The Rise and Fall of Internationalism

Mary Nolan

On February 5, 2003, US Secretary of State Colin Powell insisted to the UN Security Council that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and that the UN must issue an ultimatum for Saddam Hussein to disarm or face attack. UN Chief Weapons Inspector Hans Blix countered that there was no smoking gun. After weeks of tense Security Council debates and backroom lobbying, the US failed to persuade even its closest allies, except Britain, that war was justified and necessary. On March 20, however, the US invaded Iraq with a small “coalition of the willing” and without UN approval.

This was the most infamous and consequential incidence of America’s willingness to act outside of or against decisions of the Security Council and General Assembly, but not the only one. The US has found itself in conflict with the UN—as well as with countries in Europe and the global South—around militarized humanitarian intervention in places such as Bosnia, Rwanda, Darfur, Libya, and, today, Syria. And with increasing regularity, the US has refused to ratify key UN treaties such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, and the convention banning land mines. The US, the key force behind the founding of the UN in 1945, has increasingly turned its back on the idea of internationalism and the institutions and norms that attempt—however incompletely and problematically—to embody it. In the post–Cold War world, many politicians, pundits, and policy analysts in the US and abroad dismiss the idea of a cooperative governing of the world as utopian, even as many others inside the UN and in NGOs work to realize aspects of internationalist projects.

Military personnel of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon on patrol in an armored personnel carrier, July 7, 2007. UN Photo / Jorge Aramburu

Mark Mazower puts America’s disenchantment with internationalism, as well as with contemporary multinational controversies about global governance, international norms, and enforcement mechanisms, in the context of the two-century rise and decline of internationalist visions and experiments. Such visions promoted global governance in the name of solidarity, material progress, and peace—at least as imagined by Europeans and Americans. His ambitious and provocative account of the values, institutions, laws, and policies that claimed to be international begins with the Concert of Europe, the conservative alliance of monarchs that sought to stabilize Europe in the first half of the 19th century, and concludes with the current crisis of the European Union. The EU, Mazower argues, embodies all that is wrong with current international institutions: they are hollowed out, dominated by experts, undemocratic, and encourage not international solidarity but individualistic consumerism, political alienation, and passivity. A quarter century of both humanitarian interventions and failures to intervene has shown that such institutions have become a means for the US to assert power and protect national or regional interests, not to effect peace. A proponent of progressive internationalism, Mazower decries this perversion of internationalist values and institutions. Governing the World is an important book, if a deeply pessimistic one.

Mazower reconstructs the conditions of possibility for imagining the world as connected and governable, analyzes the multiple forms such visions took, and explains the 20th-century failures of the international laws and institutions that were built from these materials. The book moves effortlessly back and forth across the Atlantic, tracing the circulation of internationalist discourses and policies and the shifting of power relations. Voices outside Europe and America—those who were on the receiving end of these internationalist values, programs, and institutions—get less air time, because, he claims, internationalism was first and foremost a Euro-American project.

Internationalism was a gift the West promised to give the rest, and, like all gifts, created dependencies and inequalities.

Internationalism certainly began there. The term international was coined by Jeremy Bentham in his 1780 Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation: “The word international, it must be acknowledged, is a new one; though it is hoped, sufficiently analogous and intelligible.” For Bentham, international was a legal category; it gestured toward a new law of nations, based on reason and utility. The term caught on not only in Britain but on the continent as well, becoming an “ism” by mid-century. But as Mazower shows in fascinating detail, Bentham’s legalistic definition of internationalism was only one among many competing versions. Some looked to religion, others nationalism, and still others law or science for the foundation of what Mazower describes as “the idea that the ‘international’ constitutes a separate zone of political life with its own rules, norms, and institutions … in some sense governable, and governable not by God, nor through nature, but by men” (italics in original). All 19th-century proponents of internationalism, however defined, had to grapple with whether it was to be achieved through moral transformation, new legal regimes, or politics; whether it was a project of elites or of the masses; and whether it should aim for what seemed possible or for the maximum desirable. Of equal importance was the question of how internationalism related to nationalism and the nation-states that were proliferating. Most intractable was the issue of how an internationalism purportedly based on peace, solidarity, and material progress could deal with empire, which increasingly took colonial forms in the mid- and late 19th century. Internationalism was a project of the developed North Atlantic world, and it was, perhaps inevitably, from its beginnings thoroughly imbued with racism, paternalism, and an inability to imagine that those outside this hegemonic region would be genuinely equal participants in global governance. Internationalism was a gift the West promised to give the rest, and, like all gifts, created dependencies and inequalities. This was as true of religious and nationalist internationalisms as it was of scientific, socialist, and free trade versions.

Nineteenth-century Europeans and Americans could conceive an interconnected world because, in their time, capitalism, colonialism, migration, and technologies ranging from steamships to the telegraph created both real and imagined global interconnections. So too did the work of missionaries and scientists, the writings of global travelers, and fictional depictions of the future—usually as prosperous, peaceful, and technologically advanced, but sometimes, as with The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, as dangerous and dystopic. Yet there was little in common among the various global orders that 19th-century Europeans—mainly Brits—and Americans conjured and desired.

Evangelical Christian pacifists were the first internationalist activists. Coming out of the anti-slavery movement, they held conferences throughout the 1840s, culminating in the 1851 London Peace Congress. These “international” meetings in fact brought together only peace proponents from the US and Western Europe, a harbinger of 20th-century international organizations that were initially exclusively Western and later, despite their broader membership, dominated by the West. War was condemned, disarmament demanded, and colonialism denounced, but the various meetings refused to endorse any interventions to promote that platform. Both the Crimean War and the American Civil War, which divided Christian peace activists, spelled the demise of that variety of internationalism. Thereafter, efforts to regulate the conduct of war through international conventions took precedence over more far-reaching aspirations for peace and disarmament.

the free trade movement saw the market as the natural harmonizer of economic and political interests, the maximizer of individual and societal well-being, and a guarantor of peace.

More successful and radical, Mazower argues, was Richard Cobden’s free trade movement. For Cobden and his fellow radicals, free trade was integral to and a prerequisite for a broad program of domestic political reform and harmonious international relations. Capitalism would be conducive to global peace and cooperation if only tariffs were reduced, trade increased, and democratization of at least a modest sort introduced. As with today’s neoliberals, the market was seen as the natural harmonizer of economic and political interests, the maximizer of individual and societal well-being, and a guarantor of peace. These expectations were not realized. As Mazower notes, proponents of free trade adopted imperial policies, and “the door into other people’s economies was soon being forced open by British diplomats, backed by gunboats, everywhere from West Africa to Istanbul and Peking.” American proponents of free trade behaved similarly toward Central America and China from the late 19th century on. But the internationalism of free trade failed for another reason, of which Mazower makes too little. Free trade works very much in the interests of the hegemonic capitalist power, which Britain was throughout the 19th century and the United States became after 1945; but for those less politically powerful or economically developed, those trying to industrialize or build welfare states, free trade has been disruptive, even destructive. While Britain nudged France toward free trade with the Cobden-Chevalier treaty of 1860, and Germany lowered but did not eliminate tariffs once its industrialization was well underway, both nations and many others quickly raised tariffs again in the wake of the first Great Depression, which began in 1873 and continued in ups and downs until the mid-1890s. Free trade was a luxury only Britain could afford in the 19th century and the US in the late 20th and early 21st.

A Victorian debate about internationalism that persisted with permutations through the end of the Cold War, Mazower argues, was that between the Italian politician Giuseppe Mazzini (1805–1872) and Karl Marx. Mazzini, as ardent an internationalist as he was an Italian nationalist, envisioned an internationalism that worked through nationalism and built on the nation-state. National identities and transnational solidarities were seen as mutually reinforcing. Marx advocated a vision of internationalism that transcended national identities and institutions and built on class solidarities while rejecting nationalist ones. Their visions conflicted over the drafting of the platform for the First International Working Men’s Association in 1864, with Marx’s language displacing that of Mazzini’s supporters, and over the Paris Commune, which Marx applauded and Mazzini condemned. For Mazzini, “the only rational method of organization among the working classes of Europe would be one which would recognize the sacredness of Nationality.” It was an idea that would resurface in Woodrow Wilson’s ideological battles with Lenin and in the competing US and Soviet policies toward decolonization and Third World modernization during the Cold War. And, of course, the nation-state was the building block of both the League of Nations and the UN.

Portrait of Giuseppe Mazzini by Domenico Lama

Mazower sides with Mazzini in this debate, concluding his book by arguing, “the fundamental 19th-century insight that effective internationalism rests on effective nationalism remains pertinent.” At first glance it is counterintuitive, especially for a historian of 20th-century Europe, to posit the mutually reinforcing character of nationalism and internationalism. With more reflection it seems at least possible, but only if the meaning of effective nationalism as well as the context in which it operates are spelled out rather more clearly. Since nationalism has proven compatible with a variety of political ideologies from liberalism through fascism and communism to Third World liberation, we need to know much more about how each form of nationalism has figured the relationship between the desired global order and the claims of the nation. Take the US today, where nationalism fuels unilateralism or, at most, tactical multilateralism and instrumental internationalism. Or the EU, where national identities remain robust while European ones are thin, a situation workable in times of prosperity, but corrosive in times of crisis like the present. Mazower is right to criticize the international human rights movement for demonizing the state as tyrannical and mobilizing global civil society—whatever that might actually mean—against it. That prescription is too simplistic and ignores the many functions states can and often do perform for their citizens. The lesson to learn from the 19th-century internationalists, he argues, is not to create a lean and mean state to replace either repressive or rogue or failed ones. Rather, it should be to examine how those various internationalisms sought “to restore sovereign power to the peoples of the world, and those who governed in their names,” and to do so by creating sovereign national polities.

Other forms of 19th-century internationalism were less ideological and political, or rather their ideology valorized the professional and the scientist over the politician; ostensibly nonpartisan and scientific expertise over biased politics. Most visible, but not terribly effective, were the Geneva and Hague Conventions. International lawyers sought to humanize battle, prescribe treatment for prisoners of war, and protect civilians by codifying the laws of war. But, as Mazower emphasizes, not everyone was included in this supposedly international “empire of law.” Only the belligerents and populations of “civilized nations”—Europeans, North Americans, and white settler colonials—enjoyed the (admittedly ambiguous and unenforceable) protection of these conventions. Europeans debated whether those deemed “barbaric” like China and the Ottoman Empire might be included before deciding in the negative, while those categorized as “savage”—all of Africa—were excluded from the beginning. Legal internationalism thus underwrote imperialism and excused the extreme brutality of colonial wars. A related strand of internationalism, led by the Englishman William Randal Cremer, sought to regulate conflicts by arbitration rather than international law. Although it won some support on both sides of the Atlantic, it lost favor by the 1920s because it only proved suitable for resolving relatively minor international disputes. More importantly, both international arbitration and international law required support from powerful states, and most were unwilling to accept any limitations on national sovereignty.

Only after 1945, Mazower argues, would the US accept international law, for its hegemonic military, economic, and political position made it “possible to reconcile American universalism and American exceptionalism.” And that, as he shows, only if the US could get its way in and through international institutions. When, after the 1970s and even more so after the 1990s, America could not, it exempted itself from various international conventions and treaties and refused to join the International Criminal Court. Efforts to regulate the conduct of war continue; recent international treaties, for example, have outlawed the use of certain weapons, such as land mines and cluster bombs. But their pervasive use continues in both international and civil wars, and new weapons like drones pose new challenges about what is legal and what impermissible.

Despite an inability to address the larger goals of many 19th-century internationalists, such as peace, the practical internationalism of scientists, statisticians, and public administrators produced lasting achievements.

Scientists and social scientists from Saint-Simon and Auguste Comte on sought to promote international cooperation and shared knowledge. While their more utopian social engineering projects came to naught, efforts to collect statistics and develop a scientific approach to public administration had more lasting impact. They encouraged the development of international standards for everything from currency (think: the gold standard) to telegraph networks to weights and measures. There were even attempts to invent a universal language, but as with so many internationalist projects, a commitment to abstract universalism fell prey to particularistic differences, in this case the battle between the well-known Esperanto and the ostensibly improved alternative, Ido. Notwithstanding this failure, and despite an inability to address the larger goals of many 19th-century internationalists, such as peace, the practical internationalism of scientists, statisticians, and public administrators produced lasting achievements. This was also to be true of the practical internationalism of organizations associated with the League of Nations and the UN, such as the International Labor Organization and the World Health Organization.

The 20th century was the age of international institutions of all sorts, an era when internationalism was built on nationalism and nation-states, even as it was done in an uneven and conflict-ridden manner. It was a time when internationalists experimented with redefining the relationship to empire and its end, or at least to its dramatic reconfiguration. Here Mazower’s focus narrows to the US, the League of Nations, and the United Nations, foregoing the complexity and conflict in ideas that he wove for the 19th century. Nevertheless, there is much to learn from Mazower’s discussion. Building on his earlier study, No Enchanted Palace, Mazower argues that the League, which was modeled on the British Empire, was a bridge between the 19th-century imperial world and that of 20th-century nation-states. Woodrow Wilson and the South African Jan Smuts were its key architects. Although the League in Mazower’s words was “gesturing to a globalism, a move beyond the conventional boundaries of a Eurocentric world,” that gesture was feeble indeed. Representatives from Asia who sought a hearing at the founding conference were rebuffed, and colonialism was discussed only in terms of turning the colonies of defeated Germany and the Ottoman Empire into League of Nations mandates, supervised by the two largest colonial empires, Britain and France. Although the League failed diplomatically and politically, as the 1930s painfully showed, it was “a source of expertise and international action,” one built on bureaucracy, science, and technology. Here lay one source of its enduring influence: many of this first generation of international civil servants were to move to the US during World War II, and would serve the fledgling UN thereafter. The other source of League importance, Mazower insists, was its flexibility as a model of international governance: “the League was the first body to marry the democratic idea of a society of nations with the reality of Great Power hegemony.”

Members of the commission of the League of Nations, Plenary Session of the Preliminary Peace Conference, Paris, France 1919

In this more nuanced and positive assessment, Mazower contributes to a broader effort to revise the dominant and disdainful dismissal of that institution. But the League’s failure to promote disarmament, to protect populations in mandates from aerial bombardment, or to stop Italy’s brutal invasion of Ethiopia should not be forgotten. The League may have seen its internationalism as the civilizer of empire, but Syrians and Iraqis, among others, did not. Like its predecessor, the UN treated the Third World, whether colonized or newly liberated, unequally, especially in its early years; it tolerated economic, political, and military interventions there that it would not in Europe or the Americas.

Mazower narrates the well-known story of the founding of the UN and the wartime debates about membership, function, enforcement mechanisms, and the veto for the Great Powers. He concludes that the UN looked remarkably like the League and combined “the scientific technocracy of the New Deal with the flexibility and power-political reach of the 19th-century European alliance system.” It addressed the colonial question and human rights at the founding meeting in San Francisco only under pressure from countries outside Europe or the US.

While the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Genocide Convention of 1948—as well as the two-decades-long debate about the formulation of the Covenant regarding Civil and Political Rights and that on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights—dominate the historiography on human rights, they feature only marginally in Governing the World. Mazower’s interest lies, ultimately, in why and how the US came to work through international institutions in the first postwar decades, when both politicians and the public had earlier been loath to do so. He contrasts that with America’s later disillusionment with the UN and its selective multilateralism and growing unilateralism. But he may well exaggerate both faith in the UN and American willingness to cooperate internationally. As he admits, the US insisted on acting unilaterally in Europe from the 1947 Truman Doctrine and 1948 Marshall Plan onward. (Latin America was, of course, still under the Monroe Doctrine and considered off-limits to international or other-national interference.) The rapidly growing American empire of bases around the world suggests how much the US wanted to constrain the power of international institutions or circumvent them. By the 1950s, Hans Morgenthau’s international relations realism had replaced residual internationalism. The best that could be hoped for, Mazower suggests, was the kind of “instrumental internationalism” that Dean Rusk argued for—that is, if international institutions did what the US wanted, the US would cooperate; if not, not.

Despite US domination of the UN political agenda in the first Cold War decades, and its hegemonic position within global development programs and in UN agencies like the Food and Agricultural Organization and the World Health Organization, by the 1970s America turned against its once pliable partner. The logic of building the UN around nation-states had come to work against American and (to a lesser extent) European interests, for with decolonization the membership of the General Assembly grew dramatically. By this time, there was an African and Asian majority. Far from enhancing the power of the UN, however, this doomed first the General Assembly and then the UN as a whole to “irrelevance,” at least in the eyes of Americans.

By the 1980s, the US was finding the IMF to be the most useful international institution to promote its growing interest in trade liberalization, global financialization, and the imposition of harsh conditionalities on states across Latin America and Asia.

The resulting controversies between the US and the UN centered, as Mazower shows, around decolonization and race on the one hand, and economics on the other. While the Soviet Union had used the veto frequently in the 1950s and 1960s, the US first deployed it in the 1970s, against a resolution condemning illegal white rule in Rhodesia, and resorted to it with increasing frequency thereafter, especially for resolutions critical of Israel. Economic policy proved equally divisive. In the mid-1970s, the coalition of developing nations known as the G-77, supported by the UN Conference on Trade and Development, presented the General Assembly with a proposal for a New International Economic Order (NIEO), which would redistribute economic resources and economic decision-making power on both the national and international levels in favor of the global South. We learn all too little about this alternative vision of internationalism (just as we did about that of the non-aligned movement of the 1950s) or about the complex European attitudes toward it, some of which were favorable. Mazower is more focused on exploring the hostile US reaction. US representative to the UN Daniel Patrick Moynihan championed liberty over visions of equality, flatly rejected the NIEO, and instead promoted a human rights agenda, centering on individual civil and political rights rather than collective economic and social ones. Thereafter, the US increasingly turned away from the UN, experimenting with alternative institutional forms of internationalism. In the 1970s, the Trilateral Commission of the US, Western Europe, and Japan, which laid the basis for the G-7, was the most important. By the 1980s, the US was finding the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to be the most useful international institution to promote its growing interest in trade liberalization, global financialization, and the imposition of harsh conditionalities on states across Latin America and Asia. (Africa was spared by being marginal to the global economy.) It also encouraged the growth of NGOs to deal with development, education, health, and human rights, and subsidized GONGOs—government organized NGOs, like the National Endowment for Democracy.

Giving up on the UN did not mean that the US abandoned intervention or its perceived entitlement to do so. Here, as Mazower shows, national and international interests worked in tandem. By the 1990s, the UN argued for “adjustment with a human face” and called for renewed attention to development. Both the UN and the World Bank spoke of the need to involve not only the UN and national governments but also NGOs and business in improving governance in developing countries, often by far-reaching interventions in them.

In the process of sanctioning interventions such as those in Somalia or Kosovo, and in adopting the 2005 norm of Responsibility to Protect, the UN fundamentally redefined sovereignty.

More importantly, in the post–Cold War world the US and regional organizations like the EU, on the one hand, and international ones, on the other, increasingly embraced so-called humanitarian interventions (i.e., military incursions to protect civilians and preempt or stop crimes against humanity and genocide). In the process of sanctioning interventions such as those in Somalia or Kosovo, and in adopting the 2005 norm of Responsibility to Protect, the UN fundamentally redefined sovereignty. Reversing the practice of the UN in its first decades, priority was now given to protecting not only individuals but also entire populations against their governments—or at least some governments, those deemed by the US and its allies to lack full sovereignty or to fail to meet the responsibilities of sovereignty. It was, Mazower argues, “the most ambitious attempt since the Second World War to restore a language of morality to international relations; but it was for precisely this reason that it showed the real limits and indeed the dangers—ethical, political, and practical—of such a venture.”

The US has taken repeated advantage of this expanded license to intervene. This leads Mazower to fear that “a world in which violations of human rights trump the sanctity of borders” may create “more wars, more massacres, and more instability. It may also be less law-abiding.” This is an uncomfortable conclusion for those who believe that morality should take priority over political calculations and that the US has a right and a duty to intervene on behalf of freedom, human rights, and, of course, free enterprise, wherever and whenever it sees fit. That is the essence of American internationalism and has been since the late 19th century, despite the many changes in internationalist ideologies and institutions. Whether it will lead us into Syria and another Middle East quagmire remains an open question.

Mazower concludes by lamenting that “the idea of governing the world is becoming yesterday’s dream.” Given the forms of misgovernment that his concluding chapters describe, this might be a good thing. But he may overstate the absence of global visions. Nightmarish ones still exist. The financial masters of the universe and the politicians allied with them continue to promote a neoliberal version of internationalism, governed by markets, undemocratic institutions, and selected elites.

Are there any alternatives to these dismal varieties of internationalism? Those unwilling to abandon the idea and practice of internationalism will need to study the pasts ignored by Mazower as well as the present. There were internationalist visions of the future other than the Euro-American ones Mazower privileges. Manu Goswami has recovered the colonial internationalism of interwar South Asian intellectuals and political activists, one which made egalitarianism central. Others have looked at Latin American contributions to rights discourse before and after the UN’s founding. Still others have examined the internationalist visions emerging from Bandung and the Black internationalism that circulated around the Atlantic world in the post–World War II decades. These should not be dismissed as marginal voices; they were part of a 20th-century debate about governing the world that extended beyond the North Atlantic. They should be recuperated not only to write a more complex history but also to construct a more progressive internationalism. In the present, China has become a major global actor, intervening economically across Africa and Latin America. Still unknown is whether its projects and their underlying aims replicate Euro-American practices or present a different model. The various national and international movements against the World Trade Organization and against austerity—which are by no means restricted to the US and Europe—have an inchoate vision of a new global order and of the means to implement it. Yet this may offer a way to rethink the relationship of the local, the national, and the global in ways that will promote both peace and social justice.