David Blackburn

Governing the world – an interview with Mark Mazower

‘People begin to feel that… there are bonds of international duty binding all the nations of the earth together.’

This quotation, which resonates so clearly as yet more blood is shed in Syria, belongs to Guiseppe Mazzini, the 19th century Italian nationalist whose vision of a ‘Holy Alliance of peoples’ underscores much of Professor Mark Mazower’s Governing the World: The History of an Idea.

Mazower’s book is an account of the ideas and institutions of international relations from the Concert of Vienna in 1814 to the present day United Nations. It is, then, the story of how Western hegemony has shaped the international sphere; this period of hegemony is soon to end and perhaps Mazzini’s international ambitions will die with it. In this sense, Mazower’s engrossing survey prompts questions about the nation state in an unsettled global future.

It is becoming fashionable, perhaps, to assume that a strong state is one that is independent of (but not necessarily isolated from) international bodies. Certainly, critics of Britain’s membership of the European Union make such assertions, usually by referring to the arrangements of Norway or Switzerland. Yet it was not always so. Mazower describes how generations of statesmen have followed Mazzini’s famous dictum that there is no contradiction between the national and the international. In an age of empire, and the age of superpowers which succeeded it, states found stability and resilience by co-operating closely with another. Thus, international bodies formed, multiplied and became more complex.

The defining feature of each international system which emerged was that, more often than not, it served the interests of the dominant powers of the day. This implies that those powers were vital to the health of the institution in question and the success of its policies. Mazower expresses this most clearly in the chapters devoted to the United Nations, where he argues that there would have been (and indeed could not be) a UN without American money, expertise and political support.

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