The ghosts of 1914 weighed heavily on the five foreign-policy experts gathered at the Aspen Ideas Festival. Only two days after the centenary of the assassination of Austrian archduke Franz Ferdinand—the gunshot that sparked a global conflagration and remade the international order—these experts made it clear that, like it or not, we have returned to the uncertain and dangerous world that we thought we had left behind a hundred years ago.
To be sure, their concerns were varied, differing in both spatial and temporal scope. Jim Steinberg, dean of Maxwell School at Syracuse University, believed that the greatest area of concern was the South and East China Seas. Noting that “few people would have guessed that the assassination of an heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne in Sarajevo would lead to the war to end all wars,” Steinberg argued that a similar powder-keg moment could escalate the current tensions between a rising China and an insecure Japan to an all-out war—and, more importantly, a war that would necessarily draw in the United States through its treaty obligations to Japan.
Strobe Talbott, the president of the Brookings Institution, went global in his forecast, with the argument that climate change posed the greatest single threat to the United States and the world at large. Nevertheless, he reluctantly acknowledged that, in contrast to last year, he could no longer believe we were living in a world with no immediate danger of great-power conflict. As he put it succinctly, “bad things have happened.”
Not one to lighten the mood, Michael Oren, the former Israeli ambassador to the United States, argued that the present state of international relations was sufficiently panic-inducing without projecting ahead to hypothetical conflicts. He pointed to the current turmoil in Iraq and Syria, as well as the continuing dangers of a nuclear Iran and a recommencement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Jane Harman, president of the Woodrow Wilson Center (named for the) U.S. president that led the country into the Great War), offered the most sweeping prognostications of the group. She argued that the modern Westphalian nation-state – both impetus and product of the First World War—would cease to reign supreme as a model of governance due to the globalizing effects of the economy, communications, and terrorism. More specifically, she predicted that the threat of global terrorism would be eliminated within the next decade, and that we would be living near the end of Hillary Clinton’s second term as president in ten years' time.
Despite drawing different lessons from the current state of international turmoil and the ever-present weight of history, the speakers were unified in their analysis of the one thing lacking today: strong, principled U.S leadership. Moderator Jeffrey Goldberg, from The Atlantic, recalled that former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen had recently replied to an inquiry about the presence of a U.S. grand strategy with a single, flat “no.” Harman, meanwhile, garnered attention with the assertion that the administration’s current policy of “don’t do stupid stuff, plus drones” is a poor substitute for a truly compelling national foreign-policy narrative. In agreement, Steinberg remarked that potential U.S. action is the baseline by which nations determine their own policies; hence, an uncoordinated or reduced U.S. presence in international relations naturally leads to a more unpredictable world.
In a moment of self-aware irony, Oren sounded a call to leadership for the United States. “America… doesn’t just bring twelve aircraft carriers, it brings an idea – it brings an adult supervision that neither Russia nor China can provide. And an absence of American values in the world is dangerous for humanity.” Much as American leadership was vital in ending the conflict that began the 20th century, Oren and his fellow speakers passionately argued that American leadership, both moral and strategic, is essential to maintaining our world’s stability. With the threats that we face today, and with 1914 still burning in our memories and through our maps of the Middle East, we could use all the advice that we can get.