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.”
(Penguin) - ’Governing the World: The History of an Idea’ by Mark Mazower
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.