By Neil McLennan

LAST week saw the 100th anniversary of the day leaders of the Great Powers assembled in the Hall of Mirrors within the Palace of Versailles. German representatives were summonsed to sign the peace treaty ending the First World War, the Treaty of the Versailles.

The armistice had been signed on November 11, 1918 and peace treaty talks started on January 19, 1919. On one level, what the delegates achieved in six months is quite remarkable. However, the final weeks of the treaty talks descended into farce. The role of the treaty in sowing seeds for another 20th century war remains debated. A century on, with Brexit, leadership and international tensions swirling in our midst, we might reflect on the peace talks crisis and lessons learned.

American President Woodrow Wilson had gone into talks idealistic and confident. International idealism was however not backed by strong stateside support. America did not want to be the world’s policeman. This reveals leadership challenges of legitimacy and support. French Premier Clemenceau sought revenge, although General Foch did not think he had gone far enough. Frustrated British diplomat Harold Nicolson said delegates had gone to Paris confident of establishing a New World Order and left convinced the new order has merely fouled the old.

Perverse incentives were aplenty at Versailles. Russia posed a strong threat to Germany pre-1914. The re-birth of Poland gave Germany a buffer against the Russian threat. Furthermore, the demise of Austria-Hungary ironically provided Germany with an east flank of weak fledgling states. Despite losing 13 per cent territory and 10 per cent population, Germany remained Europe’s largest country. And despite incursions on German militarism, Hitler simply ignored the rules in the 1930s. Only economic sanctions applied and these merely fuelled the fire.

What would have been if Germany had been around the table for the Versailles talks instead of being summonsed to sign the summation? “What if history” is always risk, however the lessons of inclusion, deft diplomacy and cooperation are there for all to see. Where it works, war is avoided, where communication and cooperation breaks down, conflict is often inevitable.

The eyes of the world are on our leaders today. Clear worldwide trends are appearing: isolationism, militarism and the rise of the right. Early warnings were not heeded in the early part of the 20th century and one wonders if anyone is hearing today’s claxon. The world slipped all too readily into war in 1914 and blundered into war in 1939 when early inclusion may have prevented, or later robust diplomatic action averted. What reckoning will history have for us as we eke our way through the current malaise, confusion and complexity?

Historians may ask “why did people allow it to happen?” Whilst tweeting complaints is one thing, it is also a sponge for malcontent. How many have written directly to elected members, how many have stood for election themselves? And how many are prepared to take direct action to promote peaceful co-existence internationally. The blunt truth is very few. And so whilst we can criticise leaders for their actions we might also reflect on our inaction, our own lack of leadership. Where there is no leadership, something will always fill the void. Getting into conflict is bad enough but sleepwalking into it is perhaps worse. One wonders what this generation will be called in history. Leaders at Versailles were supposed to be “Peacemakers”. They became “the guilty men”. Our generation risks being “the sleepwalkers”.

Neil McLennan is Senior Lecturer & Director of Leadership Programmes, University of Aberdeen. He is also the founder of #iPlay4Peace international orchestra for cooperation