Lessons from the First World War to Prevent the Next

Preventing Another World War Panel Discussion at Chatham House


This post was written by Selika Ducksworth-Lawton, Ph.D, Professor of History at University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. She is the author of the forthcoming book Honorable Men: The Deacons for Defense and Justice and Armed Resistance In Louisiana, and the co-author of Minority and Gender Differences in Officer Career Progression. A specialist in the intersection of race and military influence, Dr. Ducksworth-Lawton consults in national security studies. In the text below, Dr. Ducksworth-Lawton discusses her experience as a presenter at the Preventing Conflict Today: Learning from World War I conference.

This year marks the centenary of the First World War and U.S. President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points. To commemorate the anniversary, Meridian International and Chatham House, the Royal Institute of International Affairs, partnered to produce the “Preventing Conflict Today: Learning from World War I” conference in London on February 23, 2018. Meridian and Chatham House’s goal for this conference was to convene graduate students, academics and policy experts to explore how history can inform our modern world and prevent future conflicts. The conference addressed the challenges for the United Kingdom, the United States and the European Union in providing global leadership for preventing future conventional and unconventional conflicts, with cross-cultural opportunities having emerged as a key factor.

President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points were the corner stone of the United States’ mission in World War I, and influenced emerging nations around the world. The Fourteen Points gave birth to League of Nations, the precursor of the United Nations in Treaty of Versailles. Drawing on lessons of World Wars I and II, which demonstrated a critical need to strengthen international cooperation, and examining the impact of the Fourteen Points, the conference discussions highlighted the ever-relevant need for pragmatic national leaders to discuss shared values and find compromises to today’s global challenges. This rationale emerged during the conference sessions on cybersecurity in modern conflict and on the role of the United Nations and the International Court of Justice today. On cyberwar specifically, participants discussed how information remains critical, as the historical tactics of subversion, espionage, surveillance, and propaganda are as important and relevant today as yesterday. Culture emerged as a force multiplier in many ways, particularly in discussing the roles of race, gender, ethnicity, and colonies in conflict and peace. A key takeaway was that some peoples blamed race, gender, and immigration for societal changes wrought by technology, which ultimately created pathways for World War I. Many of these same challenges create conflict today. Creating shared goals, values, and opportunities for success will be key to prevent subversion and terrorism in the increasingly unstable world.

After a full day of conversations examining these issues and ideas, the conference culminated with a breakout segment where participants collectively rewrote the Fourteen Points for today’s global context and agreed on the following Seven Points to help navigate future conflict:

  • Prioritize public diplomacy
  • Establish global norms for tax structures to reduce economic inequalities
  • Redouble the global efforts for climate change, including renewed commitment to the Paris Agreement
  • Reorder and frame the international system so there is fairer representation
  • Recharge the United Nations Security Council to ensure new mechanisms are established for agreements, including interventions
  • Set in place further measures to prevent conflict and curb military intervention
  • Increase international emphasis and commitment to sustainable development and education for all

These Seven Points were presented later in the evening at a panel discussion on “Preventing World War III,” which was open to a wider public audience. This dialogue explored many of the themes shared across the day, and notably highlighted the continuing importance of NATO and the United Nations in preventing future wars by providing the world with a framework for deescalating conflict. This final discussion point served as an important reminder for all of us to work together as citizen diplomats and create a peaceful, prosperous world where we coexist rather than combat, just as nations work to strengthen the global framework for diplomacy while balancing national sovereignty concerns. We all can work for peace in our own ways.