It was a century ago this summer – on June 28, 1914 – that Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip fired the "shot heard round the world," assassinating Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian empire, in Sarajevo. The killing served as a catalyst for conflict, bringing long-simmering tensions between various European nations to a boil. The result was a conflagration that was both global in scale and massive in its human toll. All told, more than 37 million souls perished in what became known as the "war to end all wars."
Fast forward a century, and the parallels are striking.
Like 100 years ago, the international system is coming unglued. Back then, the Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy was arrayed against the Triple Entente (the Russian Empire, France and the United Kingdom) in a tenuous strategic balance. Great power competition and imperial impulses had touched off a "scramble for Africa" late in the 19th century, resulting in the large-scale and rapid colonization of that continent by the early 20th. And in the Middle East, the once-mighty Ottoman Empire had become the "sick man of Europe," riven by conflicts along its periphery and torn apart by internal political strife.
Today, similar divisions dominate headlines from Europe to the Middle East. The civil war in Syria, hostilities between Israel and the radical Hamas movement in the Palestinian territories, and Russia's ongoing troublemaking in Ukraine are just the most public symptoms of a deeper, and deeply alarming, ailment: the unraveling of the existing global order.
Like in 1914, extreme ideologies are currently on the march. In the early 20th century, the furies of nationalism, imperialism and militarism undermined the tenuous geopolitical balance that had been struck between the nations of Europe in the aftermath of the conflicts of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, from the 1887-1888 Russo-Turkish War to the 1912-1913 Balkan Wars.
Today, the radical worldview of groups like al-Qaida and the Islamic State group threaten to ignite a sectarian conflagration in the Middle East. Rampant imperial impulses have propelled Russia to annex Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula – and, quite possibly, into a new cold war between the Kremlin and the West. In Asia, meanwhile, China is busy establishing – and enforcing – claims to contested territory in the East and South China Seas in a way that has roiled relations with its neighbors and called into question the durability of the region's existing alliance structure.
Early last century, the international system was defined by the absence of a benign hegemon. Instead, great power rivalries and feuds among royal families were the global norm, with all of the instability that accompanied this state of affairs.
Similarly, today the world is functioning without a global "sheriff." Over the past six years, the Obama administration has systematically abdicated the role of global watchman that the United States assumed in the wake of the Second World War, constricting its foreign policy horizons and drawing down its military capabilities. It has chosen to do so, moreover, despite gathering global threats. America's top spy, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, said as much in an interview last year: "in my almost 50 years in intelligence, I don't remember when we've had a more diverse array of threats and crisis situations around the world to deal with."
One hundred years ago, Princip's bullet provided the spark that ignited a global conflict and fundamentally redrew the map of the world. In the aftermath of his actions, the Austro-Hungarians prepared for war against Serbia, spurring the Russians to mobilize. Germany invaded Belgium and Luxembourg, prompting Great Britain to become involved. The expanding conflict drew in other powers, including the Ottoman Empire, Italy, Bulgaria, and eventually the United States. By the time the "Great War" drew to a close in 1918, the four empires that had dominated much of the previous century – the German, Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman and Russian – were no more.
Today, the sparks that could touch off a large-scale conflict abound in the Middle East, Europe and Asia. For leaders in Washington and elsewhere, then, the anniversary of that bloody day in the Balkans is a timely reminder that the current structure of world politics is far from permanent – and that their ability to establish and preserve peace today will help determine the shape of the world for much of the century to come.