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Empires were destroyed, millions were killed and the world was upended in a war meant to end all others.

On July 28, 1914, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, a move that came a month after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo. In a matter of days, Europe's great powers went to war.

USA TODAY Network reached out to historians and foreign policy experts to determine what lessons from World War I can be applied a century later.

1. 'Exhaust diplomacy before you use force'

Though the assassination of the archduke was the flash point that led to war, some have suggested that, given the underlying tensions that had built up in Europe over decades, war was, to some extent, inevitable. Was it? Is war ever unavoidable?

"There's always a way out," said Nicholas Burns, a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and veteran diplomat who served as undersecretary of State for political affairs in President George W. Bush's second term. "Imaginative, courageous leaders can avoid the worst happening if they're smart enough, if they're aware enough, if they work hard enough," he said.

That doesn't mean war can always be averted, Burns cautioned, but an effort must always be made.

The assassination of the archduke on June 28 was almost avoided. If Franz Ferdinand's driver had followed the correct route, the assassination may not have occurred — at least not that day.

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Though it's difficult to fathom that such a seemingly trivial move could have triggered a global conflagration, if the spark that ignited World War I hadn't happened, who knows what could have occurred in the intervening time, says Joseph Nye, a Harvard professor and a former diplomat who served as an assistant Defense secretary in the Clinton administration.

"Yes, it's true that sparks come along all the time," Nye said.

"But on the other hand, if a spark doesn't happen, it may rain," he said, explaining that circumstances could have changed in the months or years that followed that made the triggering event not as explosive as the assassination proved to be.

"You need open and trustful channels of communication," said David Kennedy, a Stanford history professor. Kennedy's history of World War II and the Great Depression, Freedom From Fear: The American People in Depression and War, won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize.

He said that today there are global institutions — the United Nations, the G8, G20 and European Union, among others — that at least provide forums for states to talk.

Global systems such as these weren't in place in 1914, Kennedy noted, saying he believes "the international system today has a lot more resilience than it did in 1914."

"If you think that war is a possibility, you really have an obligation to your people to exhaust diplomacy before you use force," Burns said. "Force has to be the last option. It can't be the first."

2. War is always unpredictable

It's almost hard to believe 100 years later, but many leaders at the time thought World War I would be over quickly. Few, if any, would have predicted a four-year battle of attrition that would result in millions of lost lives.

"Leaders on all sides did not choose the war that they ended up fighting," said Daniel Sargent, a history professor at the University of California-Berkeley.

This is not a wartime phenomenon unique to the leaders of the era — and it's a lesson that perhaps hasn't been fully learned.

"It's the repeated story, and you wonder why it takes people so much effort to learn it: that once you unleash large-scale violence, i.e. make war, it's almost impossible to predict the course of events thereafter," Kennedy said.

"Policymakers, in general, exaggerate their own capacity to control historical events," Sargent said.

The two most recent conflicts the United States engaged in — Afghanistan, which is still winding down, and Iraq — are both cases of the unpredictability of war.

"I don't think that the leaders of the Bush administration in March 2003 thought that by invading Iraq and deposing Saddam Hussein, we were embarking on an eight-year occupation" of Iraq, Burns said. He said that although he believed in the necessity of the mission, the administration likewise didn't imagine they were launching a 13-year war in Afghanistan.

What is the takeaway from a lesson that emphasizes unpredictability? Burns said we're simply not able "to know with precision what the consequences of our actions are." We must realize that using force is a "combustible event."

3. History should be remembered

Since 1945, the major powers in the world have not gone to war with one another — even at the peak of the Cold War.

"That's some kind of accomplishment," Kennedy said. "And we shouldn't forget what a positive accomplishment that is and what's enabled it."

Perhaps the biggest reason for this — and why a war on the scale of World War I is unlikely to occur again — is the advent of nuclear weapons and the reality that, if war broke out between two major powers, the consequences could be unlike any the world has ever seen.

Just because it's unlikely doesn't mean it's impossible.

"There's always the danger of accidents and miscalculations getting people in places where they don't want to be," Nye said.

Memories of the destruction that can be caused by global conflict can fade as time passes — certainly after 100 years. There are no living veterans of World War I; the last died in 2012. No one who was there can tell the world what it was like at Verdun or the Marne or the Somme and what we should learn. We can rely only on history.

"There's a danger that these events become so distant in our memories they become abstract," Burns said, adding that's why it's vital to study history.

The milestone anniversary being marked and the attention it brings to how World War I unfolded may remind people that it would be a mistake to assume it couldn't happen again.

Ultimately, it may depend on the mindsets of the leaders we choose and whether they choose to follow the lessons of history.

"Some leaders study history and bring to the responsibilities of leadership a real sense of history. Others do not," Sargent said.

History has shown that one cannot assume a lesson — even one from war — will remain in the collective consciousness forever.

"The human record is littered with lessons unlearned," Kennedy said.

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