The Paris Peace Forum—What’s Not to Like?

French President Emmanuel Macron delivering a speech during the opening session of the Paris Peace Forum, as part of the commemoration ceremony for Armistice Day on November 11. (Blondet Eliot- POOL/SIPA)

At a time when multilateral and rules-based international cooperation is under intense pressure from growing nationalism and political short-sightedness, this week’s Paris Peace Forum came as a welcome attempt at countering the zeitgeist and galvanizing new faith in the simple idea that “international cooperation is key to tackling global challenges and ensuring durable peace.”

Taking advantage of the mobilizing power of the centenary of the end of World War I, French President Emmanuel Macron inaugurated the forum on November 11, 2018 together with more than 60 heads of state and government from across the globe as well as leaders from the United Nations, the World Trade Organization, the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and UNESCO.

Notably, US President Donald Trump was not among the participants. As pointed out by Celia Belin, virtually everything about the Paris Peace Forum runs against the current US administration’s sovereignty message, and its unilateralist and transactional approach to foreign policy. The opposition to these postures came through strongly, albeit diplomatically veiled, in the opening speeches by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and UN Secretary-General António Guterres. Their unapologetic defense of binding, institutionalized, multilateral cooperation as the only way to address the challenges of our time does not sit easily with politicians—left, right and center—who are eager to “take back control” and place their own country “first.”

Macron has described his ambition to establish a Davos for global governance. The Paris Peace Forum is, in its own words, “centered on those who seek to develop solutions for today’s transborder challenges.” It was an informal gathering that brought together like-minded actors from all spheres and levels of society. As such it reflected the move towards multistakeholderism that has shaped global discourses on everything from development, to climate change and internet governance in the past decade.

Applying this model to stimulate much needed debate on the interlinkages between peace and global governance seems only natural. Especially as it becomes increasingly clear that existing state-centric structures are unable to respond adequately to old and new transnational issues including climate change, extreme inequality, technological disruption, and persistent violent conflicts or humanitarian crises in places like Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Myanmar. Indeed, as Richard Gowan pointed out, the issues on the agenda of the Paris Peace Forum are “mind-bogglingly difficult to grasp” and “the organizers of the Paris Peace Forum deserve huge credit for aiming to capture all of them.” Yet underneath the niceties of inclusion and the value of bringing in as many voices, perspectives, and resources as possible, multistakeholderism comes with its own downsides, which begs the question of whether the Paris Peace Forum is as much a part of the problem as it is of the solution.

An example of how this played out at the Paris Peace Forum is the Grande Halle de La Villette where it was held. Upon entering the hall, the participants were met by 119 presentation boards each describing distinct “projects” and their take on how to best promote peace. Gowan aptly noted the eclecticism of some of the approaches on display, including the suggestion from one organization to promote harmony between Israelis and Palestinians by protecting barn owls, and another who wished to establish an international village on the moon.

In between these somewhat odd ideas were also sound projects, including calls for ending violence against migrants, (re)building core government functions, protecting free speech, enhancing digital stability and establishing tax inspectors without borders. Meandering through this “Space for Solution,” participants were presented with an overwhelming collection of global ideas; an impression helped along by the one size fits all-presentation boards that had the effect of leveling the individual projects. Each project had to stand out on its own merits and make itself heard, regardless of whether it came from Microsoft, the World Bank, the Aga Khan Foundation or a locally-based grassroots organization. This masked the reality that a corporation like Microsoft possesses considerably more political and economic clout than the representatives of a civil society organization, such as the Igarapé Institution from Brazil or the United Nations Association of the United Kingdom. This seemingly simple example is a manifestation of the fundamental issue at the heart of multistakeholderism: the illusion of a level playing field.

To be clear, the problem does not lie with the inclusion of non-state stakeholders. There is nothing wrong with seeking to overcome the state-centrism that has hampered global governance and effectively marginalized or silenced the voices of ordinary people. The problem is if and when the noble aim of inclusion is pursued in a manner that twists the debate in favor of corporate interests and setting agendas. The Paris Peace Forum, however, did not distinguish. All were welcomed, ostensibly on equal footing, to contribute to solving the complex problems of peace and global governance.

Critical analyses of this phenomenon argue that, in practice, multistakeholderism often boils down to working with big corporations and professional NGOs and to substituting hard, rules-based regulations with soft law and voluntary deals. Rarely does it give a stronger voice to “ordinary” people or the vulnerable. Multistakeholderism does indeed broaden the range of actors involved, yet it remains—much like multilateralism—”a privileged terrain for the powerful.” Equally worrying, it may provide the heads of state and government, including those present at the Paris Peace Forum, an easy way out. If corporate funding, technology, and market-based solutions can help save the world, why invest political resources and public funding in genuinely bolstering aging multilateral institutions?

The crisis of the rules-based order calls for fundamental reforms of the institutions and modi operandi of global governance. As we continue to grapple with this challenge, it seems equally pertinent and timely to revisit the relationship between the state, civil society, and the market in its current condition and ask whether the present balance is “fit for purpose” if we are to actually govern the globalized world we have created, or whether it is indeed time to take back control—only from the market rather than the multilateral system.

Louise Riis Andersen is a senior researcher at the Danish Institute for International Studies. Her research focuses on global governance and the crisis of the liberal order.