A century ago, President Woodrow Wilson set out fourteen points that were to form the basis of peace negotiations to end the First World War.  Although the world was back at war twenty years later, the Fourteen Points were the basis for many institutions of the international order, including the United Nations and its various bodies and offshoots.  They also pointed the way to establishment of a number of nation states that now exist in Europe.

But are the Fourteen Points still fit for purpose in a world where the United States is no longer the ascending power, where China and Russia expect to be listened to and have their own approaches to international affairs, where the UK and France are no longer colonial powers and their colonies are now nation states?  And how relevant are the Fourteen Points where the threats to peace are very different from those faced a hundred years ago and are increasing and are increasingly complex?

Against this backdrop, a workshop last week at Chatham House, in association with the Meridian International Center in Washington DC, came up with its own list of points for the twenty-first century.  There were seven points, rather than President Wilson’s Fourteen Points, and there were some similarities – for instance, the references to arms control.  However, I was interested to see that the focus of the new list was on communication, equality, the environment and education, rather than carving up territory, recognition of nations and navigation routes.  But the Fourteen Points addressed problems of a colonial era and were designed to end a war that had engulfed too many around the world.  The seven points are designed to prevent another world war.

The seven points are:

1          We shall prioritise diplomacy as one of the most important ways to prevent conflict.  We shall ringfence public diplomacy spending in the way that we do for defence and international aid.

2          We shall establish global norms for tax structures so that every member of every country is subject to fair taxation and inequalities are reduced.

3          We shall re-double global efforts to address climate change and ensure that the Paris Agreement is implemented as fully as possible.

4          We shall re-order and re-frame the international system to be more representative.  Representation for sub-state groups and minority peoples will be included at all levels at the United Nations and its associated institutions.

5          We shall re-charge the United Nations Security Council to ensure that new mechanisms can be established for agreement and ensure that interventions can only take place with full agreement throughout the whole of the UN system.

6          We shall set up in place further measures to prevent conflict and curb military aggression, including increased emphasis on disarmament and arms reduction and controls, including controls on cyber weaponry.

7          We shall increase the international emphasis and commitment to sustainable development and education for all and we shall support good governance practices and funding for education particularly for girls.


Anniversaries and our past, present and future


2015 is the year of the anniversary. The Battle of Britain, 75 years on. The 70th anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camps and the end of the Second World War. The battle of Waterloo at 200. The battle of Agincourt, 600 years on. The Magna Carta has had its 800th anniversary marked. There have been on-going centenary remembrances of the First World War and its battles and loss of life. And I’m sure I’ve missed several others.

Some of these events have been marked more prominently than others. I suspect Agincourt’s anniversary won’t have anything like the attention given to the end of the Second World War or even the battle of Waterloo.

Anniversaries provide a ready-made story for journalists, which accounts for at least part of the coverage they’ve received. And there’s the argument that Second World War-related anniversaries should be marked one last time while veterans and concentration camp survivors are still alive.

But it feels as though we’ve hardly stopped marking anniversaries since the 50th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in 1995 and I’m suffering from anniversary fatigue.

Some anniversaries are celebrations. Some remember loss of life. There’s usually some larger message – freedom; defeat of oppression; bravery and courage. There’s generally a reflection on what we’ve learnt and a reminder that we mustn’t let horrific events occur again.

As a historian, I know the value that comes from examining the past and applying its lessons. Yes, we should remember, and we should never forget.

But isn’t there a risk of diluting the message if it’s repeated too frequently? And shouldn’t we focus on looking ahead, rather than having one eye fixed quite so frequently on the rear view mirror?

Any thoughts?