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The Ghosts of Versailles

Exactly 100 years after the start of the Paris peace process that formalized the end of World War I, the world is at a historical crossroads again. As in 1919, the temptation to pursue more democracy and deeper international cooperation must be managed carefully, lest tragic unintended consequences follow.

PRINCETON – It has now been just over 100 years since the opening of the Paris Peace Conference, which produced the Treaties of Versailles, Saint-Germain-en-Laye, Neuilly-sur-Seine, Trianon, and Sèvres, bringing an end to World War I. To this day, resentment over the Treaty of Trianon fuels Hungarian nationalism and revisionism, particularly under the current government of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.

Indeed, the Paris peace process is generally remembered as an example of how well-meaning international cooperation and democracy-promotion can go wrong. Now that we are living through a moment when multilateralism and democracy are again under strain, it is worth asking why efforts to promote the two so often fail.

In 1919, US President Woodrow Wilson’s attempt to forge a lasting peace by destroying the world’s autocracies proved overly high-minded, even as it inaugurated the interventionist consensus that has dominated US foreign-policy thinking ever since. Though US President Donald Trump claims to have abandoned that tradition, he has nonetheless ordered strikes against government military sites in Syria and recognized Venezuela’s opposition leader as the country’s legitimate president.

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