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Not Sleepwalkers, but Architects

Salzburg Global and International Peace Institute to host session to consider our present and future through prism of the past

As any high school student could tell you, this year marks the centenary of the outbreak of World War One. What is less widely recognized is that this year also marks the opening of the Congress of Vienna.

200 years ago, the powers of Europe were architects of a new international system, rebuilding Europe after 25 years of war; whereas the leaders of 1914 have famously been described as sleepwalkers, stumbling into war after 100 years of peace

Does the world thus need another catastrophe—or at least the threat of one—to prompt it to behave as architects instead of sleepwalkers?

Today’s leaders face complex and rapidly changing challenges.

A year ago, the Russian annexation of Crimea and war in Ukraine was almost unthinkable, just as Bush, Blair, et al did not anticipate in 2003 that large swathes of Iraq would be in the grip of the Islamic State just over ten years later.

The Middle East had thus far 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 now as the US resumes military operations in Iraq, and conflicts rumble on in Syria and further afield in Afghanistan, 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 too, where actions by Japan or China could oblige the United States to enter and further inflame a regional conflict

Aside from the potential of miscalculation and alliances escalating military conflict, there remains another epic catastrophe we seem to be sleepwalking toward: climate change.

Here, we desperately need architects who can articulate threats and persuade their fellow citizens that is it is in their self-interest to demand much greater and more creative actions to avoid an estimate by the UN of 200 million “climate refugees” by 2050, not to mention a rash of health, food and water crises across the world.

With instability rising as 2014 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 the ability of leaders to deliver solutions?

As this week Salzburg Global Seminar and the International Peace Institute bring together world leaders from politics, diplomacy, the military, and business alongside historians, political scientists, and writers, we seek lessons from the past to drive a vision of the future – one that will lead 2114’s historians to conclude today’s leaders were architects, not sleepwalking into a nightmare.

The program “1814, 1914, 2014: Lessons from the Past, Visions for the Future” is being hosted by Salzburg Global Seminar and the International Press Institute at Schloss Leopoldskron, Salzburg, August 25-29, 2014.

This article was published in German in the Wiener Zeitung

Stephen Salyer, President, Salzburg Global Seminar