Mazower responds to Nunan


Right off let me say how grateful I am to Timothy Nunan for the care and intelligence with which he has read and commented on my book. Maybe it is worth saying at the outset that it was not an easy book to write, still less one of those books that write themselves. I found I was engaging more than usually a variety of quite disparate and mutually incomprehending scholarly and quasi-scholarly literatures to a degree that had simply not been true when I tried, for instance, to synthesise the historiography on the Nazi occupation of Europe. One consequence of this is a large number of loose ends, hostages to critical fortune and intellectual preference. Another is uncertainty in my own mind about the narrative arc, especially as it is carried through to the present. It is thus really heartening to get an essentially sympathetic while critical response.

If part one is about ideas (mostly), while part two is about institutions (mostly), the reason is, as Nunan notes, that most of the twentieth- and twenty-first-century story seems to me to involve the playing-out of ideas that were generated in the nineteenth century. I have no good explanation for the extraordinary fertility of those ideas, compared with those that followed, but it is striking nonetheless. And it is why the book blends intellectual and diplomatic histories together, and had to. The League is in some ways the moment of overlap, and I follow the recent trend to take it much more seriously than people used to, as a kind of seedbed for what was to come. There is certainly more to be said on the critical subject of the League, especially on its economic side, and we can look forward to Patricia Clavin’s forthcoming book to illuminate that. (I found Robert Boyce’s perhaps undersung work on British financial diplomacy in the interwar period very helpful here too.) That will add another strand, for those who want it, to this history of past debates that are shaping the here and now.

I think Nunan is right that it is Stalin who remains the enigma in the 1940s where any history of internationalism is concerned. Here Silvio Pons’ new work, just out in Italian and to appear in English on the “global revolution” of Soviet Communism, will push things ahead; much more clearly remains to be done. My own baseline assumption was that attitudes to the UN betrayed the basic Cold War asymmetry between a Stalin-led USSR that remained basically fixated upon the balance of power in Europe in a nineteenth-century sense, and an American superpower that really was thinking outside Europe from the very start. Nunan draws attention to the critical early 1970s, and he is of course right that my account makes it all sound like an American plot to wrest power back from an uncontrollable new Third World-European alliance by re-engineering internationalism through finance. I dare say I attribute too much to a small coterie of Washington policymakers; Ravi Abdelal’s work on the “Paris consensus” shows persuasively to my mind that by the 1980s, European rulemakers were at least as influential as American free marketeers in enabling the brave new world of global liquidity to emerge.

On human rights, I have, especially in this forum, little more to say: I owe so much of what I wrote to Sam Moyn, Jan Eckel and others who have pioneered the history of this subject. I do think the history of the NGO, as label and as institution, needs much further analysis from historians; apart from a few works such as Tom Buchanan’s articles on Amnesty, we have barely scratched the surface. My contrast between Amnesty and Helsinki Watch is intended to prompt a discussion and is certainly nothing like the last word on anything.

Nunan also emphasizes my critical reading of Slaughter and others. I plead guilty. Interesting as elements in an intellectual history, I find them snuggled up too close to power, too insensitive to how their ideas sound outside the policy-wonk Anglosphere, too confident in their universalism, to provide any kind of detached assessment of what liberalism now means. The policy implications of this are drawn out by Nunan. If I were to clarify my own position on such matters as humanitarian intervention, it would be that general principles must always be measured against particulars, and that it is the humanitarian case that always needs to be made, not the case against. The arguments against intervention, in particular the argument that by intervening one can easily destabilize countries internally and the international system as a whole, is one that seems to me to have plenty of evidence in its favour historically. It does not always trump the other side, to be sure. But it was not taken sufficiently seriously by either the Bush II or the Obama administration until now. But Nunan puts it all much better than I can.

Nunan’s point that the focus is overwhelmingly Anglo-American is a fair one. I wanted to see what the 1815-2012 era would look like from the perspective of its two dominant powers, and to explore in particular the implications of the handover. In the process, other perspectives vanished. That work is there, and growing—whether on Nehru’s view of the UN in the 1940s, or on Latin American Panamericanists in the 1840s. We will soon have much more and that is a very good thing. How to craft that into a single narrative will, fortunately for me, be someone else’s problem.


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