Governing the World: The History of an Idea 
by Mark Mazower.
Allen Lane, 475 pp., £25, October 2012, 978 0 7139 9683 8
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Mark Mazower has written many elegant but gloomy books about the unending capacity of the Europeans to destroy one another. His new book is elegant, perceptive, stimulating and erudite. It deals with the attempts to create institutions that would bring economic and political order not only to Europe, but to mankind in general, to find a way of bringing to an end the Hobbesian chaos of war between nations with its casual massacres of civilians and organised slaughter on the battlefield. Mazower’s glum conclusion, reached almost before his book has begun, is that ‘we have moved from an era that had faith in the idea of international institutions to one that has lost it.’

His story starts with the defeat of Napoleon, when the victorious kings and emperors decided that it was time to bring order to the continent of Europe. The Concert of Europe and its diminished successor the Holy Alliance, working through caucuses of diplomats meeting in secret, prevented war between the great powers until the system broke down in the Crimea. It was a more collegiate way of managing the old balance of power, but it did nothing to promote the liberties of nations and peoples. On the contrary, it was, in the eyes of many liberals, a conspiracy to maintain the oppressive old order which preceded the French Revolution.

Some people decided they would have to organise their liberties for themselves. Many were evangelical Christians, often from the working classes. They believed in the essential goodness and brotherhood of man, or in his perfectibility at least. British dissenters started a Society for the Promotion of Permanent and Universal Peace as early as 1816. In America thirty years later the ‘learned blacksmith’ Elihu Burrit pressed for a League of Universal Brotherhood. All of them believed that they could achieve their high ends because ordinary people would, given the chance, naturally organise themselves for peace and freedom. It is a belief that persists today among those who too uncritically welcomed the Arab Spring.

Others took a more political view. Mazzini believed that peace would come once nation-states had been created for the minorities – Italians, Hungarians, Poles – oppressed by the great Continental empires. His belief in self-determination did not extend to lesser breeds within Europe, and certainly not beyond. He and the Liberal politician Richard Cobden believed that general amity would be reinforced by free trade and benign capitalism. Socialist thinkers, on the contrary, sought the abolition of capitalism and classes, and eventually of sovereign nations as well. Marx despised the wishy-washy idealism of his fellow socialists. He believed that he had discovered the economic laws that determine the course of history and would inevitably bring about revolutionary change and the triumph of the working class. The intellectual clash between those who thought like Marx and those who thought like Mazzini and Cobden dominated thinking about domestic organisation and international relations for a century and a half, and lay at the root of the great ideological confrontation between capitalism and communism in the 20th century.

The practically inclined – engineers, scientists, statisticians – believed that the answer lay in the march of technology, the binding force of modern communications, the newfangled railways and telegraphs, a technical rationalism. Once you knew all the facts you would be inevitably drawn to sensible policies of general benefit. This belief was reflected in the rise of international technical organisations of all kinds, of which the first was the International Telegraph Union, founded in 1865.

The lawyers did not believe in the perfectibility of man. But they did think he could be kept in some sort of order through the rule of law. Their ideas came together with the generous thinking of the idealists. Together they formulated laws to moderate the excesses of the battlefield. They secured conventions on the treatment of prisoners and the wounded. They set up institutions to put these ideas into practice, such as the International Red Cross. Many of these lawyers were American, and it was their idea of a law-based international organisation to manage relationships between sovereign nations that culminated first in the creation of the League of Nations after the First World War and then of the United Nations after the Second.

Disconcertingly, the new breed of international lawyers introduced another idea, which had far-reaching consequences in the age of empire and even in the less orderly age that followed the end of the Cold War. It was that the rule of law could logically operate only between ‘civilised’ states where the rule of law was already paramount. It could not be applied to semi-civilised states or groups of states such as the Ottoman Empire or the Chinese Empire. Still less could it be applied to those whom the 19th century chose to call ‘barbarians’, in Africa and elsewhere, because these people had no rule of law and no recognised state organisation at all. It was the ‘duty’ of the advanced nations to civilise them. But the absence of a common legal bond made it permissible to use forcible and undiscriminating means to achieve this apparently admirable end. An early consequence was the horror of Belgian rule in the Congo, though the Belgians were by no means the only imperial power to find the theory convenient.

With the end of the Cold War, foreign intervention no longer risked triggering a world war. The idea of the ‘mission to civilise’ was revived. Like their great-grandfathers a century earlier, a group of mostly European countries under American leadership – the ‘international community’ as they habitually and arrogantly called themselves – saw it as their duty to bring the benefits of democracy and the liberal market to less fortunately situated people. The motivations were sometimes generous, sometimes less so: critics said, not always correctly, that you could smell the oil.

The idea that those being civilised did not enjoy the same legal rights as the civilisers had of course long been discredited. But the interventionists’ determination to limit their own casualties was not matched in practice by an equal determination to limit ‘collateral damage’, the euphemism for civilian casualties on the other side. Violent actions were accompanied by endless lectures about Western values. Such talk came particularly ill from representatives of a continent that pioneered the massive aerial bombardment of civilians and the rounding up of millions into concentration camps. Europeans and Americans find it hard to understand why this language has alienated so much of the rest of the world.

Even so, it is not a simple matter. What the UN now calls the Responsibility to Protect – intervening temporarily to stop mass murder – can work, as it did in Bosnia and Kosovo, and as it might have in Rwanda. Staying on to re-engineer someone else’s social and political arrangements does not work, as Iraq and Afghanistan have shown, and as Mazower argues:

A world in which violations of human rights trump the sanctity of borders may turn out to produce more wars, more massacres and more instability. It may also be less law-abiding. If the history of the past century shows anything, it is that clear legal norms, the empowering of states and the securing of international stability more generally also serve the cause of human welfare.

What has happened to the vision of a United Europe neatly illustrates Mazower’s main contentions: he devotes less attention to it than it deserves. He pays tribute to Altiero Spinelli, the Italian idealist who believed that federation was the answer to Europe’s problems, but that is only part of the story. The Founding Fathers who laid the complex practical groundwork for the European experiment were idealists too, but they knew that Europe’s problems would not yield to idealism alone. They were lawyers, administrators, economists and statisticians, and their inspirations were Marx and Montesquieu. From Marx they took the notion that, if you get the economic infrastructure right, you will achieve the political superstructure you need. From Montesquieu’s idealised account of the English constitution, they got the notion that institutions based on the separation of powers between the legislature, the executive and the judiciary would complete the picture. Though they were elitists, they did have a notion that some democratic accountability was needed as well. So they threw in a European Parliament for good measure.

People in the six original member states of the European Community initially supported the project: they were enthusiastically in favour of anything that might prevent them from killing one another again. This motivation worked even in Eurosceptical Britain. The British disliked both the idealism and the bureaucracy of the European experiment. But they too shared the aspiration for a continent where disputes were no longer settled by violence; and they were worried about being left out of a project that might succeed without them, and at their expense. Those were the hard-headed and rather sensible political reasons that led a grumpy and unenthusiastic British electorate to vote yes in the referendum in 1975.

The long-term aim of the Founding Fathers, like Spinelli’s, was not realistic. They drew a false analogy with the United States of America, which lacked the deep-rooted hostilities of Europe, and eventually came together thanks to the inestimable unifying advantages of a common language, a common legal tradition, a common idea of politics and a common enemy. But whether Europe was ever likely to become a full-blown federation or not (and one is entitled to be sceptical), the Fathers understood perfectly well that nation-states could not quickly be dissolved into a greater whole. Federation could not come except as a result of a long process: after all, it had taken the Americans nine decades and a bloody civil war to decide what their federation should look like. So the Fathers put together mechanisms with a dynamic supranational element which, they hoped, would almost imperceptibly lead towards federation. Not for nothing did they talk of ‘ever closer union’ rather than union itself.

In so doing they departed from a fundamental principle of the United Nations. Unlike the European Concert of 1815 or the United Nations of 1944, there was to be no directorate of the great powers. In principle, all member states were to be equal. The smallest was as entitled to stick up for its vital interests as the largest. If there were to be vetos, then small states should have them too. Of course this ideal was moderated by reality. But this was a Europe which, as a Danish foreign minister later observed, was designed to make the continent safe for small nations. In the longer run, the Founding Fathers and their intellectual successors hoped that neither small nor large members would have a veto. Instead there would be consensus or a complicated system of majority voting under which even a great power could be outvoted. Economic self-interest, strong institutions and a growing habit of collaboration fostered by common institutions would thus tame the clash of nations.

What has now happened to the European vision seems to justify Mazower’s contention that such endeavours are doomed first to hubris and then to failure. The European elite believed that their Union could enlarge almost indefinitely, that it could retain its cohesion while absorbing an ever larger number of inadequately qualified new members. They thought that a monetary union could be created without the necessary political underpinning. Worst of all they deluded themselves that, like Plato’s guardians in a new guise, they could run the enterprise indefinitely from behind the scenes, while ignoring the increasing irritation of ordinary people.

It was a mistake made not only by the elites of Europe. The belief of politicians, lawyers, economists, even diplomats, that their expertise and their devotion could bring some order to the affairs of men had produced a century of remarkable creativity, the building of great international institutions like the League of Nations, the United Nations, the European Union, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, as well as the numerous regulatory institutions set up to promote common technical standards and commonly acceptable behaviour. Indeed, in the brief period of triumphalist euphoria which followed the Cold War and its convenient but terrifying simplicities, it seemed that a New World Order might come into being, a globalised world in which international borders had become so porous that the nation-state had ceased to have much relevance.

But such thoughts were not at all to the liking of much of the rest of the world. The nation-state wasn’t dead at all. Countries that had only recently acquired their independence were not in a hurry to give it up. India and China were increasingly determined to reassert themselves. Russians resented being lectured by Westerners with little idea of their fundamental problems. None of them was likely to accept that the Euro-American tradition was the automatic answer, or that the distribution of power which emerged from the Cold War was either ideal or immutable. So what we have is a New World Chaos, increasing disunity in the United Nations and a growing tendency for even its original supporters, the Europeans and the Americans, to act outside its disciplines.

The problem is the politics. The professionals, the experts, the idealists naturally prefer reason. But politics, which is driven by power and passion, trumps reason every time. For most people, politics is something done by other people: by ‘them’. Get rid of the politicians and everything will be all right. But that is an illusion. Man is a political animal. Wherever people get together, you get politics: in an opera house, in a charitable body, in a university, in a football club. The schemes for ordering the life of nations which had been advanced over the last two hundred years were scuppered on the reef of politics. Does all that mean that Mazower is right to conclude as gloomily as he began, that ‘the idea of governing the world is becoming yesterday’s dream’? Have all the attempts to set up institutions and construct norms failed? Is there no point in resuming the attempt?

That pessimistic conclusion is too simple. So are its optimistic counterparts, for example Stephen Pinker’s recent ‘history of violence and humanity’, a seductive but unconvincing attempt to show through a relentless battery of statistics that mankind’s propensity to violence is steadily diminishing.* Neither the pessimists, nor the optimists, nor Marx and his followers, nor anyone else, has yet succeeded in determining the laws of history. If anything is sure, it is that history does not run in straight lines.

And so the perpetual dialectic between the optimists and the pessimists will continue. Messy and temporary solutions will be found between the two extremes. The members of the United Nations have invested too much to allow the thing simply to fall apart. They will find new ways to make it work, to accommodate the rising powers that think the Americans have had their way for too long – the Chinese, the Indians, the Brazilians, the Indonesians, the still glowering Russians. The United States is not all that likely, in the end, to flounce out: in a dramatically changing world it would be less likely to get its way in isolation than it would by trying to work the system. Nor, more parochially, is it wholly fanciful to think that the core members of the European Union will be driven together, not apart, by the Eurozone crisis. Perhaps the European elites may even come to learn that they really do have to listen to ordinary people.

Moreover, many of those ordinary people will certainly continue to believe that their small efforts can eventually bring about a big outcome. That is already true in our democracies, but in the internet age it is becoming increasingly true elsewhere. Politicians and bureaucrats find the do-gooders irritating, ill-informed and impractical. But our own history would look very different had it not been for the idealists: the Christians and the dissenters, the enthusiasts for the League of Nations, the CND supporters who helped to convince their governments that nuclear testing in the atmosphere endangered the human race, the whistleblowers like Carne Ross, the diplomat who resigned from the British delegation to the United Nations in protest over the 2003 invasion of Iraq to set up his own modest machinery for moderating conflicts around the world. Such people will never succeed in transforming the imperfect ways of man. But they will continue to try to nudge our leaders in the right direction. And for that we should be very grateful.

So the shipwreck is not total. Even the so-called realists, the diplomats and the politicians, are likely to find in the future, as they have in the past, that war and conflict are too destructive for men to find them acceptable for very long. The urge to organise and to institutionalise will survive. The rising powers which now challenge the American view of world order will become status quo powers themselves. It is unlikely in the extreme that we will ever end up with a mechanism that actually ‘governs’ the whole world in any real sense. National governments claim a monopoly of violence, to take but one example: they are unlikely ever to hand over that monopoly to a world police force. To that extent Mazower is right. But neither his deep gloom nor the bright future envisaged by Pinker will be the final word. More probable is a continued oscillation between the two: attempts to construct the institutions of world order interspersed with destructive periods of international rivalry. The struggle between Faust’s better and worse spirits will continue: that is the nature of mankind.

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