NDH and the British International History Group

Giles Scott-Smith

The NDH network went on the road in September, running two panels at the annual conference of the British International History Group (BIHG), Lancaster University. The initiative came out of discussions at NDH3, where Alex Shaw proposed gathering a group of scholars under the NDH label with a call for papers. The result was a revealing success, indicating widespread interest in the NDH enterprise.

BIHG is a very friendly, medium-sized conference with a good international flavor and a programme that clearly mingles different perspectives on diplomatic history. An expected focus on British history was blended with panels on Japan, Africa, Russia, and China, and themes that ran through empire, colonialism, cold war, and propaganda. Several papers considered in various ways how foreign ministries ‘think’, delving into world views and institutional mentalities. Kathy Burk’s keynote on ‘Lubricating Diplomacy: The Uses of Wine’ would have fit perfectly in Diplomatica, had it not already have been published in The World of Fine Wine last year. In short, there were plenty of contact points from an NDH perspective, and so this proved with the panels themselves.

Under the headings ‘Materiality, Spaces and Actors’ and ‘Redrawing the Landscape: Networks, Backchannels and Mediators’, the two NDH panels led by Alex and myself sought to emphasise new readings of diplomacy to highlight the distinctiveness of the ‘new diplomatic history’ label. Both sought resonances across periodisations, a key NDH theme. Panel 1 thus had a strong focus on image, covering dress codes in 16th C England (Kimberley Foy), Lausanne’s Olympic bid in the mid-1950s (Quentin Tonnerre), and Vietnam’s current South Korean national football coach (Thi Ly Le), each paper addressing perceptions of power, influence, and adulation and their role in diplomatic and sub-diplomatic encounters. Panel 2 looked more into the personal networks and shifting identities of diplomats and their entourage, covering the medieval bishops of Durham (Jamie Smith), Anschluss-era Austria (Timothy Schmalz), and Eire during WWII (Karen Garner). Here the emphasis lay on issues of credibility, legitimacy, and the ways in which personalities could make ties either resilient or fragile depending on the diplomatic circumstances. The relevance of friendship in international relations, the topic of a recent book or two, was a strong theme here. The panels were well received, with an excellent turn-out even at 9am on the Friday morning for Panel 2. NDH was also present in the form of SOAS’s Simon Rofe, who presented separately on his research into the US Embassy and Grosvenor Square. In terms of a test case for how NDH is perceived elsewhere, the BIHG experience bodes very well. If there were sceptics present, they avoided any confrontation, and Diplomatica gathered plenty of interest, with the inspection copies also disappearing from the book table (and it was the intention that they would). To overcome any comments about the ‘New’ epithet, we pitched NDH in terms of the French Nouvelle Vague of the early 60s – not turning away from the old, but re-interpreting the classics by bringing in new perspectives. It was good to talk these distinctions over with BIHG’s James Ellison, Rogelia Pastor-Castro and Michael Hopkins, and we intend to build on the BIHG-NDH connection at our respective conferences in the coming years. All in all, a very valuable and worthwhile visit – thank you, BIHG!