Charting the Road to Davos: The Rise and Fall of Internationalism

By Immerwahr, Daniel | Dissent, April 1, 2013 | Go to article overview

Charting the Road to Davos: The Rise and Fall of Internationalism


Immerwahr, Daniel, Dissent


Charting the Road to Davos: The Rise and Fall of Internationalism Governing the World: The History of an Idea by Mark Mazower Penguin, 2012,416 pp.

"La tot' homoze infamilje konunigare so deba," sang Ludwig Zamenhof in 1877, in celebration of his nineteenth birthday. The language of the song, Esperanto, was of his own invention, but the sentiment was not: All mankind must unite in one family. Within fifty years, that same idea could have found expression in any number of international languages - from Solresol, in which every phoneme is sung, to Volapiik, an improbably popular, vaguely Germanic tongue that attracted tens of thousands of speakers before collapsing under the weight of its own unwieldy grammar. For the slightly less ambitious, there was the spelling reform movement, which attempted to turn English into a sort of universal language by dramatically simplifying its orthography. It was under the influence of spelling reform that Melville Dewey, author of the Dewey decimal system, changed his name to Melvil Dui and that Theodore Roosevelt ordered all government publications to be issued only in the simplified spelling. In what must be counted as a regrettable loss for posterity, Dui changed his name back to its original spelling, and Congress quickly reversed (or, as Roosevelt would have had it, reverst) the president's order.

Setbacks aside, proponents believed that such linguistic innovations would eventually bind the world together, as H. G. Wells put it, in "a common resonance of thought." That didn't turn out to be the most accurate of Wells's predictions, which included suburbanization, aerial warfare, and the atom bomb. But it captured a deeply felt desire in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. As Mark Mazower shows in Governing the World: The History of an Idea, a startling number of thinkers and activists in those centuries either expected or fervently hoped that international affairs would be, if not placed under the supervision of a world government, as Wells desired, then at least transformed according to universal principles, laws, and reason. The nineteenth and twentieth centuries, in other words, were the age of internationalism.

The word international was coined surprisingly late, in 1780, by the utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham. Nations, of course, had long been locked into rivalries marked by the pulsing alternation of warfare and negotiated peace. But before the nineteenth century few thought that those nations could make up an international society that might be governed. War and peace were the affairs of princes and their representatives, held in check only by the alliances that each was able to summon against the others. The first hint of something different came after Napoleon's revolutionary army cut a gash through Europe. In response, the conservative monarchs formed the Concert of Europe, a grand counterrevolutionary system for maintaining stability, preserving the privileges of rulers over the claims of their subjects, and, above all, preventing another Napoleon from marching through their provinces.

Looking back on the Concert system, historians who lived through the blood-soaked twentieth century have admired its ability to prevent a general war in Europe for nearly a century. But, in its own time, it summoned little but scorn from the rising European middle and working classes. To them, the military alliance among conservative regimes throughout Europe meant that reform in one country would require reform in them all. Internationalism, the movement to govern the relations between states in the name of the public rather than the princes, came as a reaction to the Concert of Europe. And it quickly took its place as one of the highest aspirations of the age. The countless proposals to reconfigure European society that filled the libraries of the nineteenth century were of nearly endless variety, but the need for some alternative arrangement of international affairs was a constant refrain. …

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