Reading Mark Mazower is like being lectured by the best left-wing lecturer you'll ever have: he is brilliant but tiresome
Mark Mazower is a British historian who teaches in America. He is the Ira D. Wallach Professor of World Order Studies, as well as a professor of history, at Columbia University. That first title is almost startling. He is a specialist in Greece and Balkan states farther north. His current book is Governing the World: The History of an Idea. Here is a history of internationalism, in short (though the book is long).
Mazower is a man of immense erudition, a real scholar. He has read a vast amount, including science fiction. “You can learn a lot from Lydia,” sang Groucho Marx. You can learn a lot from Mazower too. His book is stuffed with facts and quotations. I was interested to know that David Dudley Field, the American jurist, was the brother of Cyrus Field, who laid telegraph cable across the Atlantic. I was also interested to know what a Frenchman said in Andrei Gromyko’s suite at the Park Lane Hotel, when they were discussing the location of the new United Nations: “If the seat is in the New World, it is the end of Europe.”
Furthermore, Mazower can write engagingly, as when he sets a scene: “On January 16, 1920, as the midmorning sun shone off the Seine into the Clock Room of the Quai d’Orsay, the new League of Nations held its first council meeting.”
If you’re going to read Mazower, though, you will have to put up with his biases. I suppose that is true of most books and their authors. Governing the World, at heart, is a history of the United States on the world scene, and an indictment of the United States. In Mazower’s eyes, the US is almost always ill motivated, without a speck of idealism or goodwill. To give a mild example, he says that Elihu Root, secretary of state under Theodore Roosevelt and, like Roosevelt, a Nobel peace laureate, “believed in arbitration as a means of developing the Great Power status of the United States”. Perhaps, but Root, a man of considerable humanity, also believed in preventing war.
In this book, Truman, Eisenhower, and other US presidents come in for worse treatment than Stalin. Che Guevara is treated neutrally or approvingly; John Bolton, hostilely. Is that because the author takes for granted the superiority of democrats over Communists? I would like to think so, but am afraid not. For Mazower, the opposite of Communism is never “democracy” or “freedom,” but “capitalism”. With no detectable irony, he speaks of “the interests of progress rather than reaction”. His language can turn nasty, as when he labels an Indian delegate a “British-appointed stooge”. His language can be snotty, as when he says that Teddy Roosevelt was known for “his gung-ho foreign policy toward lesser breeds”.
When it comes to political designations, his language can be utterly bewildering. For example, W.E.B. Du Bois is to be counted among the “most liberal and progressive thinkers of his era”. In truth, Du Bois loved Stalin as much as anyone ever did, very much including Mrs Stalin. Mazower also says that “27 of the original 51 members of the UN had once been colonies, and others were East European People’s Democracies with no liking for empire”. I detect no irony in “People’s Democracies” — and they were certainly part of an empire, and a supremely brutal one at that.
Mazower tells us that Marx respected Randal Cremer, the British trade union leader, pacifist, and Liberal parliamentarian. (Also a Nobel peace laureate.) He does not tell us why Cremer quit the International Workingmen’s Association. Marx and his crew, said Cremer, “cared more for their isms than for the cause of real progress”. To hear Mazower tell it, the Soviet Union participated constructively in the Genoa Conference of 1922. He portrays the foreign affairs commissar, Georgy Chicherin, in an especially positive light. You would never know that Lenin’s purpose in participating in the conference was to wreck it. He cabled Chicherin, “The fool Henderson & Co. will help us a lot if we cleverly prod them.” “The fool Henderson” was Arthur Henderson, the British Labourite and fellow-traveller who would become foreign secretary and then a Nobel peace laureate.
Mazower is capable of the kind of generalising he would slam if it came from a conservative. For example, the Crimean War “revived the always latent belligerence of the British against the Russians”. He speaks of racism against the Japanese, but never of Japan’s own world champion racism. He condemns the colonialists in Africa, but has little to say about the butchers who succeeded them in power.
In the Cold War, you can be sure that America wears the black hat. The Truman Doctrine was an expression of “militarism”. The Marshall Plan was basically a gambit, not an example of large-scale beneficence. Nixon, as a congressman, was just a “red-baiter”, never mind that he was right about Hiss and Chambers. The likes of E.H. Carr were wise, but James Burnham wrote with “violence and crudity”. (If Mazower had known Burnham, he would have found an erudition and scholarly excellence at least the equal of his own.)
The Green Revolution, like the Marshall Plan, was basically a Cold War gambit. Did men such as Norman Borlaug (another Nobel peace laureate) feed millions upon millions of starving? Forget that. Moving on to Vietnam, the Americans committed “war crimes” there. The Communists, during the war and after, committed no crimes, apparently. Reagan abetted human rights abuses in Latin America, rather than the democratisation of that region. He withdrew the US from Unesco, but why? Because the organisation was appallingly corrupt and needed to be pressured to reform? No, for bad reasons, evidently. Republicans in Congress withheld funds from the United Nations. To force reform? No, out of ignorant insularity.
In one of the oddest passages of his book, Mazower appears to blame America for the Srebrenica massacre and the Rwandan genocide. These events, he writes, “highlighted the limitations on UN power in the absence of strong American backing”. I have heard the US blamed for a great many things; for those events, never, until now.
Mazower writes about “the dark days that followed the invasion of Iraq”, but not about the dark days that preceded the invasion of Iraq (“rape rooms”, children’s prisons, chemical gassings, the cutting out of tongues for dissent). He lauds the International Panel on Climate Change — another Nobel laureate! — as though the scandals that rocked and discredited it had never occurred.
My catalogue could go on and on, but I will end it here, except to say this: a streak of meanness runs through this book. Mazower keeps sneering at liberal democrats who, whatever their mistakes, have done their best to help mankind. He sneers at the National Endowment for Democracy and Freedom House, for their funding by the US government. I dare say those groups do more good on an average day than Mazower or I do in a year.
Throughout the world, I have discovered, people are amazed that Americans don’t have more respect for the United Nations. I often give them the example of the UN’s human rights council — which has been graced by Gaddafi’s Libya, Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, the Communists’ China, the Assads’ Syria, the Castros’ Cuba, genocidal Sudan, and other such beauties. Who can respect that? I also quote Solzhenitsyn — who said that the UN was not really the “united nations” but the united governments or regimes, only as good as the governments or regimes that compose it.
Having spent more than 400 pages with Professor Mazower, I feel sure he would call me a “red-baiter”. But readers can judge for themselves the character of his remarkable book. Reading him is like being lectured by the best left-wing professor you’ll ever have. Or like reading the best foreign affairs writer the Guardian or the Nation has to offer. (Those are two publications for which Mazower writes.) You can learn a lot from him, but you have to put up with a lot.