Borders, Networks, and Organisations through the 20th Century
2nd Conference of the New Diplomatic History Network
Centre for Modern European Studies, University of Copenhagen, 24-26 November 2016
Report by Giles Scott-Smith
In November the NDH network took its conference to Copenhagen for the follow-up to the inaugural gathering of the network at Leiden university in 2013. Once again, the three-day event demonstrated how rich and varied the current state of the field really is. Framed around three top-level keynotes, the conference consisted of 14 panels and a roundtable on social media and diplomacy. Speakers came from universities in nineteen different countries, and, encouragingly, the appeal of the network’s theme was confirmed with the attendance of many younger scholars and PhD students.
The keynotes set the tone for the three days, and I will concentrate on them for this report. Iver Neumann (LSE) provided the perfect start on Thursday with a perspective on the evolution of diplomacy. Noting that evolution is often seen as a loaded term of overweighted significance, Neumann argued for applying the notion of ‘tipping points’ (a term used in sociology since 1958 but which has the most application in climatology) and the identification of ‘punctuated equilibria’ (Eldridge & Gould, 1972) to designate moments when behaviour changes in fundamental ways. Placing this on to the development of diplomacy reveals key moments such as the development of complex polities, the arrival of permanent representation (not Renaissance Italy but the official contacts between Eastern and Western churches from 292AD onwards), the emergence of diplomatic systems, and institutionalism (forms of multilateral governance). The lecture generated some good debate, notably on the fact that evolution has not progressed linearly at the same speed but has seen many off-shoots and dead-ends (can we also see this in diplomatic practices?), and over the wider influence of technology as a decisive tipping point. Central to Neumann’s overview is the idea of progressive change, since tipping point in a climatological sense indicates a minor alteration that leads to an irreversible change in the system as a whole. Does diplomacy really evolve in those terms?
On the Friday Geoff Pigman’s keynote, entitled ‘Go Big or Go Home’: The Challenge for Trade Diplomacy in Europe and Worldwide, provided a perfect follow-up to the evolutionary opening of Neumann. Taking the starting point to be trade-as-diplomacy, Pigman traced a series of transformations as trade interactions adapted to and in turn altered the international environment in which it was operating. This took us through the industrial revolution (as the moment when the need for trade, due to the excess of goods, exceeded mere trade for diplomacy) and the first trade liberalization treaties (dating back to the Anglo-French Cobden-Chevalier Treaty of 1860). Institutionalisation followed, with the 1902 Brussels Sugar Convention (that opposed the use of export subsidies) as a key marker, leading to the creation of GATT after WWII and the progressive locking-in of gains from free trade over time, and for an expanding community of participating nations. This ceded to the era of judicialisation, exemplified by the WTO’s dispute settlement system and the application of trade laws above the jurisdiction of the nation-state. Yet this era has been relatively short-lived, since the collapse of the WTO’s Doha Round in 2015 has signaled a new shift towards the arranging of trade deals outside of the major sites of post-WWII multilateralism. The Silk Road project led by China is a perfect example, with trade as diplomacy being focused along a specific vector, in so doing reviving the old trade routes of the past. This adds an interesting counter-point to the evolutionary argument, since it points towards diplomatic change as being circular rather than linear (and this also being highlighted through non-Western initiatives).
On the Saturday Noe Cornago of the University of the Basque Country rounded off the event with an intriguing investigation into the ‘diplomatic incident’. These happen everywhere, and while they can represent different levels of seriousness, they all indicate some form of contravening diplomatic practice and protocol. The only title devoted solely to this issue is Bely’s L’Incident diplomatique (2010), which nevertheless begins with the deflationary comment that ‘An incident is by definition not so important.’ Diplomatic incidents can often be seen as trivial, anecdotal, and semi-humourous, but at the same time they may well represent critical events that could have led to war. Their ultimate meaning therefore remains inconclusive, and while they may seem like fleeting moments, they hold a long history as a distinct category. Political Science has developed various models for describing the sequence of events that take place during a crisis, and this approach has fed into Event History Analysis. But this approach only treats diplomatic incidents as international crises, leaving aside the apparently more minor triviata that nevertheless still can be accorded that title.
It is the role of the historian to create a narrative of what happened in ’the past’, and diplomatic incidents can, after some examination, be identified as having collectively shaped the diplomatic system itself. International law recognises diplomatic incidents as moments of transgression of norms and formal rules that have been accumulated over time, such as concerning rank, protocol, reciprocity, immunity, and so on. Cornago then went on to provide a series of examples for when such transgressions occurred, ranging from Ben Franklin refusing to wear ambassadorial uniform when in Paris, to de Gaulle’s ebullient but misjudged ‘Vive le Quebec Libre’ from 1967. Other incidents indicate more serious cleavages in the intricate patterns of diplomatic norms, such as the repeated discrimination against African diplomats and statesmen in the segregated US South during the 1950s and 1960s, and the storming and occupation of embassy sites by mobs, most notably the US Embassy in Tehran in 1979 and the ensuing holding of hostages. In this way incidents force the diplomatic system to respond ‘in order to ensure its own sustainability. As Bely put it, ‘incidents make transparent the relationship between the diplomat (in closed universe) and the society in which they operate’.
Cornago’s keynote was the perfect closure to the conference, because it was not a closure at all – instead, quite deliberately, it raised essential questions concerning the ways in which diplomatic practice (and diplomatic studies in turn) maintain their ‘shape’ while faced with constant tensions and threats to their established behaviour. This summed up the conference well – diplomatic studies as a field is facing an excess of approaches and perspectives, fueled by innovative cross-disciplinary studies from the humanities and the social sciences. The New Diplomatic History network represents one of the few sites where these kinds of studies are encouraged to interact and exchange ideas. As a ‘state of the field’ event, Copenhagen therefore gave every reason for optimism. What needs to be considered next – as I mentioned at the opening of the event – is the extent to which the NDH network itself needs to define what it is about. Perhaps the network itself has reached a tipping point and should evolve in new directions. With this important thought in mind, I would like once again to thank my Danish colleagues for making the Copenhagen event possible: Karen Gram-Skjoldager, Dino Knudsen, Haakon Ikonomou, and Marianne Rostgaard.