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Governing the world: the history of an idea, By Mark Mazower

Peace-makers will learn from most of this fine history – until it yields to skewed polemics

More than 20 years ago, the American political scientist Stephen Krasner remarked that the United Nations compound on New York's East River was coming to resemble the Guantanamo Naval Base in Cuba. Both are an affront to the principles and norms of the territories that surround them and both are vestiges of past power configurations.

He might have added that the Big Apple itself is also in a somewhat anomalous position, as a liberal outpost in generally conservative America. One therefore turns with interest to Governing the World by the English-born, Columbia University-based historian Mark Mazower. He is well-qualified to write on the subject, having cut his teeth with detailed empirical studies on the Balkans – much affected by international intervention – and then graduating to acclaimed "big picture" books on 20th-century Europe, the Nazi empire and the colonialist origins of the League of Nations and the UN.

The idea of international governance goes back well before the 19th century, but Mazower is right to take the Congress of Vienna, which brought the Napoleonic Wars to an end, as his starting point. There the great powers not only established a "Congress System" to manage diplomatic crises, but the eastern empires of Austria, Russia and Prussia committed themselves to intervention in the internal affairs of other states in the name of preserving peace and stability. The treaty included a weak resolution against the international slave trade, complementing a unilateral campaign waged by the British Empire since 1807.

Mazower then traces the development of international governance, through the failed League of Nations to the UN and its various bodies today. To be sure, the author attributes a great deal of this to strategic concerns: the League was created to watch over the peace settlement at the end of the First World War, while its successor originated as an alliance to defeat the Axis powers. The agents in this book, however, are not just states, but associations and what we today call non-governmental organisations, from the evangelical Christians lobbying against slavery to Amnesty International.

Critical to the project, Mazower argues persuasively, was the development and dissemination of "norms". For Mazower these reflect power relations; citing the brilliant, and sometime Nazi, legal theorist Carl Schmitt, he argues that real power lies in the authority to set norms, and to decide when and where they should be applied. In the past, the abolition of the slave trade and the exercise of British naval dominance were two sides of the same coin, while for the US, democracy promotion and modernisation programmes were always part of the national security posture. Global government involves the establishment of a "civilising" standard demarcating the west, which imposes, from the rest, which is imposed upon.

All this is conveyed in fluent prose, informed by a vast scholarly literature. The text threads its way through centuries, countries and crises with enviable elegance. It is enlivened by apt quotations and illuminating anecdotes. We are introduced to characters such as Sir Randal Cremer, a union organiser who rose to become an MP and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

The first three quarters of the book are written as dispassionate history, with few overt attempts to pass judgment. In the final three chapters, Governing the World shifts gear dramatically. Mazower launches a full-blooded critique of the current system of world governance. He first takes aim at the "real New International order" of the past 30 years, by which the West foisted "neo-imperialist prescriptions" on the world through organisations such as the WTO, IMF and the EU. Then he critiques the doctrine of "humanitarian intervention", its contribution to genocide prevention being outweighed by the whiff of "western interference".

Mazower's main target here is not so much the Republican administration of George W Bush as Democrats such as Obama's advisor Samantha Power. They are reproached for failing to see that the whole idea of democracy promotion and genocide prevention is "wishful" thinking, which will only revive 19th-century "civilising missions". This is very much "blue on blue" violence, with little attempt to engage seriously with recent conservative or neo-conservative ideas.

There are two problems with this approach, one historical, the other political. Mazower exaggerates the extent to which Western norms were intended to exclude non-Westerners. To some, the Japanese victory over Russia in 1905 may have "threatened to overturn the whole hierarchy posited by the standard of civilisation idea", but it was none other than US Republican president Teddy Roosevelt who welcomed it as the triumph of a rising constitutional power over the Tsarist autocracy. Moreover, while it is true that the setting of norms is highly political, and their application even more so, there is nothing arbitrary about Western norms (anti-slavery, democracy, genocide prevention) or the forces against whom they have been imposed: slavers, Hitler's Germany, the Soviet dictatorship and Balkan ethnic cleansers.

World leaders should read the first three quarters of Mazower's noteworthy book to understand why their attempts to change the world have failed. It will help them to try again in a more informed manner, and even if they fail again, they will fail better; but if they take his last three chapters too seriously, they will stop even trying.

Professor Brendan Simms teaches at Cambridge University; his 'Europe: the struggle for supremacy' will be published in spring 2013

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