False Hierarchies

July 20, 2012

by Giles Scott-Smith

Several interesting themes have been coming up on this site in recent months: the issue of explaining diplomatic behavior, the periodisation of history according to standard perspectives, the actor/activity nexus, the whole relevance question. I trained as an International Relations scholar, not a historian, which can be an advantage in terms of conceptualizing material, but a disadvantage in terms of missing the subtlety of historical characterization. Prosopography is new to me, but it looks like I’ve been taking elements of that approach for quite a while. One of the things I have exactly been struggling with is the way in which certain individuals can be ‘categorized’ as international actors – what is their identity, their motivation, what are their goals? Do these different levels fit together? How and why does someone put themselves in a position where historians might see them as worthy of ‘diplomatic history’?

An example is one of the figures I looked at during the Cold War conference in Finland in June. Willem van Eeghen was an entrepreneur, scion of a prominent Dutch colonial trading family, and economic interests were one motivation for his interest in establishing East-West links during the 1980s. Religion was another, and this fed into his broader aim – to facilitate peace at a time when nuclear escalation was threatening the European continent. For a while, the Netherlands was a front-line state in the decision to upgrade NATO nuclear forces, and the peace movement was a powerful force. Van Eeghen was involved in several peace missions to Moscow involving Dutch politicians, ostensibly to lay a path open for some kind of a direct dialogue on the nuclear issue.

The results were disappointing – the Russians did not seem to appreciate how they could make use of these overtures, the Netherlands being merely a small power between bigger targets such as West Germany and the USA. But what is noticeable is how these events have either been ‘flattened out’ in the historical record, or simply ignored. ‘Flattened out’ in the sense of them being just one more event among many in that period, and ignored because they don’t qualify as official policy-influencing input. Just as van Eeghen was partly shunned by his political ‘colleagues’ at the time as a diplomatic dilettante, so Dutch diplomatic historians have passed over his role as (at best) a walk-on part in a larger ‘high politics’ drama. Yet this was someone who founded a Dutch equivalent to the Dartmouth conference, and someone who set up a possible deal between Prime Minister Ruud Lubbers and the Kremlin in November 1985. This was a diplomatic ‘player’ for sure, but not one of the conventional kind, and both Dutch diplomacy and Dutch diplomatic history passed him by.

As previous posts have pointed out, much of this new diplomatic history focuses on the role of individuals, albeit within certain wider definable networks. By focusing on individuals, alternative histories can be opened up that contrast with the ‘official’, ‘high politics’ version. It is in a way another form of bottom-up v. top-down, although that only perpetuates the false hierarchies at work in the field. Better perhaps to think of bringing people, events, and linkages into focus that were either wholly blurred in the background or simply cut out altogether when the picture was edited.