Governing the World: The History of an Idea

Sat, Nov 3, 2012, 00:00

By Mark Mazower, Allen Lane, 496pp. £25

POLITICS:HAVE YOU EVER wondered who founded the International Telegraph Union, which has been regulating the rules for telecommunications across the world for a century and a half? Or why the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation even exists? Has the Red Cross been applying tourniquets since the Crusades? Very occasionally these questions flutter across my mind but never for long enough for me to try to answer them (although I did in fact know the answer about the Red Cross). Mostly, I just don’t care enough. Or at least I didn’t used to care enough until I read this book.

When I was first sent Governing the World: The History of an Idea, my heart sagged a touch. It was not a promising title. I was cheered by the author’s identity, however. Prof Mark Mazower has written some of the most absorbing works on Balkan and wider European history in recent years. His prose is always a delight, and above all he has consistently revealed important themes that everyone else seems to miss.

Even so, I wondered whether a history of the institutions of international governance since the beginning of the 19th century was going to tax even his elan. I need not have worried. Within a few pages of the start Mazower blends the stories of individual idealists with the bigger picture of great power conflict, emerging social forces and technological advance to offer a strikingly original interpretation of the late modern period of world history. I would even say that this is one of the first synthetic works of history that is able to look at the two centuries from 1789 to 1989 as a coherent epoch.

The book opens with a reminder of when Jeremy Bentham invented the word “international”, in the late 18th century, and how novel a concept this was, but we are soon plunged into a world of futurist visions that were partly inspired by Bentham and his generation and that became pervasive in 19th-century European and American culture. Technology and the novel science of geography seized the European mind and opened up the possibility of a world far more interconnected than had been thought feasible or desirable.

Mazower’s elegant style appears to flow from his ability to track down obscure sources, often literary and long forgotten but with considerable contemporary impact. Felix Bodin’s Le Roman de l’Avenir, published in 1834, was peppered with flying machines and other presumed technological advances, but it also predicted, among other things, the collapse of the Russian and Ottoman empires, the creation of Israel and the integration of women into mainstream politics.

Mazower demonstrates how, by the time revolution broke out around Europe in 1848, Bentham’s description “international” had been adopted by several very diverse constituencies into a full-blown political philosophy. These included evangelical Christians, along with movements such as the Quakers and their associated temperance societies; free-traders such as the British parliamentarian Richard Cobden; Giuseppe Mazzini, the moving spirit behind Italian nationalism; and, of course, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. In different ways, they articulated the possibility of how national interests could be integrated into a broader international political framework that would guarantee prosperity and stability.

Central to these optimistic visions of the future was the progress promised by science. This leads Mazower to consider the familiar paradox of science promising great advances while simultaneously working on mechanisms of unimaginable destruction.

While Europe’s politicians were busy securing maximum advantage for their nation states through most of the 19th century, scientists and engineers were busy engaging across borders. They did so in part to compare notes on the discoveries and ideas that were rolling in thick and fast in every discipline, to establish new areas of study, such as statistics, but also to formulate standards across boundaries.

One such gathering led to the creation of the International Telecommunication Union, as it is now known, which, as Mazower tells us, was set up in 1865 “to overcome the delays which had been caused by the need to print out telegraph messages on one side of the border and walk them across to the other side”. Since the ITU’s inception, its member states have always reached consensual agreement on the regulation of global telecommunications.

I have spoken to ITU delegates about this. They argue that their success, which renders the organisation anonymous, is down to their being simply engineers talking to engineers. (Ironically, that consensus may be about to break down for the first time, over regulation of the internet.)

It is usually the appropriation of technology by political and military agencies that leads to the development and then deployment of weaponry. It was the very failure of the European model as manifested in the first and second World Wars that increased the intellectual and popular pressure to establish permanent political forums – the League of Nations and then the United Nations – that contained within them aspirations to a degree of global governance.

Governing the World describes two centuries of the complex pattern and interaction of philosophy, law, policy and statecraft that have changed beyond recognition relations between states, nations, economic forces and interest groups as mediated by new institutions that aspire to universality.

These international structures alternatively project, complement and confront the goals and aspirations of nation states and supranational corporations and financial institutions.

Through his ambition, Mazower has given us the most convincing explanation yet for the exaggerated, even hysterical, expectations of the 1990s and the subsequent collapse of optimism after the millennium that has since been translated into the fear gripping large parts of the western world. The lessons for a sagging American empire and a catatonic European Union come thick and fast in these pages. While clearly a work of history, it reads eerily like a detached but incisive commentary on our contemporary woes.


Misha Glenny is the author of McMafia: Seriously Organised Crime and DarkMarket: How Hackers Became the New Mafia

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