Diplomatic History and the Concentricity of Politics

A comment on ‘The Inner Circle: What is Diplomatic History? (And Why We Should Study It)’ by T. G. Otte (History January 2020) https://doi.org/10.1111/1468-229X.12925

by Kenneth Weisbrode

It is not often nowadays that one reads an unabashed defense of ‘traditional’ diplomatic history centered on high politics among states. Thomas Otte’s short tour d’horizon of the field therefore deserves a careful reading.

His titular ‘inner circle’ refers to the title of Sir Ivone Kirkpatrick’s memoirs, so named after an old Foreign Office joke which revolved around one’s not being able to escape the London-Paris-Berlin-Rome circuit and the circuit’s resemblance to the London Underground. In his essay, Otte simulates the circuit, interspersed by acceleration, deceleration, and a ‘Mind the Gap’, but without any major detours or stoppages. The field as he describes it is essentially the same one that Harold Temperley, C. K. Webster, A. J. P. Taylor, et al. once mastered. That is a good thing, Otte insists, because diplomatic history in this way defined is both just and relevant.

He is correct. Defending the field is a strange burden that many diplomatic historians have been called upon to carry. Otte reminds us that even this burden is not a new one for our ‘most arid and sterile of all subdisciplines’, a point which is developed out of the well-known insult to the field from Arthur Marwick. The FO joke, the jibe from Marwick, are only two of the several rich quotations and notations around which Otte weaves his argument, and this richness of allusion is a part of what makes the short essay developed from an inaugural lecture an excellent and erudite reference for teaching.

I shall leave it to others to challenge the inherent tension between the justness and relevance of Otte’s definition of the field: diplomatic history qua Old Diplomatic History. Here I would like instead to ask a somewhat different question, of propriety: whether Otte’s defense of high politics puts the emphasis on the right syllable. Diplomatic history may well be relevant to students of history, practitioners of diplomacy, and to a general readership for whom historians must write. It is to this general readership that, in Otte’s essay, we see most strongly the expression of duty to the field – for general address must be the historian’s task: ‘if they do not, much of their work will be but a shallow-rooted flower, choked by a weedy growth of overspecialized erudition’. However, is placing so much emphasis on high politics appropriately just?

Our colleagues in Diplomatic Studies and in most chanceries will immediately tell us the answer. No. How so? It has been over a century since Woodrow Wilson promoted a new, democratic, rule-based diplomatic order, and even if the order he had in mind eludes some parts of the world, the rhetoric of moralism-legalism, transparency, and public opinion is still hard to escape for most. Put another way, even if it had once been possible to separate high and low politics, that is almost inconceivable today, especially in less-than-democratic regimes.

Where then does the state of the world’s politics, ascendantly more populist than democratic, leave today’s diplomatic historians? Trapped going round an inner circle with, like most sections of the London Tube, no view to the outside? Not really. When you have a problem you cannot solve, Dwight Eisenhower liked to say, enlarge it. The problem here being how to demonstrate justness and relevance when many of our fellow historians and the wider public are not terribly willing to being convinced that,

[a]t a time when enlightenment values are under siege, when expert views are summarily dismissed as irrelevant or as an irritant, when ignorance is celebrated as virtuous, and when truth and fiction no longer seem polar opposites – a development to which historians sadly have contributed – the need for intellectual courage and leadership has rarely been greater.

Yet enlarging is more easily done than we might think. For instance, as intellectual history is not the same field as the history of ideas, or as military history is not synonymous with the history of warfare, diplomatic history is distinct from the history of diplomacy. And so long as one recognizes the former as a subset of the latter – the latter being that which properly comprises high, low, and every other politics, as well as social, cultural, and economic history, and which includes the history of generations, traditions of mentorship, bureaucracies, private organizations, social networks, emotions, attitudes, mentalities, worldviews, prejudices, trends, and fashions as they pertain to the essence and the exercise of diplomacy – it is right that Otte concerns himself with the former and high politics, avoiding the ‘outermost’ circles.

He labels some of the above-listed elements ‘externalities’ inasmuch as they can be assumed to be either a constant or an irrelevancy to the subject at hand, which is to write the ‘people’ whose political deeds matter. However, a distinction between histoire événementielle and latent history does not work so well with regard to diplomacy, which is primarily procedural and generally depicts ruptures – even when punctuated by major events – as shrouded in longer-term continuities and changes in international relations, not least in the realm of high politics.

The question historians of diplomacy mainly ask is how such supposed externalities – customs, mores, habits, emotions, appearances, ceremonies, etc. – cause, condition, or define events, and, perhaps to a lesser extent, vice versa. In other words, the outer circles of the history of diplomacy or even of international history need not subvert the primacy of politics in diplomatic history where diplomatic history continues to concern itself in the main with plot and character. But at the same time diplomatic history ought not to diminish the historical significance of setting, which rightly includes all the above ‘externalities’ but only so-called, for in reality they, too, are internalities in both diplomatic history and the history of diplomacy, and ought at a minimum to be well integrated into any political narrative. So – maps as well as chaps.

As empiricists, most historians would shy away from a unified theory of how either internalities or externalities may determine or otherwise affect a course of events. Nor, pace Ranke, do most advance a general principle in ranking them. The primacy of politics may rest intact as regards diplomatic history. Not so for the wider history of diplomacy. The history of diplomacy, in principle, accords no primacy to any general set of factors but instead only to those that matter at particular times and places. Ranke himself, as Otte reminds us, had the principle just about right, for he was ‘too subtle a thinker to embrace any form of determinism. The interaction between the internal and external spheres was one of the “most varied effect and counter-effect”, just as history was more than an “accidental chaos [Durcheinanderstürmen], falling upon and succeeding one another of states and peoples”’.

Otte’s recapitulation of diplomatic history coincides with a recent challenge from within the academy to the epistemic authority of international (or, more accurately, transnational) history, especially the sort that promotes culture at the expense of politics. This particular chaos (as it may appear to people who are unclear where definitional borderlines are anymore) is not accidental but deliberate. This is certainly the case as seen from Otte’s brief nod to ‘the vast terrain international history has come to cover’ where ‘culturalists… have begun to de-politicize and de-internationalize international history, and so risk becoming atomistic and solipsistic’. International history made devoid of politics would appear, paradoxically, to have reached through ‘self-indulgent reification’ a new level of ‘disaster studies’.

There are two separate but interrelated (or, to use a term Otte favors, inseparable) problems at work here. One is about causality: the old but evidently not yet dead Innen- versus Aussenpolitik debate. The other is about agency and is implicitly partisan, reminding one of Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s description of American ideology: ‘The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself’. The political orientation of diplomatic historians tends to travel the other way around, notably in Otte’s telling, whereby ‘to dismiss it as desiccated diplomatic calculations is to fail to understand the sensibilities of a past age. The irony of recent approaches is that they employ methods that prevent them from discovering those past sensibilities’.

To put the case more bluntly: Otte presents a very traditional, even conservative, defense of diplomatic history. In doing so he implicitly attenuates many of the ostensibly non-political factors – including those cultural factors that would liberate diplomatic narratives from the enormous condescension of posterity – which have both causal and conditional significance in the history of diplomacy. There would appear thus to be a zero-sum calculus between the two cases, diplomacy written as an adjective or as a noun. To this reader, however, that is a misreading of his text. To press the metaphor, it would be like blaming construction on the Victoria Line for a delay on the Circle Line. That would in effect turn inside out what Otte has called the ‘“Ferrero rocher fallacy”, which leads some to mistake the glittering wrapper for its inner essence’.

Here, perhaps Otte needn’t to have taken digs at ‘post-modernists and post-structuralists’; and perhaps he really would be willing to acknowledge that decision-makers needn’t only be men with official titles to matter a great deal in diplomatic affairs. But in addressing one particular inner essence and not the wider history of diplomacy (which has a rather more substantial wrapper than the gold colored foil of the Ferrero rocher), Otte is right to raise the perennial who/whom problem at the core of some historians’ misunderstanding of what diplomatic history is. And, that it is vital moreover, to insist that clearing up that misunderstanding with a more honest appreciation of politics – which Otte gives – is not only relevant and legitimate but also deeply important.

Otte’s elaboration matters in its demonstration of the lasting value of a modern, structural, interdisciplinary approach to doing and writing international history. In this regard, his discussion of the work of Paul Schroeder and Christopher Thorne is especially welcome. Increasingly few historians work or write this way anymore and their absence is noteworthy. Recovering such an approach and style need not require going in ever decreasing circles or sharing the stereotypical British passion for concentricity. (One may observe that not only the London Underground, but also UK town planning, British imperial administration, and the UK’s early designs for NATO all more or less reproduced the concentric circle.) The French and German historical traditions, which Otte also mentions, albeit less extensively, do not adhere to this neat form; nor, obviously, does the American, which pushes a frontier ever further in one direction while pretending to forget what it has left behind.

Aesthetic stereotypes aside, most people now see little difference between diplomatic history and the history of diplomacy. That is how it should be, as new generations of diplomatic historians give more prominence to professedly non-political factors in their histories. But let them still heed Professor Otte: do not ever neglect the primacy of politics.

C. K. Webster (1886–1961),
historian and diplomatist