The United Nations and the idea of internationalism have, in recent years, become subjects of serious debate. How tenable is the idea of an international peace-keeping body in an increasingly polarized and fragmented world? How relevant is the United Nations in an era in which genocide and other abuses are rampant? Has the United Nations become an instrument for the Security Council (US, UK, France, Russia, China) to exercise their influence in the world and maintain their hegemony? Why should ultimate authority and the right to veto resolutions rest in the hands of a select few? Many have even argued that the UN, dominated as it is by Great Power interests, is hardly representative of the concerns of the General Assembly of Nations (the overwhelming majority of which are Third World countries) and that the absence of an effective enforcement mechanism has made it a counter-productive force in world politics. Regardless of which position one takes or their view on the United Nations, the debate is framed in strictly modern terms, focusing largely on the question of reform rather than reconceptualizing the dominant paradigm. In doing so, the debate takes for granted many of the institutional and ideological facets of internationalism. Indeed, many scholars–on various sides of the debate–have left the idea of internationalism, and its historical foundations, unquestioned. It is as if internationalism, institutionalized in an international organization, is merely the product of the natural progression of human history, untainted by specific historical and ideological factors.
Mark Mazower, in his book No Enchanted Palace: The End of Empire and the Ideological Origins of the United Nations (Princeton University Press, 2009), makes uncovering the ideological origins of the United Nations and the idea of internationalism itself his primary concern. The work is a magnificent accomplishment and very timely. As a distinguished historian of 20th-century Europe, Mazower is well-placed to analyze the diplomatic, intellectual, and political trends in (Western) Europe and the British Empire which led to the rise of internationalism. Many will find his analyses and conclusions especially troubling. Mazower strongly and effectively argues in favor of the notion that the UN, as an ideological and institutional successor of the League of Nations, owes much of its origins to European imperialism. This deep-rooted liberal imperialism, he notes, sought to remake the world in its image and maintain the dominance of the self-proclaimed “white race” (read: Euro-American) over the “black, red, yellow, and brown races” (read: everyone else!) of the globe. Moreover, as Mazower demonstrates, this imperialism was refashioned in the inter-war period into an ideal of “internationalism,” which, among other things, sought to proliferate liberalism (firmly rooted in democratic ideals and Christian ethics) globally, freeze the international political status quo, and suppress the aspirations of the indigenous people of the world by legitimizing their domination and marginalization by the traditionally dominant powers of the world (namely the British).
Mazower thus asserts that the institution of the United Nations, like its League of Nations predecessor, merely sought to ensure and legitimize the domination of the world by European liberal imperialism. Nowhere in the origins of the United Nations, he emphasizes, does one find a concern for indigenous peoples, their aspirations, or their rights. Even the principle of national self-determination was intended above all for European peoples. There was no possibility for “Oriental” and “African” peoples, on the other hand, to exercise this right. They would simply need to be placed under mandates and/or trusteeships until they were instructed by “civilized nations” in the craft of “enlightened government.” For the modern observer, however, this is very troubling. Surely, the ideological and institutional origins of the United Nations, an organization based on such sublime and lofty ideals as “world peace” (read: maintaining the status quo) and “human rights” (read: European Christian values) do not lie in such imperial and racist notions as the mission civilisatrice ? Surely, one may assert, the idea of internationalism is not the brainchild of such ideologues as Jan Smuts (architect of South African apartheid), Winston Churchill (ardent proponent of the British Empire), Joseph Schetmann (Revisionist Zionist in favor of ethnic cleansing in Europe and the Middle East) and Alfred Zimmern (defender of liberal imperialism), figures who sought to preserve the status quo of Western European (“white”) hegemony around the globe? In fact, this is precisely the well-supported and compelling conclusion which Mazower arrives at. More troubling still is his demonstration that this imperial-internationalism was undertaken consciously and overtly, and was in some cases so explicit that many contemporary observers commented on the sheer hypocrisy of the project, especially in light of the struggle against Nazi fascism in Europe. To cite one example, Mazower quotes the American intellectual W.E.B. Du Bois criticizing the basis and motivation of the new internationalism:
We have conquered Germany…but not their ideas. We still believe in white supremacy, keeping Negroes in their place and lying about democracy when we mean imperial control of 750 millions of human beings in colonies
Although Mazower is not a complete cynic, he does believe that the “original sin” of internationalism and the United Nations needs to be acknowledged and amended before any meaningful reform of the organization can be undertaken. In the meantime, as Mazower reminds us, we have a lot to think about, since the convergence of imperialism and internationalism remains a reality even in an allegedly post-imperial world.
I recommend this book in particular to those whose confidence in the international system remains absolutely unshaken, because it will definitely challenge your views and invite you to look at things in new ways. I also hope students of modern history, politics, and international relations would be able to give it a read as it would help frame many of the problems we all deal with in our own work.