The Paris 1919 peace conference following World War I was a unique event that was pivotal in forming 20th century history. Over six months in 1919, the entire leadership of the developed nations of the time met to talk about the future of the world after the war: an event not repeated since and which had never occurred before. It is often wrongly thought that the sole output of this meeting was to work out the Treaty of Versailles and its implications - John Maynard Keynes believe this to be the most important event. This is however vastly oversimplifying what really happened.
Several events occurred of profound important to modern political struggles:
- Debt forgiveness was not arranged for either winning or losing powers, forcing the reparations scheme to enable states like France, which had suffered the war being fought mostly on its own soil, to repay lender states like Britain and the US; Germany's 1923 hyperinflation was one result of this.
- An attempt to keep Austria-Hungary or its empire together collapsed, and the countries on the Danube River were no longer part of one trade bloc - one reason why many of them were willing to join in the German attempt to reunify Europe under themselves in 1939.
- Ho Chi Minh appeared to request recognition of statehood for Vietnam and its separation from French colonial administration - he was ignored - after being again ignored after World War II he founded the Viet Minh to fight for this independence - and eventually achieved it in 1975 after the US withdrawal
- Kurd delegates appeared to request the status of a state for Kurdistan which had recently been freed from the collapsed Ottoman Empire - it, and Mosul, was eventually combined with the Arab states around Baghdad and Basra because the British suspected there was oil in all three regions
- Arab delegates appeared to request recognition of Arab sovereignty over all Arab lands, and secular non-religious administration for mixed regions such as Lebanon (part of Syria which eventually was given to the French) and Palestine (which eventually was partitioned to create the state of Israel) - Saudi Arabia became independent because no one believed there was oil there.
In the light of modern events, probably all these solutions seem shortsighted, even laughable. They could be interpreted as reflecting oil imperialism or racism or simple lack of foresight or inability to negotiate equitable solutions for subject peoples at a time when the great imperial forces (Britain and France) were victorious.
Woodrow Wilson's famous declaration that every distinct people in Europe must have its own nation was probably itself responsible for a good deal of trouble and later disappointment. It put the United States theoretically on the side of those who wished to create Vietnam, Kurdistan and (most complex) Israel. Which of course would disadvantage French, Arabs, and other allies.
Eighty-five years later, everyone who attended the Paris 1919 peace conference, except for a few young dance hall girls and bellboys perhaps, is dead. There is little or no chance for such an extensive re-examination of the world's future: today's summit meetings are at most two or three days and include at most the G8 leaders with a few symbolic guests, or a larger gathering of ministers and secretaries.
The only comparable event of world importance was Bretton Woods 1944 where the foundation of the post-World War II monetary regime (IMF, World Bank, Bank for International Settlements) was laid. Some would claim that the short-sightedness of those agreements was equally disastrous.