Ideas & Ideology

Roundtable: Patricia Clavin

In Governing the World: The History of an Idea, Mark Mazower offers the reader a panoramic and swash-buckling account of the intellectual evolution of international organization, from the Concert of Europe to the present. That he commits the subject of international organizations to serious historical scrutiny for a general readership is noteworthy in itself. Ten years ago those of us researching in the field were more likely to find attentive readers from the social sciences, and the book draws widely on the great flowering of recently-published and continuing historical research around this area.

The first part of the book is structured around three big internationalist themes – free trade, communism, and nationalism – illuminated through the big men that espoused them, including Richard Cobden, Karl Marx and Giuseppe Mazzini. With characteristic brio, Mazower then traces how these ideas informed and shaped the ideas and practices of international organizations founded in the twentieth century: the League of Nations, and the United Nations Organization, as well as the agencies that formed part of the latter’s self-declared ‘system’, including the World Bank, the General Agreement of Trade and Tariffs, the Economic and Social Committee of the UNO, and the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development.

As he moves from the realm of ideas to the history of the institutions themselves, the latter parts of the book follow the well-established tram-line narratives of international power politics as Pax Britannica is succeeded by Pax Americana. These systems of global governance that equated national security with global security, whatever they claimed, did not bring peace to the world, and Governing the World reflects the new sensitivity to the continued impact of western imperialism deep into the twenty-first century. This history of international organizations reflects the dominance of the West over the Rest, and the primacy of state sovereignty that great powers enshrined in the covenant of the League of Nations that remained elemental to its successor organizations. The book lays less stress on the opportunities and frustrations of members, such as Ireland, whose territorial status was yet to be determined in 1920, and which used recognition by the League to reinforce its claim to independence. Participation in global governance was useful enough to Ireland that by 1940 ‘neutral’, ex-colonial (but white) Irishmen assumed leadership of the League and the International Labour Organization.

Inevitably in a work of such scope and ambition there are omissions – I would like to have seen more about the role taken by small or weak states in international organizations as they may have more to gain from membership of IOs, and more to lose when they fail. ‘Tiny Belgium’, as Mazower calls it, introduced in the book through a fascinating account of the work of the global standardizer Paul Otlet, is an exception in the coverage it receives, but even this is contestable given the economic and financial resources at its disposal, and the internationally-reviled example of its empire in the Congo.

A more striking and problematic absence is the lack of any sustained treatment of capital. More than anything else it is the ten-fold increase in the amount and circulation of money between 1800 and 1900 (the amount doubled again between 1900 and 1913) that drove the first great age of internationalism – it facilitated new technologies, and financed the transportation of goods and people – and it was the basis of Marx’s critique of imperialist internationalism. It was their position as the world’s banker that gave Britain in nineteenth century and the US in the twentieth the clout to take the determining role in international affairs. In the twenty-first century it is capital, more than trade, that is in the process of reordering the hierarchies of global power once again.

All of which brings me to Keynes. His many lives – economist, activist and government advisor – being just some of them – open up the pressing questions about how the history of international organizations is to be written. He is mentioned just once in the book in a passing reference to the Bretton Woods Agreements. Yet his career, and consequently his central importance as a figure in any appraisal, was defined by a preoccupation with capital and international organization that is the focus of renewed and extensive debates about global governance today.
Keynes’ trenchant appraisal of the Economic Consequences of the Peace, published in 1920, was one of the first modern critiques of the implications of sovereign debt for international stability. It also marked an important new stage in his campaign to secure an active role for the League of Nations in the realm of economics and finance that went beyond Wilson’s paean to free trade in the Fourteen Points. Keynes the activist, who wrote so witheringly of Wilson’s performance at the Paris Peace Conference because he wanted to redress European post-war indebtedness with US financial ‘responsibility’, would applaud Mazower’s sharp judgements on the persistent failures of international organizations to live up to their rhetoric that promised peace, free trade, and more recently human and social rights.

In 1920 Keynes knew his public position was, in his own words, ‘extreme’. He wanted to transform the peace settlement and thereby change the world. But it’s clear from correspondence with his closest confidents he never expected to. He was in despair, hoping, at best, his treatise offered an ‘éclaircissement of the situation created by the treaty’ and would facilitate the prospect of financial aid to Austria, Hungary and Germany.

The distinction between the private and public face of Keynes in this moment points to one of the biggest challenges to historians of international organizations: by what standards should we judge their performance? By the public, transformative rhetoric of the organizations’ most famous promoters who promised to change the world by institutionalizing ‘brotherhood’, ‘open diplomacy’, ‘world peace’ or ‘global development’? Or by the much more limited expectations and standards of those that engage with, or work for, the organizations? These actors stress the practical, technically-demanding struggle for multilateral co-ordination and co-operation, and recognize every attempt at agreement is politically fraught and protracted.

Take, for example, the aspiration to ‘free trade’. Mazower rightly singles this out as a central plank of internationalist thought in the nineteenth century that informs the commitment to free trade in the League, the GATT and the WTO. He lambasts its ‘presentation in almost cosmic terms as a means of facilitating communication among men and bring peace to the world’… when free trade strikes ‘us now as an argument for self-interest’. But does it? Scientific evaluations of free trade stress its relative economic and political benefits over any other trading system. The point is not that it’s the best global trading system: it’s the least worst. Protectionism certainly does not make poor countries richer or the world more peaceful. In the 1960s Pakistan’s average tariffs on imported manufactured goods were 90 per cent and those of Argentina more than 140 per cent; their agricultural tariffs were even higher. It was only as those levels fell that there was even the potential for economic growth, however fragile.
Most internationalists who proclaimed the importance of free trade, such as the ‘Tennessee Cobden’, State Cordell Hull, did so because they were staking a claim for political support for tariff reductions of any sort, not because they believed they could achieve absolute free trade. Until he became Secretary of State in 1933, the levels of US protectionism had risen pretty steadily since 1914 and the Smoot-Hawley tariff of 1930 certainly did nothing positive for the prospects of global economic growth. The only beneficiaries of US protectionism and isolationism were nationalists in Italy, Germany and Japan who had a fresh justification for their own particularly nasty take on imperialism. And taken as a whole the twentieth century was far from free trading: in 2000 the majority of the world’s population live in countries where tariffs were higher than on the eve of the First World War.

And this is where the distinction between the idea and the practice of international organization is critical. It took thirty-five years to piece together the economies of the ‘rich’ West after 1945, and many of its citizens didn’t feel particularly ‘rich’ at the time; and another two decades for this process to begin to include the rest of the world. Negotiations inside the IOs that brought this about were politically-charged, time-consuming and technically complex, but they helped the world gradually inch its way towards a more balanced – and fair – economic system. Seen from inside the archives of international organizations, it is clear that the aspiration of participants of trade negotiations – whatever they might have said to the outside – was not global transformation, but small, practical steps towards co-operation.

Governing the World usefully holds a mirror up to the history of global governance. What I hope later studies will reflect back is a deeper engagement both with the archives of the institutions, and with the many actors who laid claim on them. We need a kaleidoscope of perspectives on states, activists and individuals of all shapes and hues who reached out to the ‘international’, and better sense of how their experiences helped them clarifying their positions and make connections to others in the global arena. We need to know more about courses of action that were not – as much as were – taken. International Organizations may not have met the messianic claims made on their behalf, but for historians they provide an unrivalled lens through which to see the world afresh.

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