Matthew Price, writer and book critic
Governing the World: The History of an Idea
By Matthew Price. The National, November 10, 2012

“International”, as a word and concept, is a relatively recent term. English philosopher Jeremy Bentham first introduced the notion in 1781, deploying this “new though not inexpressive appellation” to make sense of the set of relations that prevailed (or should prevail) “betwixt nation and nation”.

“The end that a disinterested legislator upon international law would propose to himself,” Bentham mused, “would … be the greatest happiness of all nations taken together”.

As even the most cursory glance at modern history will tell you, harmony between nations has been fleeting. Yet if international cooperation seems the most elusive of ideals, it has a rich, complex history of its own. In his dense and suggestive history Governing the World: The History of an Idea, Columbia University historian Mark Mazower surveys 200 years of internationalist thought and practice. His book is peopled by wild dreamers, visionary technocrats, revolutionary exiles, and scheming politicians who have sought, with varying degrees of success, to foster harmony between peoples and vanquish the scourges of war, hunger, and poverty from the earth.

This is a story, at once dispiriting and inspiring, where the wildest ideals collide with the brute realities of realpolitik, yielding pathos and paradox at nearly every turn. In the quest for peace, war is the great driver of internationalism: both the League of Nations (the First World War) and its successor body, the United Nations (the Second World War), were born of global conflagrations. Another vast conflict - the Napoleonic Wars - set into motion one of the first instances of great power cooperation, the Concert of Europe, which strove to bring peace to Europe after 1815. It largely succeeded, even if it sought to quash anything that had the slightest whiff of revolution or democratic liberation. The Concert was a triumph of reactionary conservatism and back room dealing, the wizardly Prince Klemens von Metternich its presiding spirit.

Against the Concert, a host of internationalist counter-thought, grew and flourished. The Italian Giusseppe Mazzini agitated against the Metternich system, calling for a “single union of all the European peoples who are striving towards the same goal”. For Giuseppe Mazzini, nationalism was a religion; “the sacredness of nationality” his creed. Yet this was but one bead of an idea on a strand of internationalism. Karl Marx looked beyond the bounds of the nation-state to a union of workers who would usher in utopia. (Mazzini wanted nothing of it, sneering at the “anarchy of the communist sects”.) Here, Mazower astutely notes, was a foreshadowing of the ideals - nationality, on the one hand, versus communist internationalism - that would pit Woodrow Wilson and Vladimir Lenin against one another in the 20th century.

Others looked to free trade as the key to world harmony. Evangelical Christians plumped for peace. Convocations of lawyers met and promoted the notion of an international court to adjudicate disputes, an idea as controversial now as it was in the 19th century. Where Mazower really triumphs is his telling of the rather more mundane work of now forgotten activists who fought hard to establish the institutions and protocols of global governance. One of these figures is Sir Randal Cremer, a barely remembered Briton. A peace activist and MP, Cremer sought to work within the established diplomatic system through arbitration. In contrast to the blood and thunder of Marx and Mazzini, Cremer’s method, the author writes, “mapped out the path to peace more gradually, explicitly and deliberately than either of these - via the impartiality of parliamentarians and international jurors, guided by a consensual body of law …”

If anything, Mazower chronicles the triumph of the expert and the technocrat. Guided by the grandiose theories of the Comte de Saint-Simone, who early in the 19th century promoted the idea of a European federation guided by rational principles, social scientists and statisticians collected, collated and disseminated legal, political, agricultural, cartographic and other specialist knowledge around the globe. Even more than the League of Nations and the UN, this is perhaps the legacy of the strands of internationalist thought Mazower expertly traces. A direct line from the panoply of today’s proliferating NGOs can be traced back to these late 19th-century and early 20th-century currents.

Indeed, the much-maligned League of Nations, which has been dismissed as a mere talking shop and could not prevent Germany from marauding all over Europe, left an enduring legacy of success at the organisational and bureaucratic level. Collecting statistics is hardly glamorous, but in such tedious but crucial activities the groundwork was laid in areas like food regimes, hygiene and public health. Between the war, League officials brokered international agreements on the drug trade and prostitution. The League also distinguished itself dealing with post-First World War health and refugee crises that stretched from Eastern Europe into the Middle East.

League officials could take pride in their achievements, but Mazower points out there is an element of blindness in the power of fact and technical expertise to triumph over all. For all “the manifestations of technical administrative virtuosity, however, their initiatives did not take place in some ideologically neutral zone”, Mazower observes. High ideals would collide relentlessly with the needs of the great powers.

The League brought internationalist principles to the diplomatic protocols of the world powers. But power dictates. The British Empire bent the League to its needs - Lloyd George said that the empire, by its very nature, already constituted a league of nations.
What was once fanciful became enshrined in the mainstream. Mazzini’s vision of a league of nations became a reality after the Second World War as the United Nations expanded exponentially as the French and British empires relinquished their colonies. Yet herein lies another paradox. Self-determination is a cherished principle of 20th-century internationalism, but what does it mean to an institution such as the UN when the tiny Pacific island of Palau - or Monaco, Lichtenstein, and Andorra, for that matter - has a seat in the General Assembly? Power rivalries deformed the United Nations as the Cold War played out in the corridors. The United States found itself outflanked by various Third World blocs.

Mazower’s pages on the rise and fall of the UN make for depressing reading. The UN is a strangely powerful, but also powerless body. Its agencies certainly made their mark - the Food and Agricultural Organization and the World Health Organization, which consolidated the work of the pioneering internationalists that came before, were powerful and influential in shaping the postwar world. For an allegedly pacific body, the UN has staged humanitarian interventions and ventured into peacekeeping, with some successes (East Timor) and staggering failures (Bosnia, Rwanda).

Mazower is a patient and balanced historian, but as he draws closer to our own time, he writes with increasing exasperation and outright cynicism about the fate of internationalism.For Mazower, the acronym that matters today is not the UN but rather IMF—the International Monetary Fund. It is brute finance, he alleges, that today governs the world. Such institutions, which emerged from the wreckage of war and depression and secured prosperity of the West in the 1950s and 1960s, have become accountable to no one. The European Union is no better. The democratic nation-state, once the fulcrum of the hopes of Mazzini and Wilson, has been pared back and put in its place. “The idea of governing the world,” Mazower sadly concludes, “has become yesterday’s dream.”

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