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Governing the World: The History of an Idea

October 3, 2012

From The Economist:

Gone are the days when representatives of transnational clubs such as the EU enjoyed special regard in foreign-policy circles, simply by embodying a form of governance that rose above the selfishness of the nation state. Nor is the United Nations in brilliant shape, as Chinese and Russian vetoes at the Security Council block robust UN action to stop the massacres in Syria. This is, then, a brave moment to bring out a book devoted to the history of international governance, from 1815 to the present day.

Mark Mazower, a British historian at Columbia University, New York, presents his work as a stocktaking: a chance, just as the West is seeing power shift to emerging giants in the East, to ponder how Europeans and Americans crafted the present web of international institutions, from the UN to the World Bank or International Monetary Fund.

One Italian antimonarchist, Giuseppe Mazzini, was already wrestling in 1832 with whether nations had a duty to meddle in the affairs of far-flung countries where grave wrongs were being done, long before today’s statesmen agonised about genocide, the responsibility to protect and limits to state sovereignty. Then came the Saint-Simonians, followers of a French aristocrat and Utopian socialist, who dreamed that global harmony would involve, among other things, better transport links (the builder of the Suez Canal was a believer).

The reader is given much to ponder. The 19th century emerges as a ferment of competing schemes and fantasies of European federalism, global brotherhood and world government. Professional men, merchants, lawyers, scientists and revolutionaries all sought to wrest the business of inter-state relations away from monarchs, despots, generals and a diplomatic corps heaving with aristocrats, and onto a more rational, technocratic footing. (…)

The book shrewdly notes the irony that the creed of internationalism has made its greatest advances when idealists are shoved to one side, and established elites co-opt an idea to their own ends. The Geneva Conventions, for instance, are shown coming about when one branch of the peace movement stopped trying to abolish war, and worked with governments to humanise the way that wars were fought. [More]

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