A review of Governing the World: The History of an Idea, by Mark Mazower

Years ago, I pulled off a highway in upstate New York, far from any city, enticed by a billboard notice for the "Book Barn." It was an old barn, stuffed to the rafters with books, presided over by a middle-aged hippie. When I asked what sort of books he had, he assured me they were "books with a lot of good information."

Say this for Mark Mazower's new book: it has a lot of good information. Mazower, the Ira D. Wallach Professor of History at Columbia University, seems to have spent a lot of time rummaging in places like that book barn. In Governing the World, he offers a rather idiosyncratic survey of notions about international organization in modern times, starting in the early 19th century with the Holy Alliance of the Great Powers that defeated Napoleon. The history that follows is not well-digested or helpfully analyzed. The author does, however, report quite a few fun facts, particularly in the book's first part called "The Era of Internationalism," by which he seems to mean the European era.

Readers can learn, for example, about the first congress organized by advocates of Esperanto, a synthesis of Indo-European languages, designed to secure world peace through linguistic accord. The Esperantists were no sooner organized at their 1905 congress, as Mazower reports, than they fell into a schism between orthodox adherents and reformers who advocated a new, improved international lingua franca, "Ido."

Equally instructive: the journal now known as Foreign Affairs—adopted by the Council on Foreign Relations in 1922 to advocate American engagement with the League of Nations—"had actually been founded as the Journal of Race Development in 1910, the year before the Universal Races Congress in London, then turned into the Journal of International Relations (in 1919) before ending up with its present title." Elite journals don't keep going if they don't keep up with elite fashion.

Mazower is the author of several books about the rise of fascism and the experience of the Second World War in Europe. So he is commendably alert to connections between internationalism and the Nazi regime. In the 1930s, the secretary general of the League of Nations, Joseph Avenol, "tried repeatedly to bring Nazi Germany back in" to the organization, by muffling protests about Mussolini's aggressions in Ethiopia and Albania and arranging to have "Jewish officials" of the League "pushed out." Avenol, a former French finance official, was still maneuvering for League-sponsored conciliation with Germany even as Paris fell to German troops in June 1940.

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There was, as Mazower records, some ground to hope that Nazi officials would appreciate "the value of working through international organizations." When prison experts, associated with the League of Nations, organized an international congress in 1935, they decided that Berlin would be a suitable site and were duly welcomed by Joseph Goebbels (who must have known quite a bit about new techniques of imprisonment). The Vienna-based International Criminal Police Commission—now known as Interpol—fell into the Nazi orbit when Vienna did. Himmler's SS Deputy, Reinhard Heydrich, "had himself declared ICPC president" in the summer of 1940. The Reichsbank "remained an active member of the Bank for International Settlements"—predecessor to the International Monetary Fund—"throughout the war."

In August 1940, the League's scheming secretary general was himself "pushed out," repudiated even by the new French regime of Marshal Pétain. The core of the League's secretariat was persuaded to seek refuge in…Princeton, New Jersey. But the move was funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, with assistance from the Institute for Advanced Study. Franklin Roosevelt, running for a third term, declined to express any support or sympathy for the refugees who claimed to be curators of the world's hopes for peace. Winston Churchill's Britain had resolved to keep fighting. The era of securing peace by appeasing aggressors was over—for that time, at least.

We are nearly halfway through this substantial history before Mazower gets to the United Nations. There is not as much "good information" in the ensuing chapters, lumped together as "Part II: Governing the World the American Way." The problem with these chapters is not that Mazower idealizes the United Nations, but that he does not understand "the American Way" as a compliment.

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He detects American self-aggrandizement even in schemes for humanitarian intervention embraced by fashionable internationalists like Anne-Marie Slaughter of Princeton's Wilson School and Samantha Power of Harvard's Kennedy School, both of whom found comfortable perches in the Obama Administration. Mazower derides them as "moralist realists," stretching "the language of moral obligation…to accommodate virtually any perceived national security need of the United States." There may be a good point there—somewhere. Unfortunately, he doesn't provide enough explanation to clarify what it is.

Mazower certainly makes a good point when he complains that an International Criminal Court (ICC), focusing all its attention on Africa, is starting to look like a 21st-century counterpart of 19th-century European imperialism. He even offers some sensible comments about the risk that overreaching prosecutors will exacerbate conflicts and intensify local suffering. But since the United States has rejected the ICC, why is this "Governing the American Way"?

Quite apart from terminology, Mazower's assessments are hard to follow because he insists on laying hands on every development that strikes him as vaguely "international"—great power rivalries, peacekeeping on the periphery, human rights advocacy, regulation of trade measures, etc. Lacking a clear focus or theme, the narrative seems to dart from one fragment of modern history to the next. If journalism is the first draft of history, Mazower has not gotten far into a second draft.

He does display a consistent point of view. We might call it professorial irony, masquerading as populist resentment. He tries to show that bold new projects in the late 20th century were often just echoing the postures of imperial power in 19th century Europe. He complains that the United States was self-interested in its vision of international organization, and then that it wasn't committed to its vision.

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But his commentary is rarely very illuminating, because he does not have the discipline to analyze the serious options actually available to statesmen in any particular era. So, for example, he faults the Truman Administration and its successors for adopting a Cold War strategy that usually left the United Nations on the side lines. Could the Soviet Union really have been contained in any other way? Could American policymakers really have expected the American people to place their own military capacities under the direction of shifting majorities at the U.N.? Even now, with the Obama Administration deferring to international councils and only "leading from behind," how well are we doing in facing down wild threats from the lunatic regime in North Korea? Mazower not only fails to answer such basic questions, he fails to pose them.

Instead, he spends many pages lamenting American opposition to the efforts of the Third World majority at the General Assembly to launch a New International Economic Order in the 1970s, which was supposed to redirect international trade to foster "development." Mazower condemns the Reagan Administration for "killing" this effort in the early 1980s—which, from all that appears in this account, Reagan managed to do with just with one hostile speech. The project was inspired by the success of the oil-exporters' cartel, OPEC. Characteristically, Mazower does not pause to ask how well even OPEC did for long-term "development" in oil-exporting countries like Venezuela or Nigeria. He doesn't analyze the impressive economic growth subsequently achieved by China and other Asian economies, even without U.N.-sponsored cartels. Would they have done as well if the U.N. had been trying to manage world trade in the interest of raw material exporters? He avoids hard questions, preferring to sneer about the disruptive consequences of financial deregulation, which he seems to regard as an essentially American scheme.

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But if it fails as political history, Governing the World is not more successful as the "history of an idea." At the most basic level, Mazower never really analyzes the concepts which give primacy to the national—the perspective from which the "international" appears as a derivative, delegated authority. Starting with the alliance system that followed the Napoleonic wars, he treats "internationalism" as if it were an innovation of the 19th century. Readers are left to suppose that nations previously lived in sheer anarchy.

But this is silly—at least as regards the ideas. Look at the American Declaration of Independence, with its concluding claim for the United States "to do all other acts and things which independent states may of right do." The phrasing implies that a sort of international code already defined the rights and duties of states. That's what the leading treatises of the era taught, grounding the law of nations on a new version of natural law, emphasizing property and individual rights. It didn't prevent war—the Declaration itself includes the "full power to levy war" among the rightful powers of states—but it encouraged restraints in the conduct of war and fostered cooperation in peacetime conducive to expanding trade and commerce.

In the 18th century, statesmen still remembered the historic alternative: a supranational community of princes, held together by shared adherence to a common spiritual authority. Protestants had revolted against this understanding of Christendom. In the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, ending the Thirty Years War (and many more years of previous religious conflict), the Catholic empires had recognized the independence of Protestant states—the right of their sovereigns to decide for themselves. The idea of a neutral (one could almost say, secular) natural law gained momentum in the 17th century precisely because it addressed real challenges of the time. If the sovereign state is independent of transnational religious authority, it will find it easier to focus on the security of its own particular people, both at home and abroad. A world of independent states implies a new view of politics.

If you were interested in the modern idea of an international order of independent states, you might want to investigate how this idea was originally expounded. You might want to study the arguments advanced by the Dutch jurist Hugo Grotius in the early 17th century or the more intricate arguments of the French jurist Jean Bodin in the late 16th century. Mazower is not interested. He reserves his attention for crackpots and schemers and distracted politicians of later times.

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The underlying issues—most of all, at the level of ideas—remain quite relevant to contemporary political debates. Many Western advocates insist we need to have strengthened mechanisms of "global governance," safeguarding the rights of all "humanity" and protecting the global environment from neglect and abuse by national governments. For these projects to succeed, national governments will need to forfeit much of their sovereignty. Advocates insist that global claims have so much moral urgency that we shouldn't object. While Western advocates want to pour moral or spiritual authority into negotiated international arrangements, many Muslims dream of providing global reach and military backing to the spiritual authority of a restored caliphate.

Are these serious alternatives? Even if they could be implemented, would they prove any better than new platforms for an older form of tyranny? Governing the World is not interested in the most theoretically challenging alternatives. In his overstuffed catalog of internationalist ventures, Mazower does not even mention the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, now embracing 57 nations, which are often the decisive block in the governing majority of "Non-Aligned Nations" at the U.N. General Assembly and its organs. He does not notice that Muslim nations have sponsored an alternative to international human rights treaties in the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam. But he ought to be interested, since its very existence (it was proclaimed in 1990) reminds us that much of the world does not accept the universality of Western formulations of human rights.

Perhaps if Mark Mazower considered the full implications of the alternatives, he would take a more charitable view of the compromises which, due in large part to American influence in 1945, came to be embodied in the U.N. charter. Perhaps if he thought more fully about the underlying issues, he would develop more respect for the original "American way," as embodied in our Declaration of Independence, our Constitution, and our American traditions of statecraft.

But you can't write a serious "history of an idea" if you don't take ideas seriously.