Every few generations, some overly ambitious member of our species tries to rule the world. Philip of Macedonia, Genghis Khan and the Roman Caesars all gave it a go, of course. Generations of Protestant Europeans came to believe that Spanish King Philip III had entered the Thirty Years War with the aim of creating a Universal Kingdom to hasten Judgment Day. Given the scale of destruction unleashed by that early-17th-century conflict, it’s not surprising that efforts to create a genuine world government have polled poorly ever since.
Napoleon Bonaparte ran into these headwinds when he tried to unite and standardize the European continent under his rule. As he retreated from Moscow in 1812, huddled in his carriage with his army collapsing around him, he asked his foreign minister why Europe’s rulers had resisted him so. “It is your majesty they fear,” the minister told him. “The governments are afraid of a universal monarchy.”
That was putting it mildly; Czar Alexander I thought Napoleon was the Antichrist, a label affixed surprisingly often to other advocates of universal government right up to the present day. In the popular “Left Behind” series of novels, the Antichrist turns out to be none other than the secretary general of the United Nations.
So if the idea of founding a universal government is more or less a dead letter, what are we to make of efforts to build an organized community of nations in a diverse and ever-shrinking world?
Over the past century and more, great powers such as Great Britain and the United States invested themselves in the creation of international bodies such as the League of Nations, the United Nations, the World Bank and the European Union. International-relations experts have been arguing ever since about whether it’s possible or desirable for these institutions to be ceded real power and, if so, how much they should be given.
In his new book, “Governing the World,” Columbia University historian Mark Mazower explores the tensions between humanitarian ideals and great-power realpolitik in the two centuries since Napoleon’s defeat, showing how they have alternately advanced and confounded efforts to forge a better — or at least more stable — world. He shows that international institutions have been only as effective as the great powers of the age have allowed them to be, and he provides ample food for thought for those concerned about managing our increasingly globalized world.
It’s a topical and readable account, but if you’re not steeped in Western diplomatic history, you may want to keep the oracle of the Internet handy, as Mazower assumes the reader is already familiar with the career of the early-19th-century Austrian statesman Prince Klemens von Metternich and the contents of George Kennan’s seminal 1947 “X Article” in Foreign Affairs.
Mazower opens his story with the creation of the Concert of Europe in 1815, a conservative alliance of European powers that sought to maintain a balance of power and ensure that no further Napoleons emerged. Reactionary, undemocratic and contemptuous of lesser states and minorities, the Concert’s leaders managed to suppress nationalist movements and revolutionaries for much of the 19th century, making the world safe for imperial monarchies.
Internationalism came about largely in response to the Concert. Thinkers such as Giuseppe Mazzini agitated for a more just world and naively thought nationalism would be the means to get there. Civilized peoples would build their own nation-states. Individuals would put aside their self-interest to meet the duties and obligations to their nation. Multi-ethnic empires such as those of Prussia, Austria and other Concert powers fostered self-centered individualism; a Europe of nation-states would be “a Holy Alliance of Peoples.” Here lie the intellectual roots of the idea of forming an international community that can interpret and perhaps impose universal norms of behavior on the recalcitrant.
Unfortunately, all this was built on the late-19th-century assumption that European civilization — including its settler colonies in North America, Australia and elsewhere — was superior to all others. Other states such as China and the Ottoman Empire were regarded as barbaric and open to partial occupation by the civilized powers. Below them were the peoples of Africa and the Pacific, who were considered savages and accorded no legal standing whatsoever. When the laws of war began to be written at the turn of the century, they specifically excluded the allegedly uncivilized, thereby facilitating “the massacres, aerial bombings, and systematic detentions that characterized European imperialism” in “conflicts deemed to be beyond law’s sway.”
The contagion of this bifurcated approach — rules of conduct among Western powers, the sword for everyone else — infected both the League of Nations and the United Nations in turn. The League set up a mandates system in which colonialism was allowed to continue, so long as the great powers presented it as a civilizing mission. As Mazower puts it, “Everyone concerned was happy bar the inhabitants of the mandates themselves.” The United Nations had “strategic trust territories” such as the Marshall Islands, some of which were made uninhabitable or entirely vaporized by U.S. atomic and hydrogen bomb tests. “The civilizing mission,” Mazower notes, “thus refused to die.”
Mazower makes it clear that the League and the United Nations, gestated in war, were tools of the great powers and couldn’t function if there were discord among them. Thus the League let Italy invade Ethiopia and Albania, and made no protest when Hitler annexed Austria. The United Nations acted in Korea only because the Soviets boycotted — rather than cast vetoes — at the Security Council, and it failed Bosnia altogether, largely because the British and French governments were allied with Serbia.
Third World resentments have since come home to roost. In the 1960s and ’70s, newly independent colonies in Africa and the Pacific could outvote the West on important issues, leading the United States to spurn an organization it had invested so much in creating. Today, China, India, Saudi Arabia and other Third World states are becoming great powers themselves, throwing the old system’s assumptions into disarray.
Mazower leaves us with this sense of uncertainty. The “idea of governing the world is becoming yesterday’s dream,” he concludes, the vacuum increasingly occupied by unelected “experts and self-interested self-regulators” at the European Union, the World Trade Organization and the International Monetary Fund. “Governing institutions today have lost sight of the principle of politics rooted in the collective values of a res publica,” he laments. People around the world need to find “a new kind of faith in our own collective capacity to shape the future” if there is to be an international community based on the interests of its citizens.
GOVERNING THE WORLD
The History of an Idea
By Mark Mazower
Penguin Press. 475 pp. $29.95