Quibbling with Yascha Mounk on Mark Mazower’s ‘Governing the World’

Writing in from the middle of my second week in the Russian capital, Moscow continues to be everything I expected and wanted from it: bustling and vibrant with energy, full of great archives and interesting interviews, and (perhaps most importantly) site of many delicious Georgian restaurants. The archivists who in some sense control my fate have been generous with their time and handing out the files I need to work with to complete my D.Phil. research, and I feel like I know the city much better than I have during previous visits, when I was just visiting as a tourist or living in über-convenient (but less useful from the point of view of learning the city’s topography) housing with a family blissfully near the center of town. It’s foreign enough to be interesting, big enough to feel like there’s a real world to explore in the next two months, and crucial enough to my work that – important for graduate students – I feel a real urgency to wake up at7 AM, take care of correspondence, get on the Metro, and be standing outside the doors, freezing but caffeinated, when the archives open up.

All that said, in both Moscow as at other stops during this big research trip I’ve made time to keep up with some outside reading. While stationed in Uzbekistan, I was delighted to download to my Kindle the recent Governing the World: The History of an Idea by Mark Mazower, perhaps one of the most creative historians writing today. I had been looking forward to this book for a long time, and not only because there were some overlaps between the Carl Schmitt books that I translated and the bigger story of the history of international governance which Mazower lays out: from his earlier books on Greece and the Balkans to a history of the Nazi Empire focused less on ideology than governance to this, Mazower had already stood out as a sterling historian of the European 20th century, and a fluent writer.

Mazower’s recent book, plus lots of green tea and mutton, is all one really needs to survive – and even thrive – in Uzbekistan

Having finished the book recently, I hope to sit down sometime in the next several days to write a proper review of the book here on my blog – probably over the weekend if I can find the time between something modest to commemorate my birthday and a trip to touristy Sergiev Posad. Yet in the meantime I wanted to comment on one of the first reviews I’ve read of the book, here in last week’s Wall Street Journal and written by Yascha Mounk, a polyglot German-Italian-Jewish scholar who is working on a PhD in Government at Harvard University. (Here’s hoping I can wrangle Mr. Mounk onto the podcast once we’re both in the same place.)

Most of Yascha’s review is workmanlike and sketches the big outlines of Governing the World efficiently in the limited space accorded to the book reviewer. Yet I wanted to comment on Mounk’s – in my mind – misreading of Mazower’s argument regarding the so-called ‘Responsibility to Protect‘ (R2P), the idea popular in international law circles and the UN that makes two claims: one, that state sovereignty is not absolute but rather based on governments’ living up to certain basic responsibilities to their citizens, including protecting them from physical violence and not making them the targets of such violence; and two, that ‘the international community’ (through the institution of the United Nations) has the responsibility itself to protect the populations of states that violate the first norm. This might take the form of sanctions, UN peacekeepers, or even direct military intervention or regime change, but the core idea is that there exists an internationally-acceptable objective standard to judge when internal conditions have deteriorated to the extent that an intervention is warranted.

Yet looking back in recent history, Mazower is skeptical of such a norm. He notes that ever since the idea of international concerns really took root – the late 19th century – states have found creative standards of ‘civilization’ and ‘humanitarian interest’ to stage interventions that were in brute national interest. R2P, writes Mazower,

R2P looks like nothing so much as the return of the civilizing mission and the “humanitarian” interventions of previous centuries— from Britain’s use of abolitionism to legitimize its aggressive policing of the high seas to Fascist Italy’s cynical rationalization of its invasion of Ethiopia in 1935 as an intervention in the name of civilization to suppress the slave trade. Before 1914, Balkan insurgents appealed regularly to the West’s humanitarian sympathies to help them throw off the Ottoman yoke much as the Kosovo Liberation Army enlisted NATO to get rid of rule from Belgrade.

Back in the pages of the Wall Street Journal, Mounk is unconvinced. He describes what he situates as a comparison between the 2011 Libya campaign and Fascist Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia as an ‘extreme comparison,’ and argues that

though supposedly universalist norms have often been invoked in bad faith, it is not always impossible to distinguish just from unjust laws, or to extract colonialism from humanitarian intervention. Unless we resign ourselves to total moral relativism, there is little alternative to striving for relations between states that are governed by universal rules.

In other words, if we buy Mazower’s argument, we run the risk (particularly from the point of view of Washington) that we will slip into a nihilist morass. The rebels at Benghazi would have been slaughtered, one suspects, and the frustration over the lack of any serious action, whether by the United States, the Europeans, Turkey, or Arab League countries to stop the atrocities in Syria – a process potentially complicated by the presence of Russian and Chinese vetoes on the UN Security Council – also underscores how what Mounk describes as a ‘self-satisfied way to shove aside our moral duty to prevent genocide’ can lead to outcomes abroad that may contradict Americans’ intuitions about what the right thing to do is.

‘Universalism’ in 2011: color-coded map of the countries (blue) which enforced the no-fly zone in Libya (green).

Fair enough, but I don’t think that Mounk is fulling appreciating the argument that Mazower lays out in the book, or the possible long-term consequences of the enthusiasm for intervention that he seems to be arguing for. The critics of ‘universalism’-driven interventions whom Mazower is channeling in this section of Governing the World, like Schmitt, were far from moral relativists. Far from po-mo professors in literature departments who have read too much Derrida, the most hard-hitting critiques of ‘universalism’ were conservative interwar right-wing intellectuals like Schmitt. While the German professor moderated some of his public positions after the collapse of the Third Reich, making clear that the crimes against the Jews had to be condemned in the strictest possible way, Schmitt’s works in the 1930s and 1940s, like the bizarre treatise Land and Sea, make clear that he opposed Anglo-American and Bolshevik universalism not just out of postmodern nihilism but because of an antipathy towards universalist ideologies, whether in the form of Stalinist Bolshevism or Anglo-American liberalism.

As a result, what critics of R2P and universalism are all about is not the relativism that Mounk focuses on, but rather the extent to which they – rather than the building block of a stable international order – eat like acid through any such putative foundations. R2P or universalist interventions lead by an ‘international community’ composed primarily of NATO powers, as in the case of Libya, might look great when they go well at first, and who could argue with the idea of an International Criminal Court at first glance? Yet these institutions of international law often look to citizens of post-colonial states as nothing more than an example of plus ça change – to date the ICC has only indicted Africans – or threaten to lead to never-ending partisan campaigns to achieve ‘justice’ that countries like Russia and China are ill at ease with. Leaders and policymakers in these countries, moreover, are keen to appropriate the language of humanitarianism to justify their own adventures into places like Abkhazia, South Ossetia (breakaway regions of the South Caucasus which Georgia claims as its own but claim to be independent themselves) on similar ‘humanitarian’ grounds to the ones that Washington, London, or Paris claims when it intervenes in the Balkans, Iraq, or Libya. As Mazower concludes,

The objections other states mounted to the idea of R2P could be seen to reflect not a love for autocracy and dictatorship or indifference to the rights of the individual but rather the fact that, as Deng Xiaoping said of the Chinese to U.S. national security adviser Brent Scowcroft in 1989, they have long and bitter memories of earlier Western interference in their internal affairs and see the use of force for humanitarian ends as inherently uncontrollable and open-ended.

The exchange between Mounk and Mazower forms a lively exchange that could not be more timely as this year’s Presidential candidates spare off shortly on topics of foreign policy. While your humble narrator’s head might explode if either Barack Obama or Mitt Romney mentions Governing the World or the review, the issues that the two historians are sparing over indirectly in this book – review exchange forms the outline of a debate that needs to have its details filled in the next several years regardless of who wins the election. On the one hand, the United States has legitimate security interests around the globe, whether in Abbottabad, Yemen, or – most recently and tragically – Libya.

‘Universalism’ Part II: the states in green – basically Europe, Japan, Latin America, and Sub-Saharan Africa – that are states-party to the ICC is hardly all of the world, and though some countries (in orange) have signed on to parts of the ICC, it’s no wonder that the Africans indicted by the Court feel hoodwinked


Yet beyond the sheer logistical and financial drain of a never-ending series of drone strikes or, more ambitiously, air campaigns in countries of which Americans know little, the global crusade that Schmitt, Deng, and Mazower fear also incurs a bigger drag on building a new global security architecture insofar as these ad hoc interventions make it difficult to create the ‘new world order‘ that Mazower begins his book with, and which perhaps our last President who had a grand strategy, George H.W. Bush, was partly attempting to do in assembling a truly international coalition to eject Iraq from Kuwait in 1991. Attempts at creating actual consensus between nations as different as the USA, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Germany, and – elusively but necessarily – Russia and China may take a hell of a lot longer than a 30-year program of drone strikes, and, worse, can result in episodes like what is going on in Syria today. Still, if the long-term ability of the United States and European allies to intervene effectively militarily (not the same thing as long-term economic decline or malaise), finding ways to build actual coalitions and security architectures that can perhaps even promote US interests without American resources having to actually be committed on the ground is the worthy task which the short-term universalist crusade may stymie.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s