‘Governing The World: The History of an Idea’ – Book Review

Governing the World: The History of an Idea by Mark Mazower is an illuminating and insightful history regarding the shaky yet continuous rise of internationalism that began with the Concert of Vienna in 1815. Mazower’s look at the emergence of global governance continues up until the wake of the Eurozone crisis with regards to the present needs of reforming the European Union in the wake of unpopular austerity measures and burdensome bureaucratic regulations from Brussels.

His book addresses ‘globalization’ different from previous books I’ve read in the past with regards to focus on ‘ideas’ themselves and the rise and fall of those ideas throughout the 19th and 20th centuries led by primarily politicians and philosophers such as Kant, Metternich, Mazzini, Marx, Lenin, Bentham, Wilson, the Roosevelts, etc. among many others who were driven in defining what the international system should look, act, and be like.

A consistent theme of this history of ideas and institutions from 1815 to about 2012 was how instrumental the ‘Great Powers’ in each era were in setting up the foundation of the international system whether it was the ‘Concert of Europe’, the ‘League of Nations’, or the ‘United Nations.’ In the wake of the Napoleonic Wars and World Wars I, II, the leading powers desired to create a ‘balance of power’ among the great nations yet whose actions could be backed up by a single hegemon such as the U.K., U.S. to set the rules and boost the institutions they founded. Mazower is clear in that the history of global governance evolved originally from the heart of Europe and then spread across the Atlantic as the title of global hegemon shifted from the U.K. to the U.S. with the emergence of Wilsonianism and the ‘fourteen points’ in the 1910s.

Whereas the origins of internationalism started out with a gentlemen’s agreement among the Great Powers of Europe to refrain from conquering each other in unending, bloody wars over territory based on religious and political aims, this shift has now ended up only two hundred years later encompassing the entire world over with 193-member states being represented from the People’s Republic of China to Tuvalu.

While the United Nations could be seen by some observers as a success story in terms of its inclusive nature and the ability for nations from around the world to have a voice regarding international issues, there are problems still today that plague the UN and its sister agencies and bodies. Whether it was how the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ doctrine could be implemented in different conflicts around the world with UN peacekeeping forces or the controversial over-usage of vetoes by the five permanent members of the Security Council to control the debate about their national self-interests, global governance increasingly mirrors national governance in being quite messy and imperfect.

Real questions remained in 2012 when this book was published and more so today regarding the vitality of the United Nations especially given the fact that the United States is responsible for 22 percent of the overall budget of the UN. In the 2nd half of the book, Mazower focuses on the differing approaches of various U.S. administrations towards the UN and how fundamentally the U.S. government, mostly during Republican administrations, were acting out of self-interest and would often go out of the way to create competing international bodies to marginalize the UN such as the IMF, the World Bank, and most recently the WTO. Often times, the U.S. has bypassed, ignored, threatened, and left UN bodies and have held themselves to a standard above those given to other member states which has caused a backlash among not only allies but also developing countries (see: International Court of Justice and U.S. nationals being exempted from its jurisdiction).

Similarly to how the League of Nations through the guise of British and French leadership failed to hold imperial ambitions in check between the World Wars, U.S. disengagement and disenchantment with the U.N. increasingly from the 1970s onwards and the rise of other ambitious states such as China, India, Brazil, etc. signals that there may be a shift towards a multipolar world where there is no true hegemon leading to more of a systemic anarchy within the international system in the near future.

By the end of Governing the World, Mazower sees serious needs for reform in not just the United Nations but also in the European Union, another leading international institution created during this period. Western-led international institutions are in real danger of losing relevancy, argues Mazower, due to a number of overlapping factors including rising political apathy, catering too heavily towards financial elites, and being unable to meet the lofty goals that they set for themselves. I didn’t even mention a resurgence in nationalism and populism around the world from Brazil to the Philippines, but you get the picture, right?

Much to the chagrin of internationalists, Mazower argues that the nation-state still remains the primary way for the average citizen around the world to receive or pay into ‘public goods’ so their attention will largely remain focused on what their President or Prime Minister is doing and not the UN Secretary-General or IMF Director. There are numerous challenges that face the international system currently and it remains to be seen whether the UN and numerous other bodies are ready to be able to tackle income inequality, climate change, financial crises, the threat of global pandemics in the rest of this tumultuous 21st century.

Overall, I thought it was refreshing to see his attention on the ‘Concert of Europe’ in Vienna and how he started this event as a jumping off point where leading powers would try to use regional and later international cooperation to prevent conflicts from emerging among nation-states. The lack of support given to bodies of ‘International Law’ remains as a consistent theme throughout this book and while ‘arbitration’ between nations was popular, it lost relevancy and hasn’t gained it back since.

Seeing ‘globalization’ through the ideas of influential thinkers from Immanuel Kant to Karl Marx to Henry Kissinger really paints a wholistic picture on how nation-states were driven by different belief and value systems. The clash between nations especially in the 20th century can be seen through the ideological lens (ex: Capitalism v. Communism). While I really enjoyed Mazower’s conclusion, I thought it could have been expanded upon a bit further especially with regards to the rise of private foundations, i.e. the Clintons, the Gates and other NGOs, and how that has affected larger institutional institutions which are now not as well funded. On that note, the chapters titled, “The Empire of Law” and “Science the Unifier” could have been shortened or condensed into one chapter. It took away from the timeline narrative of the book and didn’t relate well to the political history unfolding during the two centuries.

If you are looking for an interesting, comprehensive, yet digestible read regarding the tumultuous development of the international system over the past two centuries, then you will want to take a chance at reading Mr. Mazower’s Governing The World: The History of an Idea. The one question that we are left at the end of this over 400-page book is what will the international system look like for the rest of the 21st century? We shall have to wait to find out but there are numerous challenges and obstacles ahead.

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Book Recommendations – Volume VII

Over the past couple of months, I’ve been lucky enough to do some good reading. Each of these three books are enjoyable, interesting and which hold different lessons about the state of the world and humanity at large. These three books come highly recommended from myself and are well worth the time invested to read them. If you are looking for a few books to read, as spring becomes summer, below you will see the 7th edition of my book recommendations which highlights Submission by Michel Houellebecq, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari, and A World in Disarray by Richard Haass.

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1.) Submission by Michel Houellebecq is an enjoyable and humorous take on French politics in the 21st The French author is known for his edgy content and his nihilistic take on modern life. Houellebecq is not known for writing about satire and for those who are a fan of his works, this novel was a sharp turn away from the other topics that he usually focuses on. Personally, I haven’t read the other novels associated with this writer but I really enjoyed this satirical look at French politics.

The premise of the novel is that there is a new political crisis in France. In order to stave off a win in the 2022 French presidential elections from Marine Le Pen’s National Front party, the Socialist party and the center-right Union for a Popular Movement party are forced to align with a newly formed Muslim Brotherhood party led by its charismatic leader, Mohammed Ben-Abbes in order to achieve victory as a coalition. The main character, Francois, is a middle-aged Literature professor at the Sorbonne is going through his own mid-life crisis. While he enjoys teaching at the university and cavorting physically with some of his students, he struggles to find meaning in his life and is distraught at the loss of both of his parents. This is on top of the fact that the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood party will affect his ability to keep his full pension and be able to keep his job.                                                                                                                       

On top of the probability of losing his teaching job at the Sorbonne as well as the fleeing of his steady Jewish girlfriend, Myriam, who leaves France for Israel in the face of rising anti-Semitism, Francois contemplates suicide but decides instead to seek refuge in a monastery in the town of Martel. Ironically, Francois, after going through a self-imposed exile for a few weeks, comes to realize that the world didn’t end when the Muslim Brotherhood party takes power. Instead of fighting the changes going on at the Sorbonne, Francois is intrigued by the fact that if he converts or ‘submits’ to Islam, he will be able to still find a prestigious job, keep his lucrative pension, and be able to have a few wives chosen for him since polygamy had become legal in France. The main character, Francois, is a spectator to the changing political landscape rather than an active player.

While this book is known for being controversial, I find it to be full of slapstick humor in making fun of the main character’s overly dramatic take on life. Francois is a mere spectator whose desire for alcohol, food, and sex overrides any core convictions that he may have politically. Mainly, Houellebecq is making fun of French intellectuals who can’t be bothered to invest in them beyond their own hedonistic desires.

His take on the political situation in France is an obvious dramatization and I don’t believe that he was looking to ruffle any feathers. The rise of an Islamic nationalist party in France in 2022 would be completely unrealistic which is what the author was making clear in focusing on the political satire associated with that idea. Overall, it is a witty, entertaining novel, which tells us more about human nature than it does about the precarious state of French politics in the 21st century.

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2.) Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari is one of the best books I have ever read. In all likelihood, this is the kind of book that you can come back to multiple times and still enjoy it. This is not your average history book in that it focuses more on the big ideas and developments associated with each era of human history rather than diving into the endless details and events related to each period. Instead of a 4,000 page behemoth focused on human history, Harari does a great job in condensing the how and why of Homo sapiens into only 400+ pages.

While I was reading this book, it didn’t feel laborious at all and was a real page-turner. Harari’s main argument in the book is that the homo sapien (the modern human) were able to dominate the Earth because of our ability to cooperate and share with each other in large numbers. The downfall of pre-homo sapiens such as the Neanderthals along with various other extinct animals and plants was the result of the Cognitive Revolution, which occurred at around 70,000 BCE.

The exciting developments related to the establishment of shared human myths and imaginary mainstays such as money, religions, human rights, nation-states, etc. directly tied to Homo Sapien culture put sapiens on the path to long-term survival and flourishing. Harari convincingly argues that the history of humanity can be broken down into four parts: the Cognitive Revolution (the development of imagination), the Agricultural Revolution (the formation of collective societies), the Unification of humankind (the rise of empires and nations), along with the Scientific Revolution (the emergence of scientific knowledge) which is the stage where sapiens currently find ourselves in.

Harari believes that the rise of Homo sapiens as a species has had significant consequences on the planet we all inhabit as well as the harsh treatment of animals that has resulted from being at the top of the food chain. Also, while the Agricultural revolution led to the creation of large human societies and eventually sprawling empires, the shift from hunter gathering to farming caused the human diet and lifestyle to suffer as a direct result. Human beings after agriculture became less self-reliant and had to rely on a king, an emperor, or the state itself to provide food, water, and other necessities. Out of all of the developments in human history, the rise of agriculture was a fundamental shift in our thinking, which still affects us in the modern society we all inhabit today.

Overall, Sapiens is an excellent, informative, and timely read that I would recommend to anyone. It’s an easy book to pick up and a hard one to put down. I am currently reading another book of his, which is the sequel to Sapiens, this book and the one that follows it just shows how good of an author and intellectual that Mr. Harari is.

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3.) A World in Disarray: American Foreign Policy and the Crisis of the Old Older by Richard Haass is a refreshing take on the topsy-turvy world of international relations in this current period. Mr. Haass, who is currently the President of the Council on Foreign Relations, has advised previous U.S. presidents and worked as the Director of Policy Planning at the U.S. State Department during the Bush Administration, is an expert on world affairs who has published multiple books and this one in particular could not be timelier.

While the U.S. remains the most powerful country in the world both economically and militarily, it has started to lose ground in terms of its ability to sway world opinion and events due to failures of U.S. foreign policy in the early years of the 21st century. The lack of success in denuclearizing of the Korean peninsula, the rise of Iran as a regional power in the Middle East, and the mixed results of the East Asia ‘pivot’ from the Obama administration have created a worldwide power vacuum. Also, due to the long and costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, both U.S. prestige and values were harmed by these adventures in the Middle East. Haass argues correctly that the post-WWII order that the United States and its European allies helped create is fraying due to the failure of its leaders, institutions, and policies to maintain stability across the globe.             

There are real challenges to contend with that the United States won’t be able to solve on its own. The threat of climate change, the challenge of cyber-security, and preventing the spread of nuclear weapons require a unified approach that has been lacking between the U.S. and its European allies. The events of Brexit, the Trump administration’s ‘America First’ isolationist policies, and the great power rivalries going on between Russia, China, and India have thrown the world in disarray. The days where the U.S. could have great influence and sway over events around the world may be drawing to a close. Haass sees that the U.S. is just one of the great global powers and must be willing to cooperate, collaborate with other powers in order to achieve results when the main issues of today are multilateral in nature.

In order for the world to follow America’s lead, Haass aptly understands that we must get our own house in order first. The rising national debt, the ongoing problems with investing in education, infrastructure, and health care prevent the United States from acting as an example to the rest of the world. A dysfunctional political process as well as a President who doesn’t believe in leading the international, post WWII order are preventing the United States from realizing its full potential as a global power.

For anyone who is new to international relations, A World In Disarray, is an excellent take on the history of the international system after World War II and how did we get to this point where the world seems more chaotic and unstable than ever. Mr. Haass understands the limits of American power and that in order to lead on the world stage; the U.S. must undertake reforms to benefit our own citizens at home. In order to solve complex, multilateral issues, the U.S. must value diplomacy and the relationships that we have with our allies. Where the U.S. used to be the only global superpower, after the fall of the Soviet Union, America is just one of the great powers now. In order to solve the multilateral issues of the 21st century, the United States cannot do it alone and we must be willing to use effective diplomacy and other forms of soft power to create peace and prosperity.