Book review: “Governing the World: The history of an idea” by Mark Mazower



Governing the World: The History of an Idea. By Mark Mazower. Penguin Press; 475 pages; R$28.88 (Kindle edition,

Reviewed for the Cambridge Review of International Affairs.

Academics and policy makers have, over the past decades, become so used to dysfunctional mechanisms of global governance that few would disagree that urgent reform is needed. Indeed, much of our contemporary debate seems to revolve around how to fix international institutions - very much symbolized by the UN Security Council's stalemate over Syria. In a memorable 2009 TED talk on global ethic vs. national interest, then UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown told a joke about the UN Secretary General asking God "when our international institutons will work properly." Rather than providing a response, Brown went on, "God cried."

Mark Mazower, a British historian at Columbia University, has thus made a courageous decision to write a book about a topic that seems to be all but out of fashion: the idea of governing the globe. The result is thrilling, particularly because Mazower is able to introduce a vast number of often quixotic thinkers and ideas that go beyond the usual liberal figures (Kant, Bentham, etc.) in the history of global governance. In 1834, for example, the French writer Bodin describes his vision of a central global government in the city of Centropolis, located in Central America, and a "Universal Congress made up of the world's leading intellectuals, industrials and politicians." This represented, along with Jules Verne and others, a "new system of ideas" which represented a growing consciousness of the global characteristics of life on earth - or a "world consciousness", as Kant would have put it. Richard Cobden, one of the world's first free-trade activists and a man who lived at a time when it seemed no longer clear that countries should be ruled by a small group of aristocrats, plays a particularly important role in this chapter. As an obituarist noted on his death in 1867 (in a phrase that could appear in any textbook on liberalism):

There had been no international men of any note before his time. It has fallen to Cobden to make people aware that new political institutions could reduce suspicion among nations and to use free trade as an instrument to show that war was not an inevitable part of the natural order but a form of anarchy that men could tame if they choose (...).

In the same way, the author's discussion of Italy's Mazzini is excellent, symbolizing the two faces of liberal nationalism: internationalist when turned toward Europe, and imperial at the expense of non-Europeans, a contradiction that would still be highly influential in 1919, when Woodrow Wilson's liberal edicts did not apply to non-European peoples seeking freedom, and in 1945, when the UN's liberal rhetoric did not apply to French and British colonies. It is perhaps this ambiguity and moral incoherence that has been liberalism's main Achilles heel, particularly in the Global South, where the rhetoric of liberal internationalism is still seen as a figleaf for great powers promoting their national interest: inside Europe, civilization meant peace, outside it, violence. 

A major, though implicit, thread throughout Mazower's book is how liberal thinkers constantly agonized about whether to support utiopian visions, or whether they should be pragmatic and work together with realists. The author's description makes painfully clear how the utopians and idealists failed and how liberal thinkers had their greatest moments when they integrated realpolitik into their concepts and designs - such as after World War II, when the United Nations was created, in what looked remarkably like previous great power arrangements.

Despite the book's title, Mazower does not come across as an idealist. He explains the ways in which the great powers – principally the US, under the cover of the United Nations, has exploited and misused international organizations as a fig-leaf for the pursuit of self-interest. Every young student of international relations dreaming of a UN job should read the chapters that deal with the creation of the organization. Those who have read Mazower's earlier No Enchanted Palace will recognize several of his arguments.

Given how vast the material Mazower covers, it seems almost inevitable that some will find the book a bit too unwieldy. His decision to write about the financial crisis in the conclusion seems less sophisticated than his historic analysis, and somewhat forced. Still, it is a remarkable collection of ideas that deserves to be read.

As power shifts away from the creators of today's system towards the East and South, the biggest question of our time is how this process will affect global structures. Understanding how this very system came into being is a first important step.

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