Governing the World: The History of an Idea
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.