Books with titles like “Governing the World” typically end with glowing predictions of the imminent triumph of some kind of “new world order.” After enduring a Long March — against entrenched opposition, especially from atavistic Americans — that makes Mao Tse-tung’s 1930s version look like a weekend hike, global governance ultimately will emerge victorious, to the cheers of a grateful humanity. Surprisingly, though, Mark Mazower is a contrarian, concluding pessimistically that “the idea of governing the world is becoming yesterday’s dream.” If only; we’ll return to that issue later.
One fundamental problem in trying to follow, let alone assess, Mazower’s effort is the book’s lack of intellectual discipline. Throughout, concepts such as global governance, internationalism, empire, national economic development, scientific progress, free trade, “international law,” and international finance are all jumbled together as if they were simply aspects of the same basic concept. But international affairs are much more complicated than that, and Mazower’s approach obscures more than it enlightens. Indeed, much of his book is simply unrelated either to its title or to the real struggle undeniably under way over the shape of political authority in coming years.
Substantively, if confusingly and opaquely, Governing the World describes two different views of global politics, one that evolved in Europe and one that developed in America. Among the global-governance crowd and in academia generally, Mazower’s analysis is conventional, but it is seriously wrong. His errors help explain why prescriptions for “world government” (or whatever the latest buzz phrase may be) are always misguided, although the zeal that fuels the quest seemingly never diminishes.
Mazower initially focuses on modern European intellectuals’ fascination with “secular internationalist utopias” — a fascination typified by French philosopher Ernest Renan’s statement “Let us die calmly in the communion of mankind and the religion of the future.” The 19th-century quest for secular utopia failed but nonetheless colored the way in which many Europeans view what happened to them in the 20th. Their self-portrait is of a continent repeatedly torn asunder by nationalism, the destruction of fragile democracies, and, inevitably, devastating war, and thus desperately requiring an alternative political structure to allow them to live in peace with one another.
The latest answer is to put near-religious faith in the European Union to obscure and eventually eliminate nationalism. All agree that the center of gravity in Europe has shifted dramatically away from national capitals toward EU headquarters in Brussels. On the other hand, the EU’s earlier promise is fading daily as the Euro financial crisis drags on, and nationalism reemerges. British Euroskeptics in particular argue that their democracy never broke down, so what is so dangerous about U.K. nationalism that it must be expunged? And objective observers understand that Europe’s post–World War II peace has actually been shielded behind raw U.S. power rather than the EU. Finally, Europeans themselves have always held two widely disparate views of European “integration.” For the center-right, it meant building a single, continent-wide market, whereas the Left sought a single European state that would incidentally have a single economy. The statists had long lamented that the sweeping forces of international finance consistently overwhelmed national efforts to control economies, and, in response, they sought a larger European state.
EU acolytes also therefore see their approach as a model for mankind generally. Why can’t all the world look like the EU project, with the European response to the “failure” of Europe’s nation-states applied globally? Of course, precisely because the EU’s scope is by definition limited, the inevitable progression for the international-governance crowd has been to take their enterprise to the global level. This effort they are pursuing relentlessly, in the United Nations and elsewhere.
While Mazower misreads Europe’s integrationist project as a template for global government, his misreading of U.S. history is more serious. He mistakes American historical accomplishments for defects that have required correcting. Once again, his errors reflect longstanding leftist analysis, American and European. This received wisdom is that America was isolationist from Independence onward through the opening of the 20th century, and was dragged into the international arena only by the main force of global events and such leaders as Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt. But this narrative is simply incorrect, mistaking unilateralism for isolationism. The basic error is to treat America’s westward expansion as merely inward-looking “domestic” policy, rather than as an essentially outward-looking contest against rival foreign powers. “Manifest destiny” was a conscious effort to enlarge what Jefferson called the “empire of liberty” — not on an empty continent, but on one where foreign powers repeatedly tried to constrain us. U.S. expansionism was no more domestic or “isolationist” than British and French clashes over India, or Europe’s later “scramble for Africa.”
All these were “internationalist” efforts, as Mazower, a native Brit, should understand from the expansive lines in “Land of Hope and Glory”: “Wider still, and wider, shall thy bounds be set. / God, who made thee mighty, make thee mightier yet.” That’s precisely what European imperialists thought they were doing, and what the phrase “manifest destiny” was meant to convey. The difference is that we succeeded, permanently, and they failed. Our empire’s far-flung provinces today have names like Texas, California, and Hawaii, while Europe’s are simply faded lines on a world map of dozens of independent states. The word “exceptional” comes to mind.
In short, American internationalism before World War I was both palpable and enduring, but it was not primarily transatlantic in its orientation, which led the cognoscenti to derogate our disentanglement from Europe’s conflicts as “isolationism.” Hence the post–World War II import of Lord Ismay’s famous explanation of NATO’s objectives: “to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.” This is what many Europeans long sought, as when Britain’s George Canning called for “the New World . . . to redress the balance of the Old.” Of course, that’s what they wanted, not necessarily what we wanted.
The historical narrative of Mazower and the globalists may not be accurate, but it is nonetheless crucial for their understanding of international affairs: The failures of European nationalism, and our distressingly persistent exceptionalism, are the irresistible force and the immovable object in the story of world government. The Europeans, bien sûr, are on the right track, and we Americans definitely not.
It’s a problem for them that only a tiny minority in the United States has ever shared anything like the objective of “governing the world.” Secretary of State Edward Stettinius Jr., trying to deflect criticism from FDR’s policy to create a successor to the failed League of Nations, said in 1945 that “the thought of fashioning any kind of superstate is repugnant to us.” Today, American aversion to a superstate is even stronger, which in large measure explains Mazower’s pessimistic conclusions and his antipathy toward America’s cursed independence, nationalism, and congenital unwillingness to subordinate itself to something larger. Mazower has no choice but to admit that the U.N. cannot be transformed into a superstate; indeed, the U.N.’s many failings have become a burden to the global-governance crowd, one it tries to overcome simply by ignoring it. While Mazower’s disdain for the U.N. may sound reassuring, it means only that the global-governance optimists are seeking more effective alternatives. This time, they promise, they’ll get it right.
But Mazower has an even broader gripe than the one he has with the U.S. It is not simply the force of American nationalism that finally drives him to despair, but our free-market ideas in themselves, and the U.S.-style capitalism that has come to dominate the planet. Echoing those who complain that mere nation-states cannot withstand global markets, Mazower conjures the forces of international trade and finance as elements of an insidious American grand strategy to have our way. To be sure, Mazower delights in recounting the failures and hardships caused when financial markets malfunction, although he is far from thorough in explaining the underlying causes, which frequently have more to do with government policy mistakes than market imperfections. And the few glimmers of optimism about global governance that Mazower displays emerge because, especially after the 2008 financial crisis, “the proponents of free markets . . . can no longer count on sweeping all before them.” Not exactly a ringing vote of confidence.
Mazower is guilty of many errors, but can we nonetheless agree that his near-epitaph for global governance is right? Unfortunately, no. So far at least, the U.S. “empire of liberty” has stood apart because of a sustained national consensus on limiting government that has differentiated us from the EU and its ilk, and has proved resistant to broader global-governance schemes. In the past century, however, Washington’s power has grown enormously, both at the expense of state governments and owing to its expansion into areas the Framers could not have imagined in their worst dreams. Our limited-government consensus has deteriorated and is now under stress, perhaps to the breaking point, under the Obama presidency. Obama may well be proving conclusively that the Framers were wrong in believing the national government’s powers could be defined and limited.
And the likely global corollary to that domestic pattern cannot be ignored. The same philosophy that has shifted power to Washington now wants to “share” national sovereignty in international institutions, because so many problems are “global.” Despite the soothing rhetoric of those who once called themselves “world federalists,” why would “governing the world” not follow precisely the centralizing direction of our own national trajectory and that of the EU? And once the world government has gotten too powerful, where would we go then? Sadly, a second Obama term might well persuade Mazower to revisit his pessimism about “governing the world.”
– Mr. Bolton, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.