Peace Comes Dropping Slow | Brunswick Group

The fifth edition of the Paris Peace Forum takes place at a new venue, the Palais Brongniart, known as the Bourse.

Peace Comes Dropping Slow

A commitment to the hard work of tackling global challenges explains the purpose and success of the Paris Peace Forum, Founder Justin Vaïsse tells the Brunswick Review.

The Wikipedia entry for the Paris Peace Forum runs to 12 pages. A tiny portion of one page is devoted to “Criticisms.” 

A careful reading of those criticisms elicits from Justin Vaïsse—Founder and Director General of the Paris Peace Forum—a response that is the opposite of defensive. “I kind of agree with them,” he says.

On November 11, the Paris Peace Forum will hold its fifth annual forum for leaders of governments, international organizations, businesses, development banks and NGOs from around the world. The theme this year is “Riding out the Multicrisis”—a reference to climate change, successive waves of COVID-19, deepening global inequality and war. 

The focus this year, says a Paris Peace Forum press release, is “preventing a destructive world polarization that would jeopardize the collective efforts on many challenges for humanity.”

It is in the spirit of consensus-seeking that Vaïsse searches for common ground with critics of the Paris Peace Forum, even when their complaints are essentially contradictory. Some have called the Paris Peace Forum a club of the elite while others have called it too inclusive, questioning the wisdom of inviting autocracies to the table. Inclusion, says Vaïsse, is a basic tenet of the Paris Peace Forum. 

“For example, we work closely with Reporters Without Borders, and at last year’s Forum a fund was established for public interest media,” says Vaïsse. “But we don’t make freedom of the press such an issue that autocracies would not come.”

The success of the Paris Peace Forum speaks for itself. In only five years, the Paris Peace Forum, increasingly akin to Davos and the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), has become a must-attend conference for many leaders of government, NGOs, and business from all over the world. Focusing on global governance issues, the Paris Peace Forum seeks to identify and pursue solutions to problems facing the planet and humanity. A question posed to this year’s participants: “How can global stakeholders jointly work to prevent and mitigate the impact, and manage the consequences of compounded crises on populations, especially with regards to food security, health systems and refugee protection?”

Neither politician nor business executive, Vaïsse is an academic, historian and one-time private advisor to French President Emmanuel Macron. For six years, he served as Director of Policy Planning for the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and before that he served as a Senior Fellow of the Brookings Institution in the US. He has taught at Harvard, Johns Hopkins and other universities. 

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Before Emmanuel Macron was elected President, historian and academic Justin Vaïsse floated the idea of a forum devoted to global governance.

As an author, he published a critically acclaimed biography of Zbigniew Brzezinski, the late American diplomat who oversaw the normalization of relations with China. Another Vaïsse book, “Neoconservatism: The Biography of a Movement,” was described by The New York Times as “essential reading for anyone wishing to understand the contours of our recent political past.”

Vaïsse spoke to the Brunswick Review during his visit to New York during the United Nation’s General Assembly in September.

On the occasion of its fifth anniversary, is the Paris Peace Forum where you hoped it would be? 
When people want to have impact on the world, want to change it for the better, where do they do it? Do people see the Paris Peace Forum as a place where they can get Justin Trudeau, and Macky Sall from Senegal, and a couple of companies, and others in order to launch an initiative or coalition or a new norm that they want to enforce?

We have a few examples that they do. Not as many as I would like. But it seems that we are slowly establishing this platform as a place where people can do useful things. I don’t want to be too idealistic about it, but at the end of the day the goal is to change the world, right?

How did the forum come to be?
I’m French, so I’ll be a bit theoretical. Basically it starts with the awareness that the repartition of power in the international system is shifting, and as the world gets less unipolar, you have rising centers of power that complicate the resolution of common problems.

What we were witnessing in the 2010s was the fading of multilateralism as an effective tool for addressing those problems and getting things done. On the one hand, more global challenges like climate, and biodiversity and refugees. On the other, an increasing difficulty for the system to respond effectively. 

As competition among powers made the UN less effective, made it like a battlefield rather than a forum for cooperation, there was a diffusion of power to non-state actors. Technology gave rise to large multinational corporations, sometimes more powerful than governments. That diffusion of power means that the resolution of problems depends less on governments and more on other actors. 

When it became clear that Macron would be a candidate in the summer of 2016, there were many discussions about un souffle nouveau, a breathing of new air in regard to the tools and methods that we had for external relations, for foreign policy. It was in the effervescence of that campaign that many ideas were suggested. Then Macron won the 2017 election.

Very early on, Macron had this video and this appeal, “Make Our Planet Great Again,” which was a sort of anti-Trump stance, saying, “Since the leader of the free world has abdicated his leadership, then we should collectively respond and offer a vision, offer a way.”

What we were witnessing in the 2010s was the fading of multilateralism as an effective tool for … getting things done.

It was a very particular moment where he was able to keep alive such efforts as fighting climate change, doing things on biodiversity, improving things on digital, while the US was distracted.

I’d been a private adviser to his campaign, and in the summer of 2017, I advocated for the creation of what became the Paris Peace Forum, along with the Macron’s diplomatic team. Philippe Étienne, now the French ambassador to the US, who at the time was diplomatic adviser to Macron, was very supportive. So we started working on that idea in the fall of 2017, with Macron’s support. 

Now, one problem was that the real purpose of the forum would be global governance. But you don’t attract people with a name like Paris Global Governance Forum. It’s a downer. 

We saw the opportunity to piggyback on the celebration of the centenary of the Armistice of World War I on November 11, 2018, for which Macron decided to invite all the former belligerents. Knowing there would be all these heads of state in town, we decided to synchronize the Paris Peace Forum with that. So on the morning of November 11, 2018, there was the celebration of remembering at the Arc de Triomphe with all the heads of state. And in the afternoon, we held the first edition of a more forward-looking conference. It was focused on digital, on cybersecurity, on information and democracy, on climate.

Merkel, Macron, Guterres, all came, all spoke. Putin came but did not speak. We offered him the chance to speak, but he chose to come and to listen, which was not very Putinesque. Trump was in Paris but did not come. There was a real sense that we were taking the lead on climate, biodiversity, digital encroachment—causes Trump had deserted. 

The centenary of World War I gave us a short, punchy name: Paris Peace Forum. We weren’t working toward peace through the traditional methods of mediation or negotiation. Our center of gravity was tackling common problems that, if not treated, could lead to war. [“A badly governed world could quickly become a world at war,” Vaïsse said at the time.]

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Then-Chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel, beside Russian President Vladimir Putin at the inaugural Paris Peace Forum in November 2018.

How did you know you could repeat your success in year two, without the centennial to draw world leaders? 
We set out for the long term from the start. We established an NGO on March 9, 2018, along with the organizations we call the founding members, from North and South, from France, Germany, Mexico, India, Indonesia, Africa and the Middle East.

But we always knew that the second year would be really hard. And it was hard. But it succeeded because the forum filled a void. The philosophy behind it corresponded to something for which there was a demand. “How do we create political momentum, create better organization, better governance in a world where the UN, which is supposed to do all of that, doesn’t function very well?” 

Whether it’s for cybersecurity or for the sustainability of the space environment, or for critical minerals, or for information and democracy, these multi-actor coalitions can have real impact if they’re well designed, and if they gather sufficiently different people.

The second year was really good. Ahead of the third year came COVID. We did a completely online edition in 2020 with a very nice platform that was done in a really short time, and by and large it worked. Then in 2021, a hybrid edition. 

And now we’re back in person, in a new place: the Palais Brongniart. 

How does the Paris Peace Forum differ from Davos and other conferences? 
UNGA Week offers 500 very dispersed events. You have many people in town (New York in September). But it’s a bit diffuse. 

Davos is more corporate. It’s expensive to get there. It has sort of shrunk, also, on a Western business basis. There are fewer extra-Europeans, if you like. Davos was great at capturing the zeitgeist of the 1990s and 2000s. That is, globalization triumphant, private companies will save the world, the Washington Consensus. But starting with the financial crisis of 2008, we discovered that the world was not flat. We had the Arab Spring. We had the environmental crisis. We had the populist crisis in Europe. We had the COVID crisis.

All of that showed us that the world was just a bit more complicated than globalization triumphant made it seem. And the zeitgeist of the 2020s is more about survival, it’s more about public good.

You have other places like the Aspen Ideas Festival, which is a really interesting moment. On the security side, you have the Munich Security Conference, the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, the Manama Dialogue for the Middle East.

At the Paris Peace Forum, we need governments to be very present in our coalitions. We need philanthropies, because oftentimes they will be the ones not only providing money but needling governments.

In the 2020s, what changes the world, at a pace even greater than before, is technology. And technology is no longer mostly at the hands of governments. 

We always knew that the second year would be really hard. And it was hard. But it succeeded because the forum filled a void.

It’s no longer about weapons in the Cold War, or the atomic bomb. What changes the landscape is technology like genome sequencing, the price of which has been divided by a factor of 600 in three or four years.

Of course it’s traditional that the private sector would scale innovation and then governments would regulate. But the pace of that has accelerated. So you need a discussion with these companies. You need coalitions that include governments, because of their sovereignty, and companies because of their technological advances, and also philanthropies because they keep us pointed toward issues that require attention.

The idea of the Paris Peace Forum and its multi-actor format is to try to address these big questions in a different and better way than what sometimes the UN can do and sometimes simple coalitions of companies can do.

Why is inclusion a fundamental feature of the Paris Peace Forum?
Climate, outer space, oceans, poles—they don’t recognize regimes. We are not a Western club. We’re not a democratic club. We don’t emphasize the issue of democracy. And we certainly don’t make it a litmus test. We care about democracy and human rights, but we’re not in your face about it. Similarly we don’t refuse to meet or talk with parties unless they swear off oil and gas.

The Paris Peace Forum is seeking to determine the extent to which we can work universally. “Universally” meaning not just the Global South— with which we are working really well, even if there are misunderstandings and difficulties and suspicions—but also with Russia and China.

This is a limitation of our theory of change, our philosophy. Multi-actor is beautiful in a Western setting. It’s OK in a Global South setting, it’s fine. We can find partners. We can find private sector philanthropies, NGOs concerned with digital rights, with climate issues, with health issues.

But when you get to closed societies like China or Russia, you’re not going to find many NGOs ready to work with you on an issue, not going to find companies that would be completely free to act the way they want. You’re not going to find philanthropies that would in any way contradict what the central government is thinking. 

So when it comes to Russia and China, it’s much more difficult, but not impossible. We are working on some issues, like space debris or climate, with Chinese representatives. Of course, we know that they’re closely connected with the government. 

But, for example, outer space. Will we still be able to use the low Earth orbit for all the good things that satellites are providing us with in the next 10 or 20 years without a major collision putting that at risk? Everybody’s interested in that, whether they are autocracies, or democracies, or other regimes. On climate, as well, for the same reason.

If we say, ‘We’re going to work only with democracies,’ how are we going to fight climate change?

Is China playing any role in this year’s Paris Peace Forum? 
China has always been very interested in the forum. In 2019, the last edition in person before COVID, we had Wang Qishan, who is the Vice President of China. He’s sort of the closest person you would find to Xi Jinping. And then in 2020, during COVID, Xi Jinping sent a prerecorded video for the forum specifically.

China will certainly participate in this year’s Paris Peace Forum. China is the most populous country on Earth. If we say, “We’re going to work only with democracies,” how are we going to fight climate change?

We must work with Russia and China but with our eyes wide open, knowing it will always be political. And there will always be limits to what we can do in a multi-actor setting with these countries.

Will Russia be represented at this year’s Paris Peace Forum? 
There will not be any Russian representative at the forum this year. Russia has set itself outside of the boundaries of permissible conduct.

If we are serious about global governance, there are certain rules that you cannot violate and still come with a straight face to talk about cooperation on climate. For other nations, it’s hard to tackle global challenges if you’re worried about being invaded by your neighbor.


Kevin Helliker is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and Editor of the Brunswick Review.

Photographs: (from top) Joel Saget/AFP via Getty Images; Ludovic Marin/Pool/AFP via Getty Images)Getty Images; Kay Nietfeld/picture alliance via Getty Images

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