Governing the World: The History of an Idea
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