As Mazower would himself likely concede, there is in a sense nothing new in his case against the global governance project; one of the themes of Governing the World is that while the technology may change (airplanes one day, drones the next), some of the basic issues at stake in arguments about international law really do not change much from one era to another. In this sense, then, the argument between Mazower, on the one hand, and the Slaughters, Hachigans, and Shorrs of today bears a certain similarity to the debates between Richard Cobden (the aforementioned British free trade activist) and Mazzini of late Georgian and Victorian London. Change the nationalities in the following 1832 Mazzini article and it could very well be a Slaughter op-ed:
People begin to feel that . . . there are bonds of international duty binding all the nations of this earth together. Hence, the conviction is gaining ground that if there is any spot of the world, even within the limits of an independent nation, some glaring wrong has been done . . . if, for example, there should be, as there has been in our time, a massacre of Christians within the dominions of the Turks—then other nations are not absolved from all concern in the matter simply because of the large distance between them and the scene of the wrong.
Just as Mazzini successfully shamed British liberals for intervening in Greece in 1827 for the cause of Greek freedom but then failing to stop the Austrian army from crushing Italian uprisings four years later, so these law professors attempt to use Libya—if not yet Iraq—as precedent cases to justify a Syrian adventure.
This all said, Mazower’s position is not just that of neo-Cobdenite isolationism, nor is it, as the Harvard graduate student Yascha Mounk characterized it in a recent review, the cynical skepticism of all Western intervention of, say, a Carl Schmitt. Rather, Mazower’s exasperation with the international lawyers is that they fail to realize the dark side of their Mazzinian inheritance. For while Mazzini was a forceful advocate for European nationalist uprisings, his liberal nationalism also demanded that, for example, Italians eventually colonize lands like Tunis, Addis Ababa, and Benghazi. Advocates like Slaughter are not advocating for American empire in Syria, of course, but the fact is that so many of the newly proclaimed “responsibilities” and “duties” on which sovereignty now supposedly depends are not too far off from the demands of mid-nineteenth-century Mazzinian international lawyers like Pasquel Fiore, who argued that “the unity of the human species conduces to the recognition that the empire of legal rules that are applicable to all forms of human activity in the Magna civitas must be universal.” Fair enough: but now as in the late nineteenth century, the universalist regime somehow finds itself being applied almost exclusively to sub-Saharan Africa and the former Ottoman Empire (Iraq, the Balkans).
Given all of this, this reader views some of the weak points of the book less as problems per se than as a way in which Mazower has set the table for other historians to tell the story of “governing the world” from angles different from the largely Anglo-American one that Mazower uses as the framework for his tome. Probably the most consistently frustrating aspect of the book is the overwhelming focus on how the British and Americans, first and foremost, sought to reconcile their global dominance with the idea of international institutions. There is good reason for this: the transition from the British Empire to the United States as the most powerful country in the world is perhaps the defining story of the twentieth century. Yet as Mazower admits, our picture of what Stalin, Mao, Deng, or Brezhnev wanted out of an international order remains less clear.
Part of the problem, as historians of China like Odd Arne Westad remind us, is that even China today may not really know what it wants outside of the East Asia region. Chinese diplomats may proclaim that their foreign policy is “national sovereignty,” but this is hardly a robust foreign policy concept for the South China Sea, much less for articulating Beijing’s interests in far-flung places like Sudan or Syria. Similarly, while Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu came to office with several hundred heavily footnoted pages of work on Islamic intellectual history and Turkish foreign policy behind him, it appears increasingly clear that initial ambitions of “Zero Problems” between Turkey and its neighbors was an illusory goal from the outset. Still, understanding what Beijing, Moscow, Delhi, Ankara and others want from an international system, and why—however inarticulately diplomats and policy planners from those countries may do so—might be precisely the first step that Americans need to take in order to move past the obsession with “global norms” and “responsibilities” phrased in the oddly parochial vocabulary of “freedom” and “democracy.” At best, such a conversation could create more conceptual clarity about what major regional actors want in those parts of the planet where America has interests but is increasingly unable to control events (the South China Sea, the Persian Gulf, South and Central Asia) rather than exhausting regional partners with assertions of responsibilities and duties that they never signed on to.
As Mazower closes his tome, it may be true that “the idea of governing the world is quickly becoming yesterday’s dream.” It is less than clear who, if anyone, the Mazzini of our age is. The sight of “politicians, journalists, bankers, and businessmen [making] their pilgrimage to the heavily guarded Alpine precinct of Davos” for self-confirmation while Spanish and Greek, let alone American, twenty-somethings struggle to make ends meet in an age of austerity, too, is hardly encouraging. And often, even those young people not on the streets of Madrid, Athens, or New York speak more often the language of “governance” rather than “government.” They are “social entrepreneurs,” “global change-agents,” or, when less inflated, the program officers of large global foundations, more comfortable with the NGO, the conference, or the “forum,” rather than the state, the military, or the university as their platform of choice. Yet whether this project of networked global governance can lead to durable and lasting political achievements remains unclear. Perhaps Mazower’s nostalgia for the achievements of Zimmern, Smuts, FDR, and Churchill, for a certain style of mid-twentieth-century Anglo-American, is just a case of a backwards-looking historian out of step with the times: maybe the global governance project is right. Maybe we do, in fact, “now inhabit a brave new fast-moving, porous, networked world where large institutions are about as useful as dinosaurs.” Let’s hope so: without the durable institutions to manage international order in an era of global warming, nuclear proliferation, and food crises, the next generation with a historian as gifted as Mazower will not have the luxury of analyzing its failure in hindsight.