Governing the World: History of an Idea

Governing the World: The History of An Idea – Mark Mazower

Mark Mazower’s wide ranging and elaborate history of international governance since the Concert of Vienna offers us a valuable treatise in mapping the historical contingencies that led to the onset of the internationalist impulse, power constellations that guided its ideas and actions, statesman and innovators that bucked various countervailing trends to forge various transnationalist agendas and the lessons that can be drawn when dealing with reforming extant global governance. The canvas is indeed sprawling and extensive and one that required considerable dexterity to stitch together and Mazower does it well. Barring few mishaps, the narrative plods through two centuries of great power politics and its trysts with conceptions of internationalism, that have also varied and evolved with the times. From Metternich and Napoleon to Marx, Saint Simon and Wilson, Lloyd George, Churchill, Roosevelt, Kennan, Acheson, Rusk all the way to Reagan, Bush and Clinton, internationalism has largely been a product of human endeavor coupled with structural contingencies and the attendant opportunities that gave life to its ebbs and flows.

Mazower makes it abundantly clear that robust and resolute internationalism rests on great power and when invested in one sovereign, as it has been for the last fifty years through the US, there is considerable scope to wield international executive authority through international regimes, organizations, ideas and more recently through formation of networks. But even this process is punctuated by obstacles as Washington has cooled and warmed to successive waves on internationalisation. When synergies exist and interests align, power and authority flows outward, not always for the better and when they clash, one can expect fitful bouts of condemnation and outright scorn. But one can also make the case that Mazower does stretch this argument far; American power and leadership has had a transcendental effect on multilateralism but not all of the latter’s triumphs can be attributed to American enthusiasm and equally nor can all its failures to Washington’s indifference.

But no doubt, when there has been active American support, international organizations have found a lease of life as instruments of American power. Some of the latter parts of the book dealing with the rise of a new international economic order through the global propagation of neoliberal ideas is a case in point. As the post-war Keynesian consensus began to lose steam with advanced industrial economies lagging, the rise of a new global economic compact was paved with the deployment of the IMF and World Bank to make southern economies fertile venues for greater investment and capital engendering three decades of untrammelled global financialisation. Mazower charts this process quite well alongside the shifts that preceded this turn, including the rise of contrarian global economic movements like the NAM and G-77, consisting of countries in the global south beseeching for a more equitable global economic order. Moreover, global development cooperation have often been entangled in these debates over the past two decades. Also part of this global development push was the leveraging of social scientific knowledge to drive the growth of economies across the world. With the assistance of foundations and the American government, the emergence of area studies and mainstream economic thinking, notably Rostow’s Modernization Theory, called for understanding and developing economies from a rather generalist perspective, excising contextual elements from the domain of policy. Decades later, Kofi Annan’s ambitious developmental internationalism continued this vein but has proved to be a rather tepid accomplishment but when conceived a decade ago alongside the rise of a new horde of actors and agents from various private and social sectors, it reinvented the UN for a new era after decades of disdain.

Alongside the UN, whose fortunes have been twinned to realities and perils of great power politics, the League of Nations gets considerable coverage as the first transnational organisation that united nations for a common purpose. The League was in many ways a revolutionary achievement given that it included many major European powers following a major conflagration, a robust cadre of technical experts who sought to devise cooperation across a range of functional areas whose legacy continued to the UN and beyond and a mandate, however thin, to institutionalise a burgeoning internationalist impulse that had existed for close to a century in various forms – scientific, technical, humanitarian and economic. What it lacked was the political foundation that gave these variant strands authority and legitimacy. For all its credit, the lack of a hegemon to steer its way undid the League. It also did not help that it also had abysmal leadership for its entire tenure but as Mazower argues it was not an abject failure; legacies of the erstwhile organization played a critical role not only in the creation of the UN and various agencies but also other internationalist projects, namely European integration and other American foundations, who also discharged important roles in the post-war era as incipient agents of internationalism.

Despite the considerable achievement, Mazower’s book has a few blind spots. There is almost an overt western centric tone to the entire book; though understandable from the perch he operates from, the discounting of regionalism across the world and the fitful efforts to cobble together transnational projects in the global south do not get much coverage. Asia is almost absent from his schema. The book would have also benefitted from more coverage on the move to integrate following the war. Though dealt with tangentially, the functional spur that commenced following the war with American largesse and geopolitical support found its own momentum leading to decades of unprecedented cooperation. And this story deserves to be considered on its own right. But these are minor quibbles to a narrative that has been conveyed with vigor, lucid prose, and the support of myriad lively characters that have populated the annals of internationalism and for that Mazower must be commended.

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