Internationalism is back. After some time in the wilderness, it has made a remarkable reappearance, both as a concept and as a policy prescription. The concept appeals to historians because it allows them to lavish as much attention on obscure reformers with grand designs for a better world as on hard-nosed statesmen who appreciate the benefits of international institutions. Rebranded as ‘smart power’, it serves as a hot new term for American diplomats coming to terms with the limits to the United States’ military and economic extension in the twenty-first century. But, as Mark Mazower shows in his timely and stimulating synthesis, internationalism has long roots, some of which reach into strange soil. In its early, nineteenth-century incarnations, internationalism was embraced by peace activists, scientists, free traders, communists and nationalists, among others, but by the beginning of the twentieth century, it had revealed its attractions to statesmen, too. The language of international law allowed European states to justify their colonial claims. Arbitration was a cost-effective way of settling minor disputes. Free trade suited the imperial designs of British politicians.

But it was after the First World War that states finally co-opted internationalism on an institutional level and combined “the democratic idea of a society of nations with the reality of Great Power hegemony” (p. 153) in the League of Nations. The creation of the United Nations under the leadership of the United States took this even further as it expanded the new international organisation’s power-political reach at the same time as it internationalised New Deal-style technocracy. Starting with Truman, most American presidents understood that going through international institutions would enable them to do things they were otherwise unlikely to achieve; it was cost-effective, shored up the United States’ moral capital, and opened up alternative pathways in international politics. “Ambidextrous internationalism”, as Mazower defines it, mandated the use of international institutions whenever possible but counselled having a unilateralist solution up one’s sleeve, too.

Ambidextrous internationalism could only remain a credible policy script, though, if American statesmen and an instinctively sceptical public continued to believe that American liberal values and political institutions would benefit the world at large. Even before the United States’ ascent as a global power, American internationalists had peddled this point of view, when they suggested a world court modelled on the US Supreme Court, or global political integration in the cast of American federalism. The political scientist Paul S. Reinsch, for example, advised Europeans in 1913 to study the American political system “for the lessons it contains in regard to the possibility of organizing world-wide interests upon a basis of co-operation and a recourse to law”. Americans were fond of what political scientists have called the “domestic analogy”, based on a profoundly-felt exceptionalism and a belief in their country’s capacity to improve the lives of others by spreading their own innovations. Focusing on post-1945 US internationalism, Mazower highlights the almost mythical status the Tennessee Valley Authority achieved among American policy makers who sought to implement this archetypical model of American technocratic modernity wherever they encountered a river system waiting to be developed, often with problematic results. Once technocratic internationalism had reached its limits in the 1970s, American internationalism underwent a “normative transformation” (p. 329) and turned to the promotion of human rights and democracy.

In the twenty-first century the conflation of American and universal values continues unabated. In 2009 Joseph Nye recommended that as a “smart” power, the United States should advance the creation of “global public goods”, universalisms that all people and all nations wish for but can only achieve in cooperation with others, such as global public health or an open and stable world economy. The assumption remains that the United States is uniquely able to define what a global public good is, and, crucially, has the capital at hand to invest in it. Here, a new breed of American investor-philanthropists have entered the picture and confidently turned their private wealth into public goods on a global level. Although foundation philanthropy has become more popular in other regions in recent years, not least because of the vast personal wealth which is available for such projects, American organisations continue to dominate entire fields, notably development. Actors such as the Gates Foundation have left their distinctive mark, inter alia, on global approaches to the eradication of infectious diseases but, like the American state, they have not always worked in harmony with international organisations.

Of course, private philanthropy has always been intertwined with the fortunes of American internationalism, something that Mazower acknowledges when he mentions Andrew Carnegie’s gift to build the Peace Palace at The Hague in 1907, the Rockefeller and Carnegie foundations’ support for the League of Nations, the UN headquarters which stand on land the Rockefeller family once owned, the realistic internationalism of Dean Rusk (a one-time president of the Rockefeller Foundation), and the Ford Foundation’s grant to establish Helsinki Watch. American philanthropy sometimes sidelined international organisations and NGOs (one could think of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s problems with actual pacifists or the Rockefeller Foundation’s troubled relations with the League of Nations’ International Institute of Intellectual Cooperation) but it played an important role in ensuring that American liberal internationalism remained a viable policy. For one, philanthropic organisations have patiently tried to convince a reluctant American public of its values. The significant popular support for the UN in the 1940s, hinted at by Mazower, was fed by the foundations themselves and the nongovernmental organisations they supported. Under the Reagan administration, when American internationalism seemingly reached its nadir, foundation leaders argued for a renewed commitment to international institutions.

But philanthropic foundations also shaped US internationalism, in particular in the crucial years of the 1930s and 1940s, by virtue of their transnational connections. These did not just enable American internationalists to talk to kindred spirits in Britain – Gilbert Murray and Arnold Toynbee, intent on ensuring that “the torch was passing from England to America” (p. 203), were both important participants in foundation-funded networks – but also reached out to internationalism’s fiercest intellectual critics. The most formidable were German international lawyers who had absorbed Carl Schmitt’s critique of the League of Nations as a faux universalism. Some of them worked for the Nazis (and participated in philanthropic networks at the same time), others were persecuted by them. Scholars such as Hans Morgenthau and John Herz emigrated to the United States where they were influential in pushing internationalism to take account of the constant struggle for power in the international system – for if power is always in flux and states rise and fall, how can there be a stable world order? In a chaotic world, prudent statesmen should strive for ideals that could be attained and put their precise content under constant scrutiny. Not all of these philosophical subtleties made it into the minds of US policymakers but Schmitt’s disciples put their stamp on American internationalism, if only by enabling it to learn from its enemies.

It is to Mazower’s great credit that he gives ample room to those whose cases exposed the weaknesses of internationalist ideas, be they Nazi ideologists, conservatives, romantic nationalists or anti-colonial thinkers, even though he may have exaggerated the critics’ own affinities for international institutions. Fascist internationalism, for example, could only ever be the result of wishful thinking as it was ultimately a contradiction in terms. Some Italians did indeed dream of world corporatism but any scheme curtailing state sovereignty ultimately jarred with fascism’s glorification of the state. It is noteworthy, though, that some fascists engaged in this wishful thinking at all, as if it was impossible to escape the international in the twentieth century.

Echoing Glenda Sluga’s criticism, Mazower certainly could have asked why it was that internationalist networks were often structured in a way that marginalised ideas developed by women. The world of philanthropic foundations was no exception here, as two examples illustrate: Sydnor Walker, assistant director of the Rockefeller Foundation’s Social Science Division and chiefly responsible for its international relations programme in the 1930s, questioned the grants that went to Nazi scholars but was consistently undermined by her male colleagues. Although she had a doctorate, she was always “Miss Walker” to them. She left the foundation frustrated. Florence Wilson, Librarian of the League of Nations until 1926 and, just like Paul Otlet, a believer in the pivotal role of libraries and information in constructing a more interconnected world, put herself at considerable personal risk to implement the Carnegie International Relations Clubs in Europe and the Middle East, only to have her achievements shelved by superiors. These personal stories point to the much larger question why women’s ideas about world order remained ridiculed, which in many cases forced female protagonists to build their own, parallel networks. However, even when they had the resources to do this, it removed them from the centres of power.

We would do well to remember that the internationalist house has many rooms. Some of them are inhabited by its critics and enemies, and not only by the Anglo-American protagonists who have, not undeservedly, stood in the limelight. Their efforts built on the ideas of those who have been forgotten or who may never have had the resources to put their schemes into practice. Mazower’s account succeeds in including many of these unlikely candidates but also those who, by their searing critiques, helped shape internationalism, this malleable and pervasive ideology of the last two centuries.

Katharina Rietzler is the Mellon Research Fellow in American History at the University of Cambridge.

This essay was corrected on 29th October 2013

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