Mark Mazower is an award-winning historian and writer, specializing in modern Greece, 20th century Europe and international history. His most recent book, Governing the World, tells the story of the rise of internationalism following the Napoleonic Wars, and how idealistic dreams of world government and global harmony embodied in nascent institutions like the League of Nations and United Nations (UN), met the reality of nationalist mobilization and power politics in an age of increasing cooperation, but enduring conflict.
Why did you decide to write a history of the idea of world government, rather than a more straightforward history of the UN?
Coincidentally, one of my first teaching jobs was in an international relations department. Otherwise, I’ve been in history departments. But it means I have read quite widely in the literature, which is mostly post-1945, and mostly quite contemporary. I’ve found it, on the whole, overly theorized and overly obsessed with turning itself into a science. So, the question of how the historian would historicize the international system, and its path into the present, has interested me since then.
Another thing was being interested in the Balkans, and finding that in the 1990s everyone woke up to the importance of the region. One thing that struck me was that in the period of the Yugoslav Wars, organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch produced reports about human rights violations. I remember reading those and thinking it was a very bizarre way to analyze what was going on. They would systematically try to list individual violations. But it was a war, and ethnic cleansing was a strategy about minorities – individuals were targeted because of their membership of minority groups. We had lost the language of minority rights – or collective rights – even though that language had been so important in the 1920s. That got me thinking about the relationship with the language of individual human rights, and about how you might tell the story of the transition from the League of Nations rights regime to its UN successor. It seemed like a story in which something had been lost as well as something gained.
I began thinking about the UN slightly differently. And then there was 2003, and the war in Iraq. The following year I began teaching at Columbia and it was still very much in the air. Everybody was trying to work out, what do we think of the UN? Two things were clear. One, I had vaguely good intentions towards the UN, and thought it had vaguely good intentions towards me, but found it very hard to articulate much more than that. The other was the UN was no longer – if it ever had been – a central actor in any drama. Finally, I wrote a book about the Nazi occupation of Europe, which I wanted to see not as a military or diplomatic episode, but as an episode in ‘world-making’ – where Nazi norms, Nazi values, were going to re-make the world. You could then see the 20th century as a kind of contest between competing world-making systems. The Nazis saw it that way – they were going to sweep away the world of the League – and their opponents saw it that way – they were going to sweep away the Nazis with the values of the UN. The question was: how could you think about doing an international history of how people have wanted to make the world? The UN would be part of that story. At a certain point, it would be quite a big part of that story. Most of the rest of the time, it would not be.
One rarely hears talk of ‘world government’ now – rather, of global governance. What do you see as the difference between ‘global government’ and ‘global governance’?
I think the semantic shift betrays something very, very important, which is that we moved from a world where people had confidence in the idea of government – or at least some did – to a world that lost it. Having confidence in the idea of government, if you were what we might loosely call an internationalist in the 19th century could mean one of two things. It could mean you were in favor of a unitary world government of some kind (the HG Wells version) – and that was always a pretty small minority position. Much more common was what you might call the Mazzinian version (or Wilsonian version), which was that international government must work through and with national governments. Internationalism was not a substitute for nationalism; it was not going to sweep it away. The nation as a basic political community was something to be welcomed, and nations would work together internationally. Nevertheless, whether you followed the Wells or Wilsonian version, each was confident in the capacity of governments to do things.
I think that confidence was lost in the 1970s and 80s. People stopped talking about the virtues of government, and started talking instead about the virtues of governance. Initially, the term governance was not used for the global arena at all. There was a lag. It was used first of all for the corporate sector domestically, and then in domestic politics. Public-private partnerships became part of that. The language of stakeholders became part of that. A whole language – a lot of which I loathe because I think it is very euphemistic – became part of our daily vocabulary. Then it was introduced through a kind of ‘New Labour’ vision of the UN – if I can put it that way – that Kofi Annan came in wanting to push, focused on stakeholders and reaching out to the corporate sector and NGOs.
I suppose the good thing about the idea of governance is that it recognizes the fact we livein a world in which governments share power domestically and internationally with other forces. The bad thing is that it is vague. Most importantly, it connotes a deep kind of estrangement from the idea of the state and the efficiency of state action that I think has probably gone too far. Insofar as there are heroes in the book, it is the generation who were very active in setting up the UN. Not necessarily because I share all their values – quite the contrary – but because they were very impressive in the way they believed in the capacity of public institutions to achieve change. They believed it for a very good reason – they had seen it work in the toughest test of all, war. They transferred those lessons to the peace, and thought the UN would be the vehicle. It might have in another world – on the whole it was not in this world. But their confidence in public is something we miss today.
Photo © Pascal Dolémieux for The Global Journal