This month marks the centenary of the start of the First World War. Notwithstanding the vast transformations that we have undergone since, this great conflict remains what Winston Churchill called "a drama never surpassed."
As we face fresh turmoil around the world today, many fear history will not only repeat itself, but that we will be unable to meet key new challenges like climate change. While there is certainly cause for this concern, in 2014 we have one globally legitimate institution, born out of the disasters of the 20th century, that remains the best hope for avoiding the same mistakes in the 21st century while also stepping up the plate on global issues : the United Nations.
PARALELLS OF 1914 AND 2014
In many ways, our present circumstances are intimately related to the past hundred years -- a historical trajectory shaped by what happened between 1914 and 1918 in far-reaching, not always fully appreciated ways.
The tensions and crises in regions far and wide -- which are such a pronounced feature of the present day -- are not so unlike those of the early 20th century multipolar world.
Then, as now, we had a constant interplay of domestic and international factors rendering the resolution of specific conflicts difficult and, when achieved, often extremely unstable.
Then, as now, the underlying intentions of the most important players were sometimes opaque to one another and to other actors, making for a lack of trust and insufficient commitment to achieving compromise solutions.
Then, as now, there was more than enough room for single-minded pursuits of particular goals, potentially serving as triggers for violent clashes on a much wider scale.
And then, just as now, vigorous attempts were made at manipulating public opinion to believe in the belligerence of others and the peaceful intentions of one's own side.
In order to examine a type of global situation that is still very much with us today, we have to understand the goals and motives of specific actors as much as the facts of economic strength or military capability. Miscalculation, misperception, and the adoption of maximalistic goals seem to be a feature of our times -- just as they seem to have been in the years leading to the outbreak of the First World War.
THE UKRAINE CASE
Ukraine, of course, is the theatre where this is perhaps most clearly seen in our contemporary circumstances.
Less than a month before the Sochi Winter Olympic Games began in early February, the World Economic Forum released its 2014 Global Risks report. The word "Ukraine" did not appear at all -- an apt illustration of the fact that the crisis came about virtually without warning, chillingly reminiscent of the situation we had a century ago.
Everyone appears to be worse off today than at the turn of the year, when irresponsible leadership placed Ukraine in the untenable position of having to choose between East and West -- despite being perfectly obvious that there can be no political and economic sustainability without the country being able to work closely with both.
Ukraine's citizens now face a prolonged period of internal disruption that will make the recovery far more difficult to achieve. With paramilitaries now strong in many places in both eastern and western Ukraine, any agreement on the future of the country will be much harder to reach.
The EU and Russia are experiencing a deterioration of their political ties, with a clearly negative impact on their respective economies.
Even the United States -- which at first glance appears not to be terribly affected by the situation in Ukraine -- might face some unwelcome consequences once the wider international picture is taken into account.
The trust between the U.S. and Russia has largely disappeared, having been replaced by mutual suspicion and reciprocal feelings of contempt. In an atmosphere suddenly reminiscent of the Cold War, cooperation on many issues in the UN Security Council could prove much harder, or even impossible to achieve.
In recent times, Washington and Moscow had worked together on at least two important Middle Eastern issues: the tragedy of Syria and the Iranian nuclear program.
Limited progress on both fronts had been achieved, and a framework for concordant action established. It seems improbable that such arrangements will keep their present form, however.
THE ROILING MIDDLE EAST
Barring some wholly unforeseen development, the Syrian conflict will continue unabated, while the prospects for a successful completion of the Iranian negotiations will probably dim --increasing the specter of a nuclearized Middle East.
Gains on other fronts could also be much harder to come by, as the foundation of the Middle East's state system -- injuriously set in 1916 by the Sykes-Picot agreement -- may become prone to further weakening. This could produce fresh crises of central authority in a number of countries in the region -- most obviously Iraq, as ongoing events seem to indicate. It may also exacerbate longstanding frictions between Sunni and Shi'a across the Fertile Crescent. And this will probably escalate existing conflicts between proxies, and give additional impetus to extremist non-state actors and radical political movements.
Under such circumstances, prospects for reviving the Israeli-Palestinian peace process will further wane. This could lead to a prolonged period of belligerence, characterized by unilateral moves and reactions.
ASIA: A VICTIM OF ITS OWN SUCCESS
Asia is another region that deserves our attention in this context.
This is the region whose political, economic, social and environmental impact on the world has the potential to be as determinant as Europe's in former times. Understanding Asia's strategic trajectories has never been more relevant to global security and prosperity.
For the foreseeable future, Asian developments will be strongly influenced by the changing dynamics in the U.S.-China-Russia triangle.
The clear benefits for these powers to strengthen cooperation in Asia, combined with the logic of Mutually-Assured Destruction, make it unlikely that ongoing tensions between them may spiral fully out of control, although this possibility should not be dismissed outright.
Washington, Beijing and Moscow seem set to intensify the application of a "competitive cooperation" strategy. But in doing so, they will need to carefully guard against the hazard of being instrumentalized by local actors. This is especially important in light of the absence of an inclusive form of regional security architecture.
Perhaps a victim of its own success, the region is now less stable than it has been for quite some time. Until recently, most Asian countries were chiefly preoccupied with strengthening their state institutions and generating economic growth. Continued progress in these areas, however, is yielding to bellicose rhetoric and romanticized narratives of the past.
The significant buildup of national military capabilities has resulted in an unprecedented regional arms race, with Asia's share of military imports now comprising more than 40 percent of the world's total -- up from 15 percent just two decades ago.
The escalation of conflicting territorial claims throughout the region -- combined with the constant threat posed by a possible showdown on the Korean peninsula -- remain sources of great concern.
Given Asia's significance for the world economy, any recourse to arms -- however limited in scope or scale -- would surely take a toll on growth and stability throughout the globe.
But in our times, humanity faces an additional danger -- an existential crisis unlike any the world has experienced so far: the rapid physical deterioration of the Earth itself.
Despite some loud protestations to the contrary, the evidence is truly overwhelming: mankind is the primary cause of global warming and climate change. We are the reason the environment has been ravaged -- why oceans keep rising and acidifying; freshwater reserves depleting; droughts worsening; forests burning; many plant and animal species going extinct; and torrential rains becoming commonplace.
This is not going to stop; it will keep getting worse and worse if we continue to live under the illusion that a business as usual approach is permissible. Everywhere we look, we can see the enormous effects of the planetary emergency that is playing out right before our eyes. It increasingly affects every nation, and none can hope to solve this challenge on their own.
In order to address it, we will need to embrace a new form of cooperation -- beset by a series of concurrent, aspirational and bold measures -- coordinated at the highest level by leaders who understand the imperative of putting sustainable development at the heart of the conduct of international relations in the 21st century.
THE UNITED NATIONS POST-2015 AGENDA
Such is the core idea of the UN Post-2015 Agenda: to profoundly change how we conceive and execute our economic, social, and environmental affairs at the national, regional, and global levels.
Nothing so ambitious has ever been tackled through multilateral diplomacy.
A decision to fully harness the unique convening power of the United Nations will have to be made and leading statesmen will need to get personally involved for this global initiative to succeed. For all its imperfections, the UN is the sole international institution of indisputable legitimacy; it has to become the functional center for harmonizing mankind's response to a threat far more insidious than any faced in history.
A new global compact is urgently needed -- one that at long last steps beyond the shadow cast by the Great War over the world for the past one hundred years.
We must make the generational choice to concern ourselves in earnest with advancing the common good -- ceasing to misalign our own short-term priorities with the world's long-term needs; and so informed, attend to our generation's highest call: unifying around a common agenda for human betterment and shaping the peaceful transformation of raison d'état into raison de planète; from the reason of state to the reason of the planet.