Ideas & Ideology

Roundtable: Helen McCarthy

By Helen McCarthy

In histories of internationalism, one never has to look very far to find the British. It was an English philosopher, Jeremy Bentham, who coined the term ‘international’ back in the 1780s to distinguish between the internal laws of states and the laws governing relations between them, and Britons have been well-represented in the canon of internationalist thought ever since. The free trade ideologue Richard Cobden, pacifist Randal Cremer, cosmopolitan visionary HG Wells, radical philosopher JA Hobson, classicist Gilbert Murray and many others all find a place in Mark Mazower’s magisterial history of world government – both the idea and the practice.

Amongst the various intellectual tributaries bubbling up in the nineteenth century, it was liberal internationalism which flowed with greatest force into the mainstream of British foreign policy in the early part of the twentieth. The extent of British involvement in the creation of a permanent League of Nations at the end of the First World War revealed profound dissatisfaction with the prevailing system of international relations. The paper trail which produced the Covenant of the League agreed at the Paris Peace Conference had an unmistakeably British authorship, comprising at it did detailed proposals by progressive intellectuals like Leonard Woolf and Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson, memos by Foreign Minister Robert Cecil and the committee he established at the Foreign Office to examine the League idea in depth, and an influential pamphlet by the South African premier Jan Smuts. It was Cecil and Smuts who steered the Covenant safely through negotiations in Paris, whilst an on-going British influence was secured in the person of former Foreign Office official Eric Drummond, recruited shortly after as the League’s first General Secretary.

Explaining the scale and scope of this engagement has puzzled historians, who have wondered, as Mazower does, how it could be ‘that the British policy establishment, by tradition deeply cautious about the idea of permanent peacetime commitments beyond the Channel should have come round to the idea of a League of Nations.’ (p128). Mazower’s answer to this question turns out to be the key to his wider analysis of the fate of international institutions in the twentieth century, which, he insists, have always operated within a framework of Great Power hegemony. Despite the economic shocks sustained by the war and signs of colonial-nationalist disquiet, in 1919 Britain was still the world’s foremost superpower, and the League idea was pursued by politicians and officials who viewed international government as a vehicle through which to secure the future of this historic imperium. As Mazower notes, the tendency amongst these men to liken the League to the political community represented by the British Commonwealth was ‘from our own perspective, a wonderfully counterintuitive view of what the League of Nations was about.’ (p128.) And yet it was absolutely fundamental to a particular, early twentieth-century liberal-internationalist mind-set which could envisage the principles and values of benevolent British rule enhanced and magnified through a system of international government in which Britain stood as first amongst equals.

This position could easily be characterised as cynical, which it was not, although it was undoubtedly self-serving. British leaders truly believed (as a certain brand of US foreign policy ideologue would later in the century) that what was good for Britain was good for the world. The League’s Mandates System, for instance, was valued for the opportunity it provided to showcase the alleged superiority of British colonial administration, whilst the spectre of separate delegations for the Dominions at the annual Assembly demonstrated the virtues of unity through difference. The British believed that they had, through their Empire, already realised Mazzini’s vision of a peaceful community of self-governing nation-states, in which love of country grew organically into a larger patriotism which encompassed all mankind. These ideas formed the staple fare of organisations like the League of Nations Union, which did so much to popularise the League amongst the British people by continually reiterating the mutual compatibility of British global power and prestige, and the obligations entailed by membership of the League of Nations.

The Second World War disrupted this comforting narrative of continuity by striking a blow against the doctrines of liberal imperialism (at least in its outward form). A combination of resurgent colonial nationalism and the anti-imperialist ideology of its closest ally prevented Britain from masterminding the institutional architecture of post-war internationalism as it had done in 1919, and handed the initiative to the Americans instead. Yet the unique position which the British had occupied at the forefront of pre-war internationalism arguably allowed them to crown their own successor. British statesmen had striven to keep the US engaged in Europe after President Wilson’s failure to persuade Congress to ratify the League Covenant, which, as Peter Yearwood has shown, was understood from the outset by British political elites as a means of locking the Americans into defence of the 1919 peace settlement. Mazower goes further by setting the internationalist dimensions of the Anglo-American relationship in a longer historical time-frame; he suggests that the origins of a ‘distinctively hemispheric American conception of liberal internationalism that would serve the interests of progress rather than reaction’ stretched as far back as the 1820s, when British Foreign Secretary George Canning took sides with President James Monroe against the counter-revolutionary cross-border meddling of the Holy Alliance powers in Europe. One might argue that taking this kind of ‘internationalist’ turn in the history of Anglo-American relations opens up new perspectives on the foundations of the so-called ‘Special Relationship’ in the twentieth century. Traditionally located in the intelligence-sharing, military strategizing and personalities of the wartime alliance, historians have arguably paid too little attention to the importance of Anglo-American visions of global order and practical cooperation in international networks and institutions from the 19th century onwards.

The focus in the second half of the book shifts decisively to the style and quality of American global leadership and its fluctuating relationship with the United Nations (UN) during the Cold War and beyond. Yet even in this era of US-Soviet superpower rivalry, the British remain significant players within Mazower’s narrative of internationalism’s post-war fortunes. Individual Britons pop up in various contexts, as doughty UN officials (Margaret Anstee), impassioned human rights activists (Peter Benenson), brilliant young economists (Fred Hirsch), wise international bureaucrats (Mark Malloch Brown) and crusading politicians (Tony Blair). But perhaps more important are the parallels and continuities which Mazower intermittently notes between US global domination and the earlier British liberal-imperialist kind, not least in their common, unshakeable faith in the universalism of British/American values and interests. Especially fascinating is the backstory of Dean Rusk, Secretary of State between 1961 and 1969, whose years as a Rhodes scholar in Oxford in the early 1930s were spent absorbing the wisdom of liberal internationalist luminaries, including James Brierly and Alfred Zimmern. Later in the 1950s, from his base at a small liberal arts college in Connecticut, Zimmern would urge his former pupil to seize the mantle worn by the British in their imperial heyday and use its power to civilise the world and enhance the authority of international institutions. Rusk took the message on board, adopting what Mazower calls an ‘instrumental internationalism’ which yoked the pursuit of American foreign policy goals to the structures and functions of the UN.

More recently, and arguably more disturbingly, there have been further parallels in the manner in which US leaders have sought to evade the jurisdiction of international law whilst deploying it for its own purposes, as in the case of the International Criminal Court. This, one might argue, is reminiscent of earlier British attitudes towards the League, whose oversight could be usefully deployed to curtail the sovereignty of small states just so long as Britain’s own troublesome territories (such as Egypt and India) were kept out of its purview. In this respect, the concept of ‘ambidextrous internationalism’ with which Mazower characterises the US tendency to act multilaterally or unilaterally as circumstances dictate, could be usefully adopted by historians of British foreign policy in the early twentieth century.

Nonetheless, there are inevitably important differences which set contemporary US leadership apart from its British historical counterpart. Despite the continuities in personnel and similarities in structure, the United Nations was not simply the League reborn. Mazower sees the UN as more constrained by the great power politics of the Cold War and the ideological tensions of anti-colonialism in the ‘Third World’, and weakened by the proliferating family of international institutions, particularly those dealing with economic matters, like the World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF), General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and its later incarnation in the World Trade Organisation (WTO). The 1970s features as a transformative decade in Mazower’s narrative, in which these highly opaque, technocratic bodies became institutions of global ‘governance’, and a means by which American corporate-capitalist interests could be pursued under the rhetorical cover of internationalism and against the backdrop of increasingly unfettered flows of global capital. This international economic order has eroded national sovereignty in ways unimaginable to British elites in the interwar years, when economic nationalism was the instinctive response to global economic crisis.

What of our own times? If, as Mazower hints, America’s stint as internationalist superpower is drawing to a close, it might be instructive to look back again at Britain’s exit from this role after the Second World War. The handover to the US was reasonably smooth because of shared democratic and capitalist ideologies and cultural ties, a condition which will not be in place if America’s successor turns out to be China, already well-entrenched as a global investor in Africa, Asia and Latin America. How the US responds to China’s notably statist vision of global order will do much to define the parameters of 21st century internationalism. Exactly what role the British will play in this new chapter of the history of governing the world remains to be seen, but is seems likely that their presence will be much harder to find than in the period covered by Mazower’s important and thought-provoking book.

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