirts of the world stage and isolated from long-time US allies.
The reason was that “the new enemy” of the current world order that has emerged from the two World Wars is now the US administration.
In his speech at the event, Macron rebuked Trump’s “America First” agenda. “Nationalism is a betrayal of patriotism,” Macron told the assembled world leaders.
“By saying, ‘our interests first, who cares about the others,’ we erase what a nation holds dearest, what gives it life, what gives it grace, and what is essential: its moral values,” Macron added, warning of “old demons” resurging and endangering chaos.
“Will today be a symbol of lasting peace or a last moment of unity before the world falls into more disorder,” he asked, adding “it depends solely on us.”
The theme was the need for a sense of community in order to prevent a Third World War. However, Trump did not put on a smile throughout the ceremony. The only leader Trump greeted with a beaming smile was Russian President Vladimir Putin, who showed up late. Putin gave Trump a thumbs-up sign.
In her speech, German Chancellor Angela Merkel followed in Macron’s footsteps by emphasising that “if isolation wasn’t the solution a hundred years ago, how can it be today, in such an interconnected world?”
From Macron to Merkel to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, the world leaders rebuked the US president. In an interview last week with the US news channel CNN, Macron said that Europe needed a European army, because it could no longer rely on the United States. Trump slammed Macron’s idea as “very insulting.”
“[Trump] is in favour of better burden-sharing within NATO,” Macron said. “I agree with that. And I think that in order to have better burden-sharing, all of us do need more Europe.
And I think the big mistake, to be very direct with you, what I don’t want to see is European countries increasing the defence budget in order to buy American and other arms or materials coming from your industry. I think if we increase our budget, it’s to have to build our autonomy and to become an actual sovereign power.”
Macron also talked about the need to strength the euro’s position as a global reference currency, not as a challenge to the US dollar, he said, but as an alternative for purposes of stability.
Responding to a question about political differences between himself and the American president, he said “I’m not a nationalist, which is very different, for me, from being a patriot.”
He added that he viewed nationalism and populism as dangerous political ideologies. “I would say I’m a patriot,” Macron said in the CNN interview.
“I do believe in the fact that our people are very important and having French people is different from German people. I’m not a believer in a sort of globalism without any differentiation… it makes our people very nervous.”
“But I do defend my people. I do defend my country. I do believe that we have a strong identity. But I’m a strong believer in cooperation between the different peoples, and I’m a strong believer of the fact that this cooperation is good for everybody, where the nationalists are sometimes much more based on a unilateral approach and the law of the strongest, which is not my case.”
Since Trump took office, the European countries have launched discussions on creating military and financial institutions that skirt the United States. They may have decided that they will no longer appease the American president, as they did for the first 18 months of his presidency.
In the absence of British Prime Minister Theresa May from the event, Trump did not find anyone as accommodating as May, who has wanted to preserve the UK’s close relations with Washington after Brexit.
May’s avoidance of the events in Paris was “a good arrangement and appropriate,” according to one Western diplomat. “By not participating in the Paris gathering, May did not need to appease Trump which would not have gone down well with European leaders who she needs more than she needs Trump,” he told Al-Ahram Weekly.
Led by Macron, the European leaders tried to sideline Trump. Many existential issues such as climate change, Brexit, the relationship with Russia, the Iran nuclear deal, the threat of North Korea, the UN role and the future of NATO are at stake.
Trump perhaps did all he could to look uninterested during the event, and he scrapped a planned visit to the Aisne-Marne Memorial, the burial site of 2,289 US veterans killed in France during the war, because of rainy weather on Saturday.
This caused a backlash at home and in Europe. Winston Churchill’s grandson Nicholas Soames wrote on Twitter that “they died with their face to the foe and that pathetic inadequate @realDonaldTrump couldn’t even defy the weather to pay his respects to The Fallen.”
Trump also skipped the inaugural Paris Peace Forum created to foster collective global action that was attended by other world leaders after the Armistice commemoration on Sunday.
His disengagement was strange since he needs the rest of the world more than ever after the US mid-term elections produced a divided Congress, limiting movement on major domestic issues for the next two years. As he mounts his re-election bid for 2020, Trump will need foreign policy breakthroughs to appear presidential. Yet he seems, instead, to be withdrawing further.
With Trump unwilling and perhaps unable to take centre stage, other world leaders are eager to do just that, and Macron is the first in line, with the French president not hesitating to show Trump that he can stand up to his agenda.
American presidents from Woodrow Wilson to Barack Obama have been committed to internationalism, being ready to shape the rules of the international system, create new organisations and frame the guidelines for military cooperation and trade.
Presidents Dwight Eisenhower and George W Bush preferred hard power to achieve America’s goals, while Bill Clinton and Barack Obama preferred soft power and engagement.
However, Trump is very different from any previous American president and his policies are a break with the American tradition of the last 100 years. He is reluctant to use either soft power or hard power meaningfully, and he does not want to engage in challenges abroad, military or otherwise.
However, he does need to look as if he is doing something in a world troubled by unprecedented challenges.
So far, there are no signs of big achievements for Trump on the international stage, and there have been setbacks on important issues such as Iran, North Korea, the Middle East, Ukraine, Yemen and Syria.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 15 November, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Old alliances in question