AUSTIN -- It's been 100 years since the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand launched the world into war. With conflict erupting across the globe today, some fear whether things could once again plunge into chaos.
"I think the World War I analogy is helpful because it reminds us of two things," said University of Texas Professor Jeremi Suri, a renowned expert in global politics and the Mack Brown Distinguished Chair for Leadership in Global Affairs at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs. "It reminds us that small crises in far away places can trigger bigger events. "Think of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in July 1914 and World War I that comes out of that. Think about Ukraine today and the ways in which events have spiraled, to some extent, out of control."
Yet Suri notes the stage was set in 1914 in part by complicated alliances between massive global empires that by the early 20th Century had outlasted their time.
"Today we live in a world of many powers, of diverse power, of many levels of power, and what we are likely to see are more medium-sized conflicts, not a conflict quite on that scale," said Suri. "That should not make us sleep well at night, because small conflicts can cause a lot of damage too. But I think a world war on that scale is unlikely because our world is not structured the same way."
Suri suggests the conflicts in Ukraine and the Middle East are evidence the regimes of the mid-and-late 20th Century are in transition as well. Political structures initiated during and following the Cold War have outlived their usefulness, as citizens become less satisfied with the ability of those structures to solve problems and create prosperity. It's a process Suri says is driven by politics and economy.
"The global economy has changed in the way people do business," said Suri. "It's changed the allocations of wealth from West to East in many respects, and that poses a lot of challenges for regimes like Vladimir Putin's regime, like the Iranian regime, that had keyed their wealth and their politics on the presumption that they would get money in an economy that valued what they did in the past, which does not value what they do today."
Stability in Ukraine is important for America and its European allies, especially in the face of political and economic competition with a rising China. By employing strong-arm tactics in Ukraine, Suri suggests Putin has accomplished the opposite of what he intended. Despite previous resistance, the Ukrainian government is now showing interest in joining the European Union and is taking direct aid from the United States and NATO nations, while the U.S. and Western European allies have imposed harsh sanctions on Russia.
"The solution to the problem in Ukraine is for the Western governments to give the legitimate Ukrainian government the ability to govern itself, but also to encourage it to take every possible measure to show that it is open to participation by Eastern Ukrainians who wish to remain close to Russia for ethnic, historical and linguistic reasons," said Suri. "At the same time, pressure has to be kept on Putin to show Putin that he will pay a heavy price for any meddling in the region."
The conflict in the Middle East has lately focused on the renewed warfare between Israel and the Gaza Strip, where ethnic and religious tension is nothing new. Suri suggests both Israeli and Palestinian leadership perceive domestic benefits in displaying their strength against one another. What's more, as tension between Israelis and Palestinians rises, so does the political temperature of the entire region.
"The solution to the problem in the Middle East is simply stated but almost impossible to do," offered Suri. "There have to be two states, an Israeli state and a Palestinian state. The Palestinian state has to have the ability to operate, to survive, to have a sustainable economy and to have some basis for security. It must also recognize the existence of Israel and it must condemn the terrorist actions that are occurring on its territory. The day those things happen, we will see peace in this region. Again, it's easier said than done."
Suri suggests one of the keys to addressing the conflict could lie with Iran. As a major military, religious and cultural power in the Middle East and a neighbor to Southern Europe, Iran could be a powerful broker. Suri points to Iran's cooperation with the United States to provide weapons to Bosnia in the 1990s, and says the current nuclear negotiations are an important step in again redefining the tumultuous relationship between the two nations. While the ice may be thawing to some degree, he notes there are still major concerns about Iran's coziness with terrorist organizations.
"We need to convince the Iranians that they want to play in our ballgame, play by our rules," said Suri. "We want to give them incentives to do that, and we don't want them to go nuclear nor do we want to see them cause more trouble."
There is a historical ebb and flow of order and disorder, and Suri says it's not necessarily unusual to see periods of seemingly cascading conflicts. What's different now is the series of simultaneous transitions occurring in both large and small countries, a process made more complex by the rise of China as a major world power. It's a crucial moment of transition the United States much manage correctly if it is to continue operating in a world order defined by American interests. What's more, the current period of conflict is also occurring under an unprecedented level of media access and scrutiny.
"What happens in Gaza and Ukraine and elsewhere is seen immediately by many people," said Suri. "Things happen faster. So that means that the level of crisis moves faster. It means it's harder to deal with and it means it can get out of control faster as well. If you're the leader of the United States or Germany, you wake up every day and after you've been asleep a few hours, events have gotten ahead of you already and you need to play catch-up. That makes things much harder. Crises are more difficult to manage today because of the modern media."
The big question: How does it all affect us?
"It sometimes seems so distant what's happening, but we need to care deeply," said Suri. "Because what's happening in the Middle East is, to some extent, what fuels terrorism. Terrorists do not attack us because terrorists have good reason to attack us, but they attack us because they don't have opportunity. They're surrounded by violence, and they see us as the cause of that violence in the Middle East. A more peaceful, stable Middle East will make terrorism against the United States less likely."
A difficult, but critical pursuit for a world that has had plenty of chances to learn its lesson.