The past decade has treated us to some excellent histories of international organizations. Paul Kennedy’s history of the United Nations, Harold James’ history of international monetary cooperation, and Erez Manela’s work on the League of Nations and the World Health Organization come to mind as just a few examples of a broader surge of interest among historians. Mark Mazower is the latest prominent historian to take up the topic. Mazower is widely regarded as one of the most distinguished historians of his generation best known for his histories of modern Europe, including Dark Continent, Salonica, and Hitler’s Empire. In 2009, he published a short intellectual history of the United Nations’ founding; tracing the ideological roots of the organization back to the League of Nations. His latest book, Governing the World: The History of an Idea, takes this a step further.

The book’s title and preface promise an intellectual history of efforts to construct laws and organizations at the international level. The first ten chapters mostly succeed in meeting this ambitious aim. Mazower is a gifted writer and analyst. His narrative admirably captures the complex interplay between ideas, power, and events. He never succumbs to the temptation of viewing his subject as the center of the political universe: The role of international organizations is always placed in its proper strategic context and linked to the ideological purposes of the powerful. At the same time, he doesn’t commit the Realist error of ascribing irrelevance to organizations simply because the powerful often get what they want.

The book starts with the Concert of Europe (1815). There is little acknowledgement of earlier ideas, such as those expressed by Grotius and Abbe st. Pierre. Even Immanuel Kant is discussed mostly in passing. Yet, the chapters on the 19th century are magnificent. Mazower persuasively links the competing visions of Bentham, Mazzini, and Marx to failed and successful political efforts at creating new forms of international governance. He tracks how these ideas continued to influence leaders, such as Woodrow Wilson, Vladimir Lenin, and Franklin Roosevelt, and how these ideas were transformed by events, the rise of the social sciences, and domestic political cleavages.

Unfortunately, the tone changes dramatically in the book’s latter chapters where sophisticated and lucid analysis of the complex interaction between power, ideas, and technocracy makes way for a gloomy indictment of the way the rise of technocracy, global capitalism, and unilateralist US foreign policy have doomed the idea of governing the world. As Paul Kennedy points out in his review in the FT, Mazower foreshadows this conclusion in the introduction but if one would have started with reading chapter one, the latter chapters would take you by surprise. The introduction also contains some choice words for political scientists (p. xvi, emphasis added):

Political scientists have addressed the question of the benefits of multilateralism, but mostly as part of an American conversation among scholars and policymakers about the character of U.S. foreign policy and the usefulness of the United Nations to the American national interest. Couched in the quasi-scientific literature that this literature prizes, there is much talk about rationality and burden sharing, game theory, and the logic of risk. But because its chief function is to counsel those in power in Washington, it has rather little to say about the ideological goals behind liberal internationalism in its various incarnations.

John Ikenberry and John Gerard Ruggie are cited as emblematic of this phenomenon. Those familiar with debates in the field of international relations will find it a bit odd that Mazower combines the scientific aspirations and the desire to advise Washington as part of the same critique. The bigger problem is that Mazower himself gets so focused on US foreign policy in these latter chapters that it interferes with the book’s main purpose: to offer an intellectual history. Consider for example Mazower’s conclusion on the state of international law (p.405):

That old vision of international law, which emerged to shore up the sovereignty of states by establishing rules for the conduct of war and which aspired to replace politicians with judges as the arbiters of the world’s affairs, will continue to be taught as though it still has meaning. But it no longer carries much conviction, and the idea of a law binding upon all states and those governing them seems as far away as ever.

As Karen Alter has documented, international courts have now issued over 40,000 binding judgments. Over 90% of these have come after 1990. The role of international judges has never been greater. Mazower may point out that many of these judgments are not inter-state arbitration and do not value traditional notions of sovereignty. But there is no clear justification for why sovereignty ought to be such a prized good. Another counterpoint is that few of these judgments bind the United States. This is partially correct but that doesn’t make the rising influence of international law in other parts of the world unimportant. Moreover, the U.S. is now bound to more legalized dispute settlement in important venues, most notably the World Trade Organization (WTO). Yet, Mazower dismisses the WTO in two pages as “a club of the developed world” and lumps it together it with the IMF and World Bank despite its fundamentally different institutional form and role. Mazower does acknowledge the influence of the European Court of Justice but somehow concludes that it has been “oddly neglected” (p.411).

The chapter on the “Real New International Economic order” mostly rehashes well-known critiques of the IMF as a tool of US foreign policy. The chapter on “humanity’s law” is obsessed with the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine; seemingly accepting Noam Chomsky’s critique that this doctrine provides a moral justification for Western (especially U.S.) interventions in the internal affairs of weak states. The justice cascade is dismissed without even referencing Kathryn Sikkink’s seminal work on this. No reference is made to Michael Barnett’s history of humanitarianism. The chapter on Europe has similar issues. We get a brief reference to Spinelli but no serious effort to trace the very rich intellectual history of the European Union and the idea of regionalism more generally. While Mazower criticizes the power of EU technocrats and networks of regulators, there is no reference to David Mitrany, Ernst Haas, or even Jean Monnet (at least in this chapter). I could go on but the basic point is that these chapters move away from the format of an intellectual history and edge closer to that of a polemic.

My praise for the first chapters is not faint: I have assigned them to my sophomore seminar this Spring. Yet, their quality made me feel cheated by the last few chapters (and made me want to write this review). I also fear these chapters will affect the enduring value of this book. One cannot escape the impression that they were written hurriedly and driven by sentiment more than analysis. Mazower concludes the book with a gloomy message:  “The idea of governing the world is becoming yesterday’s dream.” It is not hard to see how one could reach that conclusion by looking at contemporary debates about the EURO or US Congress. Indeed, I have ranted on these pages about the latter. Yet, even if one agrees with Mazower’s ultimate conclusions one should be disappointed that the book strays so far from the promise of the earlier chapters.

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

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Erik Voeten is the Peter F. Krogh associate professor of geopolitics and global justice at Georgetown University.