Reframing Diplomacy: New Diplomatic History in the Benelux and Beyond

1st Conference of the New Diplomatic History Network

University of Leiden, 6-7 September 2013

Report by Giles Scott-Smith


On 6-7 September the network’s first general conference was held at Leiden University in the Netherlands. There were several goals for the conference, aside from the priority of bringing the network membership together for the first time. Firstly, the Institute of History at Leiden possesses other research clusters examining the role of diplomatic practice in the early modern period, and the conference would connect these streams with research on the modern era. Secondly, the aim was to mix recent trends in Belgian and Dutch diplomatic research in order to promote a cross-fertilisation of project agendas and methodologies. Thirdly, and more loosely, there was the wish to use the event to judge the scale of the field internationally and to what extent its various research strands overlap or diverge.

The conference opened with a keynote lecture by Klaus Kiran Patel (Maastricht University) entitled ‘Unofficial Diplomacy and the New Deal: America’s Global History during the 1930s’. Using Babe Ruth’s Japan tour of 1934 as his starting point, Patel identified four broad areas where diplomatic history can be understood from a ‘new’ perspective: ‘scaffolding’ (official diplomacy sets out the framework for private actors); ‘duplicating’ (simultaneous use of formal and informal diplomatic channels); ‘uploading’ (domestic policy-making as basis for international engagement); ‘role modelling’ (impact of smaller states in specific sectors); and ‘spearheading’ (vanguard role of non-state actors). Patel denied that there was any one particular ‘new’ to be found in new diplomatic history – the new was exactly to be found in the multiplicity of approaches now collecting under an expanded diplomatic heading. The conference fully reflected this few.

Over the ensuing two days, a total of forty-three papers were given in fifteen panels by speakers representing universities from ten different countries. In terms of periodisation, the scope of the papers ranged from the late nineteenth century up to recent studies on multilateralism in the European Union. Six important themes could be identified from the conference.

Firstly, several speakers examined the important role of private individuals, organisations, and businesses acting as mediators, go-betweens, and vectors for making ideas and causes travel across borders. Ann Marie Wilson (Leiden University) spoke of the role of American womens’ organisations as transatlantic humanitarian activists, and Anne-Isabelle Richard (Leiden University) highlighted the impact of the League of Nations’ Societies. Samuël Kruizinga (University of Amsterdam) covered the trade activities of the Netherlands Overseas Trust Company during the First World War, where economic interests cut across the wartime diplomatic landscape. Similarly, Michael Jonas (Helmut-Schmidt-University, Hamburg) highlighted the problematic nature of ‘private diplomacy’ between Sweden and Germany during the same period, demonstrating the resistance of the official diplomatic apparatus to outside efforts at mediation. The importance of sport as a medium through which national identity could be built in Asia was also covered (Stefan Hübner, Bundeswehr University, Munich / Jacobs University, Bremen).

Secondly, there were a group of papers that delved into the identity of diplomats and the protocol of diplomatic practice in different settings. Andreas Rathberger (Hebrew University of Jerusalem) and Houssine Alloul (University of Antwerp) both looked at the specific setting of the late Ottoman Empire as an example of how diplomatic practices had to adapt to cultural context. Michael Auwers (University of Antwerp) questioned the social and cultural assumptions of ‘becoming a diplomat’ in late nineteenth century. Daniëlle de Vooght (Free University, Brussels) raised the issue of ‘culinary diplomacy’ in the context of the high-level protocol of prestigious diplomatic encounters.

Thirdly, several papers covered the role of individuals as self-styled peace-makers, cultural ambassadors, or Cold War intriguers. These set the activities of Thomas Mann (Ken Marcus, University of La Verne, Los Angeles), Leonard Bernstein (Jonathan Rosenberg, Hunter College, New York), and Dutch journalist Sal Tas (Tity de Vries, Groningen University) as cross-cultural messengers within the wider political context of the times. Others covered the private interventions of Normal Cousins (Allen Pietrobon, American University) and Ernst van Eeghen (Giles Scott-Smith (Leiden University) and their efforts to broker superpower deals on nuclear weapons in the 1960s and 1980s respectively, and the often behind-the-scenes influence of figures such as Ernst van der Beugel (Albertine Bloemendal, Leiden University) and Jean Violet (Johannes Grossmann, University of Tübingen). All of these figures had their own particular agendas, and were either assisted (Mann, Bernstein, Cousins) or hindered (van Eeghen) in their efforts by the official diplomatic machinery.

Fourthly, there was plenty of attention for transnational actors and their ability to impact on policy-making, their importance for blurring the official / unofficial divide in the policy-making process itself, and their significance in terms of developing linkages of resistance. Jean Monnet was a prime example of this second approach, both through his Action Committee for a United Europe (Thomas Gijswijt, University of Tübingen) and his significant presence in transatlantic circuits of expertise (Mathieu Segers, Utrecht University). Other papers focused on the influence of Amnesty International on human rights policy (Sara Lamberti Moneta, University of Trento) and the developing networks of environmental NGOs in the 1970s (Jan-Henrik Meyer, Ludwig-Maximillian-University, Munich). Another group of papers considered the importance of transnational activism as a particular phenomenon in the context of El Salvador (Aaron Bell, American University), Cuba (Kim Christiaens, University of Leuven), and West European communist parties in the 1960s and 1970s (Alessandro Brogi, University of Arkansas).

Fifthly, the re-examination of traditional diplomacy was carried out through specific studies of prominent diplomats and ambassadors, and the tracking of how diplomatic systems themselves adapted to a changing global environment during the twentieth century. These papers covered developments in Spain (Carlos Sanz, University of Madrid), Belgium (Bertrand Herremans, CEESAG, and Vincent Delcorps, University of Leuven), the Netherlands (Rinko van der Maar, Utrecht University, and Johan van Merrienboer, Radboud University Nijmegen), the United States (David Woolner, FERI / Bard College, and Simon Rofe, SOAS), Norway (Haakon Ikonomou, EUI Florence), India (Amit Das Gupta, Jacobs University, Bremen) and Latin America (Roberto Duran, Catholic Univesity of Chile). There was also special attention for the impact of the European Union on the evolving understanding of diplomatic practice (Alexander Reinfeldt, University of Hamburg).

Lastly, there was a set of papers dealing with the theoretical implications of new diplomatic history, in terms of methodology and subject-matter. This was an eclectic group, ranging from the relevance of economic and technological expertise (Laurence Badel, University of Paris 1, Leonard Laborie, CNRS Paris, and David Burigana, University of Padova) and business diplomacy (Jennifer Kesteleyn, University of Ghent), to the application of prosopography and ‘collective biographies’ for a study of the CSCE negotiations (Angela Romano, LSE, and Martin Brown, Richmond American International University), the relevance of international history for studying public diplomacy (Frank Gerits, EUI Florence), paradiplomacy (Mariano Alvarez, Leiden University), and the obstacles faced in conducting a multinational, multi-organisational study of the Inter-American Highway (Jorrit van den Berk, Radboud University Nijmegen).

The scope of the conference was therefore broad, but not so broad as to be chaotic. The goal was not to set out a strict outline for what is and is not new diplomatic history, but to gauge its richness and its extent. As the six themes above demonstrate, it represents a clear set of research sub-fields, with many already working along similar lines and with corresponding approaches. The conference was useful for illustrating these sub-fields more clearly, and for setting up possible correspondence between them. In this way it is to be hoped that the event also fuelled the recognition of the value of new diplomatic history, not as a passing fad but as an identifiable label that attracts an increasing number of scholars from across the humanities and the social sciences. Of course, the question will remain to what extent it is necessary to designate a ‘new diplomatic history’ in a time when diplomatic history is anyway changing as a discipline. One answer is simply that it is healthy for debate to occasionally push for the renewal and reconsideration of methodological concepts and research patterns. This keeps the door open for new approaches and is valuable for maintaining a fresh, vibrant discipline. The enthusiasm and diversity of the Leiden conference demonstrated that many feel the same way.