Architects or Sleepwalkers?




Latest News

Print article
Register for our Newsletter and stay up to date
Register now
Architects or Sleepwalkers?

Salzburg Global and International Peace Institute convene international leaders to consider the lessons from our past and the visions for our future Stephen L. Salyer President and Chief Executive Office of Salzburg Global Seminar

One hundred years after the outbreak of World War One and 200 years since the opening of the congress of Vienna, politicians, diplomats, historians, journalists, and artists came to Schloss Leopoldskron to consider what lessons could be learned from the past to ensure a better vision for our future.

As almost any high school student could tell you, 2014 marked the centenary of the outbreak of World War One. What is less widely recognized is that the year also marked the opening of the Congress of Vienna, two hundred years ago in 1814.

Two centuries ago, the powers of Europe were architects of a new international system, rebuilding Europe after 25 years of war; the leaders of 1914, however, have famously been described as sleepwalkers, stumbling into war after 100 years of peace. Does the world today thus need another catastrophe — or at least the threat of one – to prompt leaders to behave as architects instead of sleepwalkers?

Today’s leaders face complex and rapidly changing challenges. As recently as two years ago, the Russian annexation of Crimea and war in Ukraine were almost unthinkable; similarly, Bush, Blair, et al, did not anticipate in 2003 that large swathes of Iraq (and neighboring Syria) would be in the grip of ISIS just over ten years later. Until ISIS’s advance, the situation in the Middle East had seemed more like 1848 when the “Spring of Nations” revolutions had long-lasting impacts on the nations concerned but did not spread to all European countries, nor cause inter-regional conflicts or draw in external powers. But as the US and UK have resumed military operations in Iraq, and conflicts rumble on in Syria, Libya, and Yemen, the situation might start to more resemble 1914 when initially localized conflict drew the “Great Powers” into war. Parallels can be drawn in the South China Sea as well, where actions by Japan or China could oblige the US to enter and further inflame a regional conflict.

Aside from the potential for miscalculation and alliances escalating military conflict, there remains another epic catastrophe that we seem to be sleepwalking toward: climate change. Here, we desperately need architects who can articulate threats and persuade their fellow citizens that it is in their self-interest to demand much greater and more creative actions to avoid 200 million “climate refugees” by 2050 as estimated by the UN, not to mention a rash of health, food, and water crises across the world.

With instability rising as this century unfolds, how can a greater awareness of history help us deal with emerging threats and reduce the risk of future conflicts? What lessons from the past can help us restore public trust in the international system and in the ability of leaders to deliver solutions?

In August 2014, Salzburg Global Seminar and the International Peace Institute (IPI) brought  together world leaders from politics, diplomacy, the media, and business alongside historians, political scientists, artists, and writers for the program 1814, 1914, 2014: Lessons from the Past, Visions for the Future.

Included among visions to emerge from the joint program was the call for the establishment of a “Congress of the Middle East.” The region is currently undergoing a major period of change, and, in anticipation of the end of these transformative times, there is a need to contemplate a new regional governance system. “We need a new plan worthy of the 21st century and a response to the needs and aspirations of the people,” said former Egyptian Foreign Minister Amre Moussa at a press conference held during the August event. There needs to be an inclusive discussion on whether a “renovated” Arab League is sufficient, said Moussa, or if an entirely new initiative will be necessary.

In Europe, leaders must address the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) was highlighted as one multilateral organization that has the tools and mechanisms available to mitigate and resolve the crisis. In the end, however, it depends on the political will of the participating states to make use of these instruments.

Indeed, the world’s leaders are not without multiple fora in which they can address and potentially resolve conflicts; however, an overhaul is needed. The UN, for example, was formed seven decades ago. Since then, there has been a dramatic evolution in the nature of threats to international peace and security – as well as a proliferation of new challenges. Thus, there is now an urgent need to independently review the current multilateral system and to make it fit for purpose. At the end of the Salzburg Global-IPI program, IPI announced the establishment of the International Commission on Multilateralism (ICM). Chaired by former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, and with eminent advisors that include Salzburg Global’s Senior Program Advisor Edward Mortimer, the ICM is a two-year process designed to analyze the changing nature of contemporary challenges and make recommendations to strengthen the multilateral system. To this end, IPI will return to Schloss Leopoldskron in September 2015 to continue its in-depth work on the ICM ahead of delivering its recommendations in 2016.

Whatever the future holds, we hope that historians in another 100 or 200 years’ time will conclude that today’s leaders were behaving as architects, not sleepwalking into a nightmare.

A version of this article was originally published in German in a special supplement of the Wiener Zeitung:

Download the Salzburg Global Chronicle 2015 in full (PDF)