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Prognoses of American decline were already in vogue prior to the attacks on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, but ever since the wave of such terrorist attacks and protests across the Muslim World in early September, the Obama Administration has seemed rudderless in articulating what it wants, not just in its relations with Muslim-majority countries, but in terms of international order more broadly. Administration advocates for the Libyan adventure like Samantha Power have been nowhere to be heard from in some time. Critics are demanding that UN Ambassador Susan Rice resign for mischaracterizing the Benghazi attacks. And the previous and current Directors of Policy Planning, Anne-Marie Slaughter and Jake Sullivan, are today perhaps better known for their writings on work-life balance and their precociousness, respectively, than any substantive ideas. Where’s a grand strategy when you need one?
That new new world order may yet be forthcoming, depending on the outcome of November’s presidential election, but until the corridors of Foggy Bottom and the West Wing are newly occupied, the Columbia historian Mark Mazower has provided readers with a fluent, thought-provoking, and erudite history of past attempts to create just such international order, in his Governing the World: The History of an Idea. While the idea of a “new world order,” as the British-born Mazower writes in the opening pages to the book, might first be familiar to readers from the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the Bush administration and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachëv spoke of the opportunities that a Soviet-American condominium might make possible, Governing the World amply demonstrates that, even before such institutions as the United Nations, the League of Nations, or the Communist International came along, the idea of international governance has a history longer than some might assume: the word “international” itself, a Bentham coinage, dates to 1780.
The book covers a large chronological and thematic range with insight and economy. Mazower’s story begins in roughly 1815 with the Concert of Europe taking center stage as the first real institutionalized way to govern international relations. Under stress from the beginning by democratic and nationalist movements within Europe, the arrangement between Austria, Prussia, the British Empire, and the Russian Empire served as a foil against which a wide range of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century reformers proposed new schemata for international peace and government. We meet activists from the mid-nineteenth-century peace movement, which attracted figures from de Tocqueville to Victor Hugo to Elihu Burritt, a “a self-taught Massachusetts journalist who implausibly claimed to understand fifty languages,” and who advocated for reductions in British arms. Yet like the more famous Kellogg-Briand Pact a half century later, these figures demanding an end to war floundered as they stumbled on the contradictions of whether or not to support mid-nineteenth-century nationalist uprisings like those of the Poles or Hungarians.
Yet these are not the only characters whose intellectual concerns about the international we have inherited today. There is the early technologist Saint-Simon, “the most extraordinary man in Europe” by his own description. There are the figures of the zenith of international law in the late nineteenth century, lawyers like the Columbia professor Francis Lieber and the Scottish jurist James Lorimer, both of whom wrestled with questions of how European states should (and to what extent) legally recognize the sovereignty and equivalence of non-European states, a particularly heated subject after a shocking defeat of Italian troops by Ethiopian soldiers in 1887 and the Russo-Japanese War in 1905. And then there are the debates between the socialists and nationalists of exile London—Marx on the one hand, the Italian republican intellectual Giuseppe Mazzini on the other—who argued over whether the order that would replace the Concert would be better structured as a proletarian-led International, or a world of national republicanism (as it turned out, as Mazower emphasizes, the world ended up getting both, and its twentieth century was in no small part structured by the tension between what ended up as the Soviet Union and the post-imperial world).
Yet what makes Governing of World more than just a competent tour of the history of international organization is the telescoping lens which Mazower turns on nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century developments to highlight how certain issues—public health, narcotics, international law, monetary governance, arms control—have been so durable even as the Great Power alignments of the day have changed. Today it is the WTO and Google that stand for free trade and improving the world’s access to information, but as Mazower’s detours into figures like the British free trade activist Richard Cobden, or Paul Otlet, a Belgian bibliographer determined to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” before the idea in its current coinage sprang from the minds of Stanford graduate students, highlight, since at least the late nineteenth century, lawyers, economists, information scientists, doctors, and other professionals have toiled to improve international coordination. Part of Governing the World’s richness stems from its author’s prudence in balancing his narrative between the more conventional story of the transition from British to American ascendancy, on the one hand, with the more prosaic but still crucial story of how organizations like, for example, the International Standards Organization, “perhaps the most influential private organization in the contemporary world,” came to exert “a vast and largely invisible influence over most aspects of how we live, from the shape of our household appliances to the colors and smells that surround us.”
This balance between intellectual and diplomatic history also liberates Mazower in his treatment of core topics like the League of Nations. Rather than taking the banal starting point of whether the League was a success or a failure, Mazower instead introduces us to a cadre of personalities like the American Raymond Fosdick (who went on to head the Rockefeller Foundation), the British civil servant Arthur Salter (who oversaw refugee issues in Eastern Europe and directed the monetary stabilization of Austria and Hungary), and the French minister Albert Thomas (under whom the ILO became a real force). In obvious ways, he emphasizes, interwar institutions like the League failed to institutionalize a credible counter-order of governance to the emerging Nazi new order or the Soviet challenge. Yet it brought together German, Soviet, and European scientists under the leadership of the Polish bacteriologist Ludwik Rajchman and Rockefeller money to attempt to solve health crises in East and Southeast Asia. And while many of the League’s most interesting personalities fled to a League annex at the Institute for Advanced Study in the woods of Princeton as the organization’s collective security structure failed to prevent war, many managed the transition to American leadership quite smoothly: an Arthur Salter pupil, Per Jacobsson, would go on to head the IMF from 1956 to 1963, and Rajchman was instrumental in the birth of UNICEF.
But this is getting ahead of ourselves; as Mazower makes clear, it was by no means foreordained in, say, 1939, that the United States would want to play a leading role, let alone any role in a new international organization. The failure of the League was in no large part due to the inability of Woodrow Wilson to persuade the U.S. Congress, especially Republican Senators like Henry Cabot Lodge and William Borah, after all. Still, Mazower argues, the United Nations succeeded where the League failed because of the vital combination of Franklin Roosevelt’s public diplomacy efforts and (in the less well-known side of this story) the efforts of creative bureaucrats and thinkers. The latter group included people like the underrated Leo Pasvolsky, a Russian-American emigré who acted as a virtual one-man think tank between the Brookings Institute and his job as the personal assistant to Cordell Hull. The rump League of Nations think tank in the Princeton woods, moreover, also provided ideas about how a new, American-led organization, could act. Thanks to these planners’ intellectual firepower, the generation of genteel British Foreign Office mandarins—from Arnold Toynbee to Charles Webster—who had initially so fretted over the Americans’ organizational talent to manage the international system turned out surprised when, in 1944, they were able to meet with their American counterparts at Dumbarton Oaks.
Yet the road to that meeting was hard-won, first and foremost by the ring of steel that was closing on Hitler, Mussolini, and the Japanese, but also, crucially, by Roosevelt’s efforts to gradually introduce Americans to the idea of more, not less, international engagement. The phrase “United Nations” was gradually used in the press in 1942 to refer to the wartime alliance against the Axis, and FDR carefully avoided any talk of world government: the first “United Nations conference” took place not in San Francisco in 1945, but much more modestly in Hot Springs, Virginia, on the subject of food security. This gave Roosevelt the space, in 1943 and early 1944, to begin to negotiate with Churchill and Stalin on the idea of an international security organization. Over that summer, Roosevelt was forced into the tough position, as criticism of a “superstate” mounted at home and the Red Army steamrolled over Eastern Europe, of how to square American public opinion with liberal idealism and the reality of Soviet domination of Eastern Europe. Only in February 1945, at Yalta, were the three leaders able to agree on the crucial issue of veto rights and at least pay lip service to the idea of Eastern Europeans being able to determine their fate. Crucially, too, the Administration’s strategy of harping on the idea that two oceans were no longer enough to preserve the national interest had convinced a majority (81 percent) of Americans by April 1945 that “a world organization with police power to maintain world peace” was necessary. FDR died of a stroke that very month, but his goal of building an internationalist organization that was actually founded on Great Power realities succeeded.