Book Review: Governing the World, by Mark Mazower

Governing the World, by Mark Mazower. Non-Fiction/History. Penguin Press. Hardcover. 475pgs. $30.

Governing the World is a non-linear examination of the events, people, countries, and circumstances leading to the creation and organization of today’s United Nations. I did not select the book knowing this, though. I had an option to read and review a new book purporting to be about the “history of an idea,” the idea being governance.

The governance I refer to is the power groups of people cede to a smaller cohort of people who set about outlining, describing, codifying and formalizing the rules which the greater society agrees to abide by. Now, this may seem like a simple idea, but it’s not, really. Anyone who has ever served on a church or school or work committee is familiar with the conflict which can develop among contentious personalities. Now, elevate those same conflicts to a regional scale and now lives literally hang in the balance.

By reading historical topics such as those Mazower presents, the intricacies of the world’s politics are revealed. Nothing is as as simple as one might think. People tend to think, and act, with their hearts, or souls, or through the rationalization their actions are “for the better.” Action taken is against crude and savage peoples who are incapable of understanding how improved their lives will be after Western Civilization has been imposed upon them.

Europe, for instance, is a relatively recent invention. The United States of America as a country is older than Germany (1871). Prior the unification of Germany, over 300 distinct political entities existed across the European landscape. By political entities, I am talking about the feudal states of all size and shape owned and operated by kings, princes, and other nobles. What encouraged cooperation among such diverse and often adversarial groups? Napolean, and his desire to bring Europe under his control, under one flag, and remove all other monarchies. Sometimes we need a reminder France was the early aggressor in Europe, not Germany. France was the 18th and 19th century military power in Europe, Germany the 20th century military power. And Great Britain has been the counter point to each throughout. But, the threat of French domination forced cooperation among disparate groups to bring an end to Napolean’s dream of a unified Europe.

Napolean’s unification attempt of Europe gave all nobility pause. Monarchies did not end, of course, but many agreed to cede power to another in order for an organization greater than the individual to rise to counter aggression by entities within and without. The ruler chosen was the King of Prussia, and from the fall of Napolean the idea of an organized governance arose. Nobility awoke to the realizaton constant warfare, constant strife, and the constant competition for resources worked against society, and more importantly, was very expensive. Really, if one were to look at the situation critically, I would think the desire to organize was not really to elevate culture and society, but to save money, to save or conserve wealth.

Organized governance came first in the form of the Concert of Europe. The Concert of Europe consisted of Prussia, Russia, the United Kingdom, and Austria. After France decided stop attacking neighbors, it was allowed to join. The idea behind the Concert of Europe was simple – prevent the revolutionary ideas originating from France to spreading to people outside France. What were these ideas? The same ideas we are familiar with today in our Bill of Rights, the right to vote, the notion of representative government, the elimination of monarchs and the creation of a representative-style government. The Concert of Europe eventually failed.

In an earlier book review, David Deutsch in his book, “The Beginning of Infinity,” brings up memes, cultural genes. Some cultural genes get passed along better and last longer than others. For example, bigotry and racism get passed from one generation to another, but eventually will die off. These genes are “false memes,” as they are not rooted in actions or circumstances which promote a healthy society and over time, albeit slowly, become less and less expressed. The Concert of Europe failed, in my opinion, because the kings, princes, and local governors attempted continued support of monarchical governments. The idea of a single king setting policy and controlling individual lives capriciously set well with no common person – an example of a false meme.

Despite the failure of the Concert of Europe, the idea of a unified Europe lingered. In the 20th century, Germany attempted twice, leading to two world wars. The First World War gave rise to the League of Nations. The League of Nations (LoN) had a solitary mission, to defuse any and all conflict between member states, if possible. The United States was perhaps the most vocal proponent of the League of Nations, and many of the member countries were quite supportive of the United States being host to the League of Nations. As the League of Nations was chiefly meant to negotiate conflict within Europe, having the League of Nations actually on European soil posed a security risk. Much harder to attack the LoN across the expanse of the Atlantic Ocean.

Again, the League of Nations evaporated in the face of a new global conflagration, the Second World War. However, as Mazower points out, not all was lost. Many important lessons were learned throughout the lifespan of the League of Nations. The LoN succeeded on a few accounts, especially the movement of support people and supplies. The logistics of moving supplies around the world, of negotiating contracts, getting supplies paid for, shipped, and distributed was one of the greatest strengths of the LoN. Several individuals employed by the LoN would later have jobs with the successor, the United Nations.

Mazower treatise is not a linear history of the origins of the United Nations. To tell this story, we must hop through time and across geography. We must examine the role of the Napolean Bonaparte, the King of Prussia, and the Concert of Europe. His story of governance includes a discussion of Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, and every other U.S. president since. We must also cover the guiding ideals of Klemens von Metternich, perhaps the true Father of the League of Nations, or at least the guiding spirit. Kant and Marx make their appearance, as do Lord Castlereagh and William Randall Cremer. The influence of atomic and nuclear weapons and the U.S. military stance vis-vis the USSR demonstrate the enormity of circumstances faced by the United Nations. Later, perhaps two the greatest lapses of the United Nations, the War in the Balkans of the 1990s, and the Rwandan Civil War (1994) are examined. Mazower does an admirable job of bringing the tremendous number of elements together in his exploration of Western-style governance.

Mazower transports us to the 1884-1885 Berlin Conference to examine the hubris of Western governments. As my geography students know, the Berlin Conference divided the unwitting population of Africa among several European states. Portugal, later Germany, the Netherlands, Great Britain, France, and Belgium carved Africa among themselves like Americans carve a turkey. Doing so was OK, as the sentiment at the time was any one of color, Asian, Hispanics, and Africans were inferior to White people, were actually a sub-species of humans, and being such could be treated in any way necessary based on a divine mandate. People of color were little more than animals, sub-humans; God gave Man power over animals, ergo, Man has power over people of color. Again, a false meme.

The bulk of events and circumstances of Mazower’s book occur comfortably in the past. We can read these events from a hundred years, 200 years, or 500 years ago, with an easy mind. Remember when I said the UN learned some vital lessons from the LoN, especially logistics? In the early 20th century, around the world many, many governments were weak. Pick any non-European country and that county had a weak government. Vietnam, China, nearly all Southeast Asian countries, Southwest Asian countries, African countries, and Central American countries all had very weak governments, with a few exceptions, like Argentina. In the early years of the 20th century, most countries we know of today in the Middle East didn’t exist. The Ottoman Empire ruled the region until about 1918. Turkey didn’t exist, Iraq didn’t exist, and Israel didn’t exist. Iran, or rather Persia, did exist, though.

Fear of Communism gripped the Western World from the late 19th century through most of the 20th century. Only in 1989, with the Fall of the Berlin Wall, did our fear of communism subside. To buttress ourselves against the virus of Communism, our government, and other Western governments made some poor choices. We identified these weak governments, noted above, and knew supporting weak and ineffectual governments was a waste of money. But what organization in these countries new logistics the best? Which organization tended to understand how to move people, freight, supplies, and equipment around efficiently? Answer: the military. Thus, throughout the 20th century, the United States opted not to fund the political branch of governments but the militaries of governments. Now, these well-supplied and well-funded militaries were able to use U.S. funds and resources not to support people, as they were instructed, but to overthrown governments. The rapid fall of governments around the world tend to be directly associated with U.S. support and funding. Iran, Chile, Angola, and Vietnam are a few examples.

I found the book interesting in its dissection of the United Nations. “United Nations” is almost a misnomer, though. Nations united is hardly the truth. First, the United Nations is essentially a loose collection of organizations under one roof. For example, UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization is simply an agency within the United Nations domain. The World Health Organization (WHO)and the World Food Programme (WFP) are both agencies within the United Nations. Many of these agencies are autonomous, work alongside other UN agencies, but typically have administrators appointed by the United States, or through consensus of other member countries.

The United Nations is not precisely a “world government” as many people fear. The United Nations does, however, try to find consensus on issues such as intellectual property, fishing and boating rights, maritime boundaries, and trade concerns. The United Nations has also tried to implement a world court system to affect some rulings in accordance with internationally recognized war crimes and “crimes against humanity.” To create an analogy, for Arkansas to negotiate on its own behalf with China over the price or import/export concerns regarding rice might prove challenging. Arkansas in concert with Missouri, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and California represents a significant trading bloc. Working in partnership against a larger opponent can help provide more bargaining power than working alone. And therein lies the power of the United Nations, to help smaller states (a/k/a countries) leverage themselves against the economic and political behemoths of the United States, China, and Germany.

I had a couple of issues with Mark’s book. Chapter Eleven, “The United States in Opposition,” seemed to be sidebar chapter to explain the political and religious backlash against the United Nations. Mazower references Philip K. Dick, of all people, and his 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (the basis of the movie, Blade Runner), in which the world is a burnt-out industrial husk of its former self. The chapter discusses the rise of Non-governmental Organizations (NGOs), born out feckless government policies and bureaucracies which either promoted industrialization and the pollution of the natural environment or wasted good money on bad ideas. Mazower covers the rise of Green Parties, the banning of CFCs, the popularity and subsequent anxiety brought about by Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb and his prognostication the world would soon be over-run with people, resulting in mass-starvation and global social collapse. Just so many topics introduced; I felt the chapter might have been better as an epilogue, or appendix chapter, as he introduces Chapter 10, “Development as World-making,” followed by Chapter 12, “The Real New International Economic Order.” The spectrum of topics might have imposed another chapter title, “Development as Instigator Of A New World Order,” or some such.

Emblem of the United Nations.(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The other issue I had with Mazower’s book was its entirely Euro-centric perspective. While the greater majority of developments in governance point towards Europe, Europe is not the singular source of international organizations throughout the 20th century and certainly not within the 21 century. If the premise of his book is an examination of governance on a global scale, then the premise falls well short. He completely ignores any of the economic trade blocs developing in the Caribbean or South America. Most Americans are probably not aware the continent of South America is working towards an economic union similar to that of the European Union. By 2020, the possibility exists of a giant trading bloc, UNASUR, representing the 13 countries of South America, will rise and present a new and formidable economic challenge to the United States. Mercosur already exists, an economic and political cooperative agreement between Mexico and a few South American countries. Mazower neglects to mention either UNASUR or Mercosur. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is also never mentioned. ASEAN is, like its Latin American counterpart, a cooperative agreement between Southeast Asian nations to work on matters of economic and political importance.

My first issue with Mazower’s book is merely structural; I thought the information contained in Chapter 11 be presented later, or the chapter retitled to accurately denote the content.

My second issue with Mazower’s book is the book’s premise; while I appreciate the information, history, geography, prose, and all of the referenced content, the book is essentially a history of the rise of the United Nations. The dust jacket will not convey that tidbit, though the cover image sort of alludes to this book including a conversation about the United Nations. If you pick up a copy of the book understand no discussion or content related to other regional or hemisphere governance efforts are presented. Only a Western perspective of governance is addressed. Granted, Western-style governance is of global importance, but my primary contention is that if the book purports to be about global governance then the content must also exemplify the evolution of governance in realms outside the West.

Governing the World would make a great reading assignment for an upper-level undergraduate political science or history course. I think the book should also be read in upper-level economics courses or those seeking a degree in international business, any course whose primary or secondary objective is the exploration of globalization, the impact of foreign policy, or the effects of economic policies. In spite of the limitation noted above, I would recommend the book to anyone wanting a better understanding of the circumstance leading to the creation of the United Nations. The individuals tales, histories, influences, and nuances surrounding the United Nations are fascinating and intriguing.


I’d like to thank Nate Ollie, Melissa Nacinovich, Interesting Literature, and Hockey Liz, for checking out my blog. I know there are millions of choices out there, and thanks for checking out mine. Cheers!

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