A few months ago I heard the Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz in a podcast say that Vienna was “obviously” available as a site for a US-Russian summit. Aha, apparently discrete lobbies took place between state providers of neutral land. As a small country you make good appearances and you do the powerful a favor.
Finland, often the stage for such peaks, fell out this time. Certainly, it is militarily neutral because it is not a NATO member, but just like Austria and Sweden it belongs to the EU, an increasingly political alliance whose relationship with Russia has cooled considerably. In addition, the United States has kept bad memories of Helsinki since President Trump publicly resigned his security services there in 2018, standing next to Putin. Switzerland was left for a handshake on European soil.
As a result, the American and Russian presidents will have their first meeting on Wednesday in Geneva, at the foot of Mont Blanc. A fitting home for the leaders of the world’s two nuclear superpowers.
Geneva’s special international appeal goes back to the League of Nations in 1919. The League was the ultimate surprise in the peace order after the First World War. Near Paris, the victors made treaties with the losers, including the Versailles treaty with Germany. They arranged the peace terms and redrawn the map of Europe. At the urging of US President Woodrow Wilson, a peacekeeping organization was also established, the League of Nations. That was new.
Why was the organization located in Geneva? The choice was between two countries that remained neutral during the First World War: the Netherlands and Switzerland. The Hague could appeal to the Peace Congresses around 1900, but the Netherlands had one drawback: it was a monarchy. And President Wilson would not allow a commonwealth of free nations to meet “at the foot of a throne.” So it became Switzerland; Francophone Geneva defeated rival Bern. As a devout Protestant, Wilson had extra sympathy for the city as the base of reformer Calvin. Enlightenment philosopher Rousseau, author of a plea for “eternal peace” (1761), and Henry Dunant, founder of the Red Cross (1863), also did their city credit.
In her powerful book Conquering Peace: From the Enlightenment to the European Union (2021) historian Stella Ghervas – from whom I borrow the above – stands up for the League of Nations. She places the maligned forerunner of the United Nations in a compelling and comprehensive story of five major peace orders on our continent. Time and again, Europe has drawn from the chaos, after a stranded imperial lust for power, the diplomatic and intellectual energy for a new beginning.
It happened after King Louis XIV in the Peace of Utrecht (1713), after Emperor Napoleon at the Congress of Vienna (1814-1815) and also after the German defeats of Kaiser Wilhelm (1918) and the Nazis (1945). The fifth and final act concerns the fall of the Soviet Empire, which from 1989 culminated in a renewing and eastward expanding European Union.
The expectations were always high. In 1919, as a distant predecessor of Joe Biden, Wilson wanted to make the world “safe for democracy.” After 1945, some hoped that European integration would pave a path to world peace, while 1989 marked the ‘end of history’. It is different every time, but every experience carries over to the next round.
None of these peace mechanisms suffers as much reputation as the Geneva League of Nations. Wrongly, according to Ghervas. Certainly, the outbreak of World War II was not prevented. But could you expect that? The Great War had thrown the continent off balance politically, economically and socially; the peace treaties had not rebalanced. “The League of Nations can do little more to guarantee peace than a doctor to guarantee healing,” wrote one contemporary, “but is that a reason to forego a doctor?”
If you can’t prevent a war, you can mitigate the worst consequences. Therein lies a lasting interest of the League of Nations. In 1925, a ban on biological and chemical weapons, the first of the kind, was signed in Geneva. During WWII, none of the warring factions violated this on the battlefield.
It is with this ‘spirit of Geneva’ that Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin must connect. Practical agreements of mutual self-restraint, in the common interest – also so that we can dwell as long as possible in the fifth great European peace, the historic happiness of our generation.
Luke of Middelaar is a political philosopher, historian and professor of EU law (Leiden).
A version of this article also appeared in NRC on the morning of June 16, 2021