'Somewhere between world government and no government', writes Mark Mazower, 'lies a vision of organised cooperation among nations'. He goes on to credit such a vision with the inspiration of the United Nations, the EU, and other multilateral organisations. They all have in common, he asserts, the vision of a better future for mankind, one that promises our collective emancipation.
The declared aim of his book is to explore the historical evolution of such institutions, to show how some of them have shaped realities, and to ask what is left of them today. Thus he embarks on a journey that begins with the Concert of Europe, set up following the 1815 defeat of Napoleon; continues to the League of Nations, established after the First World War; The United Nations, whose genesis began even whilst the Second World War was still being fought; the European Union, begun modestly in 1956 but even then with the definite aim of making war between its founder members unthinkable; and concludes with a discussion of some of the financial, global warming and other problems with which we wrestle today that seem not to be susceptible to effective solution by the international institutions as they are at present constituted.
Mark Mazower is a historian, but his book also has a lot of content relevant to readers whose primary interest is in politics, even economics. In fact, some prior knowledge in all those areas is almost a pre-requisite to reading the book. A huge range of historical figures and events is referred to, usually with half a line of biographical or other information about the more obscure attached, but, if the great majority are entirely new to you, you are likely to find the book hard going.
That being said, for me, an economist with a lifelong interest in European and American history and politics, the book is a major treat.
In essence, it's an extended essay; a romp that takes in two Russian Tsars, Metternich, Woodrow Wilson, Lenin, Stalin, Franklin Roosevelt, Churchill, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Kissinger, and a great many more. The United Nations and its agencies (WHO, ILO, IMF, World Bank, WTO, etc., etc.) take up around half the book. Mazower is not impressed by the showboating that passes for the annual September General Assembly, but has great respect for the work of many of the agencies other than the last three named above. Interestingly, he is cautious of philanthropic foundations such as that of Bill and Melinda Gates that target their own agendas, with little or no reference to established UN agencies already working in the same areas. Pleased as many of us are to see some of the money we pay for Microsoft products (or of which George Soros in 1992 relieved the British Government) go to good causes, Mazower's critique of the philanthropists' activities is worth reading.
By contrast, Mazower is very appreciative of the support that both John D and David Rockefeller have given the UN.
He ends on a note of sadness that the WTO's Doha Round is 'paralysed', the World Bank 'chastened', the IMF 'incapable of helping to rectify the global imbalances that threaten the world economy', and no single agency able to coordinate the response to global warming. No doubt disappointingly for many, he offers no quick fix for the various messes into which we have got ourselves. Instead, he soberly concludes that 'the institutions of governance stand in urgent need of renovation'. Having got that far with him, you are likely to agree, and to be uncomfortably aware of the importance of the word 'urgent' in that sentence.
The book has a detailed index and many notes.