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The Return of the Sleepwalkers

PARIS – On June 28, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, and his wife, Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg, were murdered in Sarajevo – triggering a series of bad decisions that culminated in World War I. A century later, the world is again roiled by conflict and uncertainty, exemplified in the Middle East, Ukraine, and the East and South China Seas. Can an understanding of the mistakes made in 1914 help the world to avoid another major catastrophe?

To be sure, the global order has changed dramatically over the last hundred years. But the growing sense that we have lost control over history, together with serious doubts about the capabilities and principles of our leaders, lends a certain relevance to the events in Sarajevo in 1914.

Only a year ago, any comparison between the summer of 1914 and today would have seemed artificial. The only parallel that could be drawn was limited to Asia: pundits wondered whether China was gradually becoming the modern equivalent of Germany under Kaiser Wilhelm II, with mounting regional tensions over China’s territorial claims resembling, to some extent, the situation in the Balkans on the eve of WWI.

In the last few months, however, the global context has changed considerably. Given recent developments in the Middle East and Eastern Europe, one could reasonably say that the entire world has come to resemble Europe in 1914.