September 28, 2012 8:33 pm

Things fall apart

An impressive history of international governance is also an elegy – one that we must hope is premature
A press-box view of a 2005 Security Council meeting at the United Nations in New York©Magnum

A press-box view of a 2005 Security Council meeting at the United Nations in New York

Governing the World: The History of an Idea, by Mark Mazower, Allen Lane, RRP£25/Penguin Press, RRP$29.95, 496 pages

 

When thinking about the peculiarities of our human condition and the international political order, I have often imagined that I have to describe such things to a puzzled group of visitors from another planet.

This is a rather useful exercise in itself, since it forces us to explain many phenomena, large and small, that we usually take for granted. It is fairly easy to explain to the visiting Martians why we think formal education and clean-water utilities are important, why we preserve parks in our major cities, why we take summer holidays. But when it comes to explaining and justifying our national and, especially, our international organisation of the Earth’s res publica, I begin to falter. For how is it possible to defend the curious division of 7bn human beings (all naturally equal to the outside observer) into 193 separate political units, each with a government, a flag, a national anthem and national prejudices? How to justify the sad fact that some of these states fight against each other; raise trade barriers against each other; deny access to individuals whom they call “foreigners”? Surely there is a better way of organising the world than this?

This conundrum is at the core of Mark Mazower’s impressive new book, Governing the World: The History of an Idea; or, perhaps to put it another way, it is the repeated failure of human societies and their national governments to produce a better ordering of our world that is the concern of his present study. Mazower, a professor of history at Columbia University, is the respected author of many works on modern European and international events, such as Dark Continent: Europe’s Twentieth Century and Hitler’s Empire: How the Nazis Ruled Europe , and is well equipped to lead us through the complex story of the pursuit of this “idea” – that of the push for an improved form of world government – and of the many ways in which that seemingly reasonable notion was derailed.

The book itself is a significant contribution to historical scholarship, with the chapters on the 19th century’s remarkable swirl of politics, ideas and organisations being particularly original and valuable. This is, Mazower readily concedes, a very western history, the only change – a reinforcement, really – being that the 20th century gave it an Atlanticist imprint, with the US, for its own many motives, taking the lead; in place of meetings and treaties agreed upon at Vienna, Paris, Berlin and Versailles, diplomats and reporters watched that same western history be refurnished at Bretton Woods, Dumbarton Oaks and San Francisco. Throughout this lengthy tale, power politics grappled with internationalism, idealism struggled against the international anarchy of states, and time and again the hopes for peaceful order were shattered by massive, bloody wars that drove the architects and planners back to yet another rebuilding phase. The UN is, really, just another one of those constructs.

Simply for giving us this lucid account, Mazower deserves our gratitude. But Governing the World is also an intriguing read because of the strong argument he places within it: that it may be that this grand idea, with all its variants, is coming to an end – at least as we know it, as we learnt about it in school, and as we professors of history and international relations have traditionally taught it. The present number one world power uses the UN only when it wants to, and when it assumes an envious Russia and China will not veto its modest proposals. And while Europe marginalises itself (in amazing lockstep with the marginalisation of its Comptian-Gladstonian ideals), the rising nation-states of Brazil, India, Indonesia and others are going to want a very different “new world order” from that proclaimed in 1990 by George HW Bush. If they are going to tolerate any world architecture at all other than the merely technical (eg the International Air Transport Association), it is going to be, the author apprehends, “something much more multicentred and fissiparous”. In some ways it is rather a pity that Mazower puts his gloomy suspicion into the introduction; anyone who jumped straight to the brilliant Chapter Four on “The Empire of Law” or Chapter 10 on “Development as World-Making, 1949-73” would be forgiven for thinking that the book was heading towards a rather different conclusion.

This new work certainly gave this reviewer an awful lot to think about – to an author, there may be no greater praise than that. We are left with two rather sharply contrasting views of the UN’s relevance and the quest for an improved international order. The first presents a distinctly negative and hostile picture, though it includes many variations, from the rioting mobs outside foreign embassies to the crude “Thank God for the death of the UN” attitude of American neoconservatives such as Richard Perle. Created by the Great Powers to serve their national interests in 1945, it can be put on the shelf by today’s Chinese, Russian and American leaders when they so wish it. And all this allows nasty regimes such as Assad’s Syria to go on with their domestic horrors. The strong decide everything, and the weak must comply.

The alternative, more hopeful view is that the move to greater internationalism will not stop, although its journey will appear like that of a camel train, winding its way slowly through the deserts, often facing hazardous conditions and forced to halt for a while, but never going backwards. This latter image, while suggesting slowness and caution, appeals to me, simply because I am convinced by the arguments of our Martian visitors: that our present disorganised and disrupted world condition, so antithetical to the idea that Professor Mazower’s chief characters pushed to realise, is not sustainable. The camel train is halted at the moment, and the author of Governing the World ends with the dispiriting assumption that the journey is over. One hopes his conclusion may turn out to be wrong but that still leaves others of us with the uneasy sense that world affairs may have to get even worse before egoistic Great Powers rejoin the camel train, and it moves forward again.

Paul Kennedy is professor of history at Yale University and author of ‘The Parliament of Man: The Past, Present and Future of the United Nations’ (Penguin). His next book, ‘Engineers of Victory’ (Allen Lane/Random House) will be published in January 2013

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