Ideas & Ideology

Roundtable: Daniel Laqua

Mark Mazower has given us a stimulating account of the ways in which politicians, academics and activists have sought to organise the world. The qualities of his work are self-evident: Mazower expertly weaves together the history of ideas, political history and the history of international relations. Despite the complexity of his material, he retains a knack for compelling phrases and an eye for telling details. I am therefore grateful that the ‘Round Table’ invitation of History Workshop Online has forced me to engage in a close reading of his stimulating book. There was a particular aptness to the timing of this task. After all, the later sections of Governing the World address the role of the United Nations in the politics of peace and the concept of the ‘responsibility to protect’. Mazower’s discussion thus resonates with the political situation of August 2013, as policymakers and the public are weighing up the pros and cons of military intervention in Syria – with the question of UN-backing featuring prominently in this debate.

The issue of military intervention draws attention to a wider problem: although concepts to ‘govern the world’ have often formed part of a transnational dialogue, their potential implementation has depended on political and military power. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the proponents of new world orders often had to work through or with the ‘great powers’ of their day – and in their turn, the leaders of such states sought to shape the international system. The Concert of Europe was one example of an order created by powerful countries that reserved for themselves the right to intervene in the affairs of others. While cooperation became the victim of great-power rivalry, the echoes of the Concert approach reverberated in several instances of twentieth-century internationalism, notably the concept of permanent membership for the Council of the League of Nations and the UN Security Council.

The tension between internationalist ideals and power-political necessities explains why accounts such as Mazower’s are infused with a distinct Anglo-American favour. The first part of Governing the World features an international cast of characters, yet British policy and activists make frequent appearances. Given Britain’s role as the largest imperial power, this aspect is hardly surprising. Even the two figures who, according to Mazower, embodied prominent strands of internationalism – namely Giuseppe Mazzini and Karl Marx – collaborated with British activists and contributed to the exile politics of Victorian Britain. The second part of the book understandably shifts to American intellectuals and politicians. It shows how American rivalry with another superpower – the Soviet Union – influenced internationalist debates and it also discusses American responses to developments in the Global South, from the Bandung Conference to the formation of the G77.

Internationalists in Britain, the USA and the Soviet Union had one thing in common: they could extrapolate ideas about internationalism from their own country’s role and experience. In his earlier study No Enchanted Palace, Mazower has shown how empire and commonwealth underpinned the international thought of figures such as the British academic Alfred Zimmern and the South African politician Jan Smuts. In his new book, Mazower provides another illustration, quoting David Lloyd George’s 1918 remark that ‘[i]n fact the league of nations has begun. The British empire is a league of nations’ (p. 128). In the Cold War era, American and Russian takes on internationalism often took their country’s intellectual and political foundations – liberal democracy or communism – as the premise for their international designs. While France plays a less prominent role in Mazower’s study, it would certainly be possible to show how French internationalism was informed by republican universalism (which, as Alice Conklin has shown, was compatible with French imperial thought).

Yet there is an alternative history of internationalism for which the book offers several pointers. Internationalism resonated with the specific challenges faced by not-so-great powers. As Mazower puts it, ‘Internationalism suited small states like Belgium and Switzerland in particular, and they were among its principal sponsors.’ (p. 117). Size is, of course, in the eyes of the beholder: after all, the population of Belgium and Switzerland easily exceeds the 1.5 million maximum which organisations such as the World Bank use as a threshold of ‘small state’ status. When we nonetheless regard Belgium and Switzerland as small, we do not mean their population numbers, but rather their power-political and military roles. However, in the arena of internationalism, such states still seem to punch above their weight. Geneva hosts various UN bodies; Brussels is home to the European institutions; and The Hague can justifiably be described as the capital of international law. None of this is a mere accident of the post-1945 period, as all of these places feature in the pre-history of contemporary internationalism. The protagonists of this story travelled to Brussels because of its role as an international congress centre of the belle époque; they debated the outcomes of the Hague Peace Conferences of 1899 and 1907; and they looked to the League of Nations which, due to Woodrow Wilson’s insistence, was established in neutral Switzerland.

Three aspects may help to explain the relationship between internationalism and small states. First, international organisation held the promise of a kind of security that was independent from military power; efforts to promote international law therefore fell on fertile soil in smaller states. For instance, Paul Otlet – who features in Mazower’s book – evoked arguments of national utility and destiny when promoting his native Belgium as a centre for international life. Despite the evident utopian features of his schemes, he temporarily attracted backing from policymakers in his country. To them, projects such as Otlet’s Central Office of International Institutions seemed compatible with the needs of a small neutral state in Western Europe. Secondly, international organisations gave small states nominal parity with more powerful countries. Mazower’s book amply shows the implications for the work of the UN General Assembly, and American attitudes to the role of this body. Thirdly, internationalism provided an extension of a practice that many small states – because of economic needs, cultural affinities or political considerations – engaged in: regional cooperation. Such examples included the Nordic Council and the BeNeLux agreements, but also the more wide-ranging case of the European Union. Despite the current problems of the Eurozone, European integration arguably provides the most durable and impactful example of internationalism in practice. The EU may currently be seen as an entity that undermines the sovereignty of smaller and more vulnerable states. Yet in the past, it has also amplified the role of smaller states. Indeed, in the history of European integration, alongside Italy and France, only one other country can claim two presidents of the European Commission – and, striking as it is – that country is Luxembourg. Meanwhile, Belgians may have provided one Commission president but also the first non-rotating president of the European Council.

These observations draw attention to the people who helped to shape international organisations. Helen McCarthy has opened her own contribution to this Round Table with the remark that ‘In histories of internationalism, one never has to look very far to find the British’. Yet one never has to look very far to find the representatives of small states either. Within the League of Nations system, one might draw attention to the Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen and his work for refugee relief, or to the Dutch statesman Hendrikus Colijn who promoted free trade via the League’s Economic and Financial Committees. After the Second World War, the capacity of smaller states to people the higher echelons of international institutions was particularly striking. They could provide compromise candidates who attracted fewer suspicions than representatives of the two super-powers or their close allies. While the former Norwegian foreign minister Trygve Lie had an ambivalent record as the United Nations’ first Secretary-General, another Nordic politician – the Swede Dag Hammarskjöld – developed the UN Secretariat as a centre for international administration and inaugurated international peacekeeping. As Mazower puts it, he took ‘advantage of the opening provided by the convergence of improved superpower relations and the simultaneous acceleration of decolonization to bring new authority to his post’ (p. 267). Such comments extend to regions beyond Europe: the first Asian to serve as UN Secretary-General came from Burma (U Thant), the first Latin American to do so from Peru (Pérez de Cuéllar), and the first African in this position was a former Ghanaian diplomat: Kofi Annan. Put differently, none of them hailed from their regions’ political or military powerhouses. Such observations do not mean that small states or individuals from small states are the defining feature of the history of internationalism. But they do form part of any history of internationalism, and Mazower’s accomplished account is certainly no exception.

Against the backdrop of economic crisis and a crisis of legitimacy for international institutions, Mazower’s concluding remarks offer a somewhat bleak picture. However, as a whole, his study shows that internationalism has been able to change shape and give rise to currents that question received wisdom and existing structures. While being a potential tool for hegemony, internationalism has also been used by those at the periphery of power – be they small states in the international arena or foreign-policy dissenters in larger countries. Back in the nineteenth century, internationalism involved a critique of great-power politics. As Mazower acknowledges, activists attacked the Concert of Europe as ‘ a symbol of the very problem – autocratic leadership, bellicosity, an incomprehension of the value of freedom and the power of social change – that a true internationalism was needed to solve’ (p. 12). Today, a renewed internationalism can reformulate such a critique. This may not so much become manifest in the realm of diplomacy and international institutions, but in the grassroots mobilisation of people from states both large and small.

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