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Still dancing around the problem

6 October 2012

9:00 AM

6 October 2012

9:00 AM

Governing the World: The History of an Idea Mark Mazower

Allen Lane, pp.456, £25

For at least 200 years, men have sought to create a world order that would ensure stability and eliminate threats to peace. But it is only in the 20th century that this ideal has been brought to fruition, first in the ill-fated League of Nations, established in 1919, which expired, almost unnoticed, after the outbreak of war in 1939, and then in the United Nations.

Governing the World charts the history of the idea of international co-operation since the end of the Napoleonic wars. It is a penetrating and wide-ranging study, illuminating not just the history of internationalism but also the problems involved in realising it in the world of today.

The story begins in 1818, when there occurred a development which Metternich’s secretary, Friedrich von Gentz, saw as ‘a phenomenon without precedent in the history of the world’, the creation of the Concert of Europe, a system of regular summits amongst the powers, as an instrument to keep the peace.

But, as Mazower shows, the Concert was rapidly bedevilled by a confusion of aim. Metternich saw it as a grouping of conservative states united by the principle of legitimacy and dedicated to the preservation of the status quo. He believed that any threat to that principle from the forces of liberalism, because it jeopardised stability, was also a threat to peace.


The Tsar of Russia and the King of Prussia agreed. But Britain’s Foreign Secretary, George Canning, declared that the Concert should not be a union ‘for the superintendence of the internal affairs of other States’, ‘a European police’ designed to put down liberal revolutions throughout the Continent. Fundamentally the Concert failed because it could not accommodate change, the demand of the peoples of Europe for political rights.

At the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st, the dilemma re-appeared. The United Nations Charter emphasised the doctrine of state sovereignty. Stalin indeed would not have accepted Soviet membership on any other basis. The United States also was not keen on any inquiry into its treatment of Afro-Americans, while Britain opposed interference with colonial rule, and what Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin described as the ‘misguided and false idea that the possession of colonies was bad in itself’. All this was in accord with the era inaugurated by the Treaty of Westphalia of 1648 which ended the Thirty Years War and established the doctrine of the independence of sovereign states.

It was this doctrine that prevented the United Nations from acting to prevent ethnic cleansing in Rwanda; while in Kosovo, it was Nato that intervened, bypassing the UN. The horrors of the 20th century have begun to undermine the post-Westphalian doctrine of the independence of sovereign states. The conundrum faced by those seeking a new world order is that of creating a system in which human rights are protected without endorsing a system of universal interference.

The doctrine of liberal constitutionalism which insists that we can never be indifferent to the way in which a state treats its own people is perhaps the single most important development in modern international affairs. It entails that a state which abuses its sovereignty by brutal and excessively cruel treatment of those living in it, makes itself liable to intervention by others. The doctrine was brought into play in the 1990s by those who insisted on western intervention in Bosnia to combat the worst crimes of ethnic cleansing seen in Europe since the Holocaust. Politicians from all parties demanded action, and were in the end successful, though, sadly, not soon enough to prevent the massacre at Srebrenica.

Suppose that the Final Solution had begun not after but before 1939, and that Nazi Germany had decided to murder its Jewish population in time of peace. Neither the League of Nations nor the United Nations, had it existed, would have provided legal authority for intervention; but, as Tony Blair declared in 1999, ‘Acts of genocide can never be a purely internal matter’. ‘We need,’ said Blair, ‘to enter a new millennium where dictators know that they cannot get away with ethnic cleansing or repress their people with impunity’.

In Kosovo, Britain was ‘fighting not for territory, but for values’. The ‘principle of non-interference must be qualified in important respects’. We needed ‘a new doctrine of international community’ to give ‘explicit recognition that today more than ever before, we are mutually dependent’. This doctrine has been embodied in the 2005 United Nations initiative Responsibility to Protect, based on the principle that sovereignty is not a right but a responsibility. It was this principle that David Cameron and William Hague adopted in Libya, and have sought to adopt in Syria.

Mazower concludes that, in the 19thcentury, internationalism was ‘pre-eminently a movement to restore sovereign power to the peoples of the world, and those who governed in their name’. Today, by contrast, ‘international institutions and norms have developed into means of curtailing sovereignty rather than enhancing it’. But the dilemma remains as it was in Metternich’s time, that a world in which trans-national norms trump the sanctity of the state might be a world, not of peace and stability but of intervention and uncertainty. Governing the World underlines the dilemma, but is unable to tell us how it should be resolved.

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