‘Bridging Divides’: 3rd Conference of the New Diplomatic History Network

Roosevelt Institute for American Studies, Middelburg, The Netherlands

24-26 October 2018

Report by Giles Scott-Smith

The New Diplomatic History network held its third conference – NDH3 – at the Roosevelt Institute, following its earlier gatherings in Leiden (2013) and Copenhagen (2016). It was the largest and most ambitious conference so far, demonstrating the wide reach and popular appeal, in terms of both nationalities present and disciplines represented, of the NDH field. Leiden in 2013 was a first move to see how we could give shape to the NDH label, and the follow-up in Copenhagen was more structured around the specific themes of organisations and networks. NDH3 set out to meet the challenge laid down at that previous conference – to set out more clearly how we can frame and conceptualise New Diplomatic History as a relatively distinct inter-disciplinary and multi-disciplinary field. The result was a three-day event rich in insight, debate and inspiration that laid down a marker for the network’s future development.

NDH3 was entitled ‘Bridging Divides’, referring to the aim to bring together historians of the early modern and modern periods to compare, contrast and explore their questions, approaches, and research agendas for the study of diplomacy. Nineteen panels of papers were spread out over the three days, each one organized around a particular theme to mix perspectives on diplomacy through the ages. It was an experiment, but it worked. The sharing of ideas in this way proved to be one of the main successes of the event, stimulating participants to reflect on their positions and debate alternative views.

The conference was framed around two keynote lectures and two plenary roundtables. Professor John Watkins (University of Minnesota) closed off the first day with a tour de force lecture entitled ‘Apocalyptic Diplomacy’, which questioned the orthodox assumption of diplomacy being a rational activity between nation-states. Linking the influence of faith on England’s relations with the Dutch Republic during the 1650s, to the decision of President Trump to recognize Jerusalem as the Israeli capital in late 2017, Watkins sketched in detail how religious conviction has directly impacted on diplomatic relations using examples spanning over four centuries.

On the second day, Professor Naoko Shimazu (Yale-NUS College, Singapore) provided the perfect follow-up with a detailed study of the Bandung conference in Indonesia in 1955. A gathering of some of the prominent leaders of the post-colonial world (Nehru, Zhou Enlai, Kwame Nkrumah, Nasser, with Sukarno as host), Bandung sent a message that global politics were no longer going to be decided in the imperial and superpower capitals of the world. In her lecture, Shimazu focused her fine-grained talk on Bandung as a unique diplomatic site, involving both formal and informal occasions for dialogue, cross-cultural communication, and displays of power and prestige. Significantly, while women are absent from the list of leaders and diplomats who attended, they are ever-present in photographs taken of the event, as hostesses, artists, and, in the case of Indira Gandhi, prominent daughters of statesmen. In doing so, Shimazu illustrated perfectly the multiple layers of behavior, exchange, and meaning, each one sending significant messages to other participants, that are present at these kinds of occasions.

From L to R: Giles Scott-Smith together with NDH3 keynote speakers Naoko Shimazu and John Watkins

The first plenary roundtable, led by Sari Nauman (University of Gothenberg) and Susanna Erlandsson (Uppsala University / University of Amsterdam), gathered a number of researchers together to discuss ‘Trust and Diplomacy: Social Relations and Diplomatic Processes 1600–2000’. The varied research projects presented under this title collectively raised provocative questions: can diplomacy be conducted at all without trust? Is some level of already-established trust therefore a prerequisite for diplomacy to take place? Is trust transferrable between cultures or professions? Are there significant differences between trust-building and confidence-building?

The second plenary, which closed off the conference, was chaired by Costas Constantinou (University of Cyprus) and included the screening of his documentary ‘The Blessed Envoy’, a study of how Archbishop Makarios represented Cyprus on travels abroad during the 1960s. Makarios was able to make full use of his status and prestige as head of the Greek Orthodox church to portray himself as statesman and spiritual leader around the newly independent nations of Asia and Africa. Constantinou’s film showed how Makarios was able to act as a Western-style diplomat, a religious figure, and a representative of the post-colonial world all in one, in doing so giving himself a unique identity to engage with other nations.

From L to R: Costas Constantinou, Alia Papageorgiou, Akos Kopper, and Noe Cornago during the closing roundtable on the documentary ‘The Blessed Envoy’

The conference fully demonstrated the diversity of the NDH research community, but also the extent to which this community recognises New Diplomatic History as a common field of enquiry. As in Leiden and Copenhagen, the event attracted senior academics as well as PhDs, and the open interchange between all levels of the academic spectrum is proving to be one of the strong points of the NDH enterprise. The papers ranged over the themes of music and the arts, literature and language, gifts, various kinds of mediation, and the role of non-state actors in the diplomatic realm. Several papers focussed on the prominent place of business within diplomacy, both as economic actors and as diplomatic players making use of economic assets. There are rich possibilities for a trans-historical approach to tracking the role of business and businessmen as they move in and out of diplomatic-style engagements in different settings.

NDH3 therefore achieved its main goals. The participants brought together views on diplomacy from beyond a Western perspective, they explored the place of non-state actors and individuals, and it broke open the early modern / modern divide in terms of historical periodisations. The benefits of mixing historical approaches, and the theoretical and practical debates that this triggered, were clear to everyone present. As a result, the basis has been firmly laid for the launch of the NDH community’s journal, Diplomatica: A Journal of Diplomacy and Society, to be published by Brill from 2019. The presence of several members of the journal’s editorial board at the conference enabled a first board meeting to be held, a valuable exercise for future planning that once again confirmed the publication as a valuable asset for the NDH community.

And so from NDH3 onwards to NDH4, which will be organised by Karen Gram-Skjoldager at Aarhus University in 2021.

First editorial board meeting of Diplomatica, 24 October 2018






Conference Programme: NDH Programmefinal

Opening Remarks by Giles Scott-Smith: NDH3 Remarks

Selected Panel Summaries: summaries