Governing the World: The History of an Idea

November 8, 2012

Mark Mazower’s stimulating work analyses how the world was governed (or at least how attempts were made to govern it) in the periods following three “settlements”. First came the Concert of Europe, in which the leading powers managed things fairly amicably from 1815 until the Crimean War of the 1850s, and then in an increasingly fragmented and crisis-ridden way up to the cataclysm of 1914; next the brief and inglorious 20-year life of the fragile League of Nations, which succumbed to crises and conflicts, some of them built into the post-1918 “settlement”; and finally the long and varied experience of the United Nations, founded in 1945, which has survived for two-thirds of a century.

One of Mazower’s original contributions is to examine how the formal arrangements set up by the world’s leading governments - the Concert, the League and the UN - increasingly had to interact with the informal transnational bodies we now know as non-governmental organisations, or NGOs. He gives clear (although sometimes inevitably brief) accounts of such bodies, from Giuseppe Mazzini’s People’s International League of the 1840s and Karl Marx’s International Workingmen’s Association (the First Workers’ International) of the 1860s to today’s Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Mazower describes, with fascinating examples, how the “top-down” structures of successive state-led governance systems were increasingly paralleled by a “bottom-up” proliferation of transnational bodies representing not only ideologies, but also the economic, social and other needs of civil society. By 1900 there was an intense and organised pattern of specialist international conferences for scientists, and “not far behind were hoteliers, architects, bankers, actuaries” (and, most influentially, lawyers).

Soon the “functional” concerns of these and other groups led to formal intergovernmental agreements - to recognise the Greenwich Meridian for timekeeping or set up the International Postal Union - and during the League of Nations period the creation of a range of more structured specialist agencies aspiring to “govern” (or at least to influence) specific areas of international reality. They included the International Labour Organisation and the forerunners of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation and Unesco.

The book’s account of the varied experience of the UN - through the Cold War between East and West, the demands for a “North-South dialogue” and a “New International Economic Order”, the challenges of globalisation and then financial turmoil - points to at least two major conclusions. First, the growing primacy of economic issues has shifted “governing” power towards such agencies as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank at the expense of the UN system as such. And second, on this issue as on others - for instance, in the opaque and inadequately studied area of the intricate relations between governments and NGOs - the outcome is usually determined by national capitals, especially Washington. As A.J.P. Taylor put it, “states will be states”.

This impressively wide-ranging and forcefully argued work is not without faults. There are, first, some factual slips: although the 1919 treaty with Germany was signed in Versailles, giving rise to references ever since to the “Versailles settlement”, there was no such thing as a “peace conference at Versailles” (it was in Paris); Leon Bourgeois, the French statesman and pioneer of the League of Nations, was no “socialist”; and Mazower’s brief but incisive survey of the European Union’s current problems misnames the Brussels institutions housing both Robert Cooper and Herman van Rompuy (respectively, in fact, the Council of Ministers and the European Council). Regarding methodology, Mazower declares, as a historian, his allergy to the “quasi-scientific language” of political scientists concerned with multilateralism and related concepts, but he would have strengthened his case by considering more seriously the functionalist school, as represented for instance by David Mitrany’s influential tract of 1943, A Working Peace System. It is also curious that he calls E.H. Carr a “journalist and historian” and his 1939 work The Twenty Years’ Crisis: 1919-1939 a “slim volume”. Mazower’s book suffers, finally, from a chronic and lamentable stylistic blemish, systematically omitting the definite article before descriptors preceding individuals’ names, thus presenting us with the jarring ugliness of “commentator Walter Lippmann”, “theologian Reinhold Niebuhr” and so on, ad nauseam.

Overall, however, Mazower’s book will be of interest to a wide readership, and should inspire specialists in international relations to fill the gaps in our understanding that his survey has identified.

Governing the World: The History of an Idea

By Mark Mazower. Allen Lane, 496pp, £25.00. ISBN 9780713996838. Published 4 October 2012

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