Can thinking about the past improve the way you handle the present? If so, this year’s centenary of the outbreak of the First World War could do the world a great service by persuading modern politicians to spend more time thinking about Sarajevo — and less time worrying about Munich.

“Sarajevo” and “Munich” are, of course, shorthand for the diplomatic crises that preceded the outbreaks of the First and Second World Wars. Yet, the two events have been used to support very different approaches to international affairs. If leaders warn against “another Munich”, they are almost always advocating a tough response to aggression — usually military action. If they speak of “Sarajevo”, however, they are warning against a drift to war.

The British and the French are generally believed to have made a terrible mistake, which led to a wider war, by failing to confront Hitler during the Munich crisis of 1938. By contrast, most historians look back at the events provoked by the assassination of an Austrian archduke in Sarajevo in the summer of 1914 and are horrified by how heedlessly Europe slipped into war. Margaret Macmillan, author of a compelling new account of the outbreak of conflict, The War that Ended Peace, laments that — “none of the key players in 1914 were great and imaginative leaders who had the courage to stand out against the pressures building for war”.

Perhaps because the fight against Nazism is the more recent event, it is the “Munich” analogy that has dominated western thinking since 1945. John Kerry, the US Secretary of State, used it last summer when, he called Syria’s use of chemical weapons, “our Munich moment” — and called for missile strikes against the Bashar Al Assad regime as a necessary demonstration of western resolve.

The popularity of the Munich analogy does not seem to have been affected by the fact that it has led western leaders astray on numerous occasions. Anthony Eden, Britain’s prime minister in 1956 (who had opposed the original Munich agreement), cited the appeasement of Hitler to justify confronting Nasser, and using troops in the Suez crisis of 1956. President Lyndon Johnson invoked Munich in making the case for the Vietnam war. Supporters of the Iraq war in 2003 also cited “Munich” in urging military action against Saddam Hussain. In all these cases, it felt tough and decisive to use military force. Yet, each of these conflicts came to be seen as a dreadful mistake.

By contrast, in 1963, when the Cuban missile crisis almost plunged America and the Soviet Union into a nuclear conflict, John F. Kennedy, the US president, was brave enough to ignore those advisers who were urging him to take military action. Kennedy had fought in the Second World War and lived through the Munich crisis. But Sarajevo may have been on his mind. Macmillan points out that, just before the Cuba missile crisis, Kennedy had been reading The Guns of August, Barbara Tuchman’s classic work on the outbreak of the First World War.

Look around the contemporary world and the threat of another Sarajevo looks much more compelling than the danger of another Munich. There are no dictators threatening to go on an international rampage; Al Assad’s ambitions seem to be confined to holding on to power within Syria itself. But, as in the years before 1914 — when a rising Germany confronted its neighbours — so now a rising China is in dispute with several neighbouring countries, above all Japan.

Sino-Japanese relations are poisoned by bitter memories of the previous wars, just as relations between France and Germany, a century ago, were embittered by memories of the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71. In 1914, the established hegemon, the UK, was pulled into the war because of its rivalry with a rising Germany and its alliances with France and Russia. Today, the obvious danger is that the US, worried by the rise of China, will be pulled into an Asian conflict by its alliance with Japan.

In 1914, national leaders were so keen to appear strong and to protect their honour (or “credibility” as they would call it nowadays), that they were unable to step back from the brink of conflict. Reflection on the Sarajevo crisis may just prevent today’s leaders from falling into the same trap, if Sino-Japanese tensions heighten again. But, unfortunately, many of today’s political players still approach their rivalries with a Munich mindset. Neither Japan nor China is prepared to look “weak” by backing off in the East China Sea. The US is also worried that its “credibility” will be damaged, if it fails to show toughness. A prominent official in the Barack Obama administration explained to me last year that — while he understood Chinese objections to US naval patrols near China’s coast — America could not cut back these patrols because that would be seen as weakness.

This is the kind of playground logic that four-year-old children are encouraged to grow out of. But, unfortunately, it still seems to be the dominant mode of thinking in international affairs.

The Munich mindset is so entrenched that a real intellectual shift will be required to change it. The many commemorations of the First World War that will take place this year may just serve that purpose — by influencing world leaders to take a less dangerously macho approach to their rivalries. With tensions rising in East Asia and conflict spreading in the Middle East, the 100th anniversary of the Great War comes at an important time. Let’s hope it does some good.

— Financial Times