The Task Ahead

Sep 20, 2012

by Kenneth Weisbrode

Four years ago I wrote a short note in the quarterly newsletter of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations about the state of our field. I’ve been asked to update and expand upon it here.

The first thing to mention, and to question, is whether that appeal should apply to non-Americans. There’s no reason why it shouldn’t – at least in theory. Yet it is important to acknowledge the initial audience. Some American historians, like some Americans, tend to regard themselves and their country (including its history) as “exceptional.” The note was addressed in part to these people. It was an attempt, on the one hand, to challenge the basis for an obsession with novelty in the promotion of particular subjects and methodologies, an obsession that seemed to me at the time to be especially prevalent among historians based in the United States who neglect the consequences of intellectual spontaneity, bordering on amnesia; and, on the other hand, to suggest that neither Americans nor historians are the first and only people to succumb to fads, however much the plight of the “American diplomatic historian” seems an especially peculiar one.

It is neither peculiar nor recent, as even the most parochial of American historians, if pressed, are likely to admit. They know that the country’s diplomatic record did not disappear after 1815, only to reappear with a vengeance in 1898. They know that two oceans and two peaceful [sic] land borders do not isolate a nation but do the opposite. They know that American politics, society and culture have been among the most open, diverse and penetrated of any modern nation, and that many of these realities have been deeply dependent, and influential, upon the country’s diplomacy. They know that the fluid nature of the country’s institutions, especially its political institutions, has meant that the lines between “state” and “non-state” actors are often blurry, and that any proper diplomatic history must treat them and their roles honestly and openly. They know that where their subjects sit in or out of officialdom is important, but generally less important, than what they do and how and why they do it.

A few historians persist in promoting these distinctions in what one of them once confessed to me was a recurring orgy of scholasticism. They invent biases that dominate the concepts and questions that guide their work. They urge students to focus on this or that subject instead of another rather than on reaching the best possible explanations of how and why something happened or did not happen. The subjective quality here is almost perverse. To insist prima facie on the superior historical value of some subjects over others is to skew the historical record, no matter how rich the lives and stories of these “new” subjects may be.

In other words, the thrust of the note was directed against a form of subjectivity which, to me at least, seems connected to a parochialism so pervasive it hinders the work of even the most cosmopolitan of Americans—its international historians. For better or worse many of them must describe their courses as falling under the heading of “America and the World,” as if the two exist separately in time and space. They must uphold the state/non-state distinction alongside the normative depiction of power— “hard” is bad and “soft” is good—with the implication that to study the former is to condemn and the latter is to celebrate. The attempt to broaden and diversify subject material has merely served, it would seem, to deepen subjective bias.

These are oversimplifications, to be sure, and do not apply only to U.S. historians. There is nothing inherently wrong with novelty. And why shouldn’t we question and rethink the ways we “do history,” including our choice of subjects and our sources of subjectivity? That is why I suggested a possible way out of the either/or condition that has seemed to predominate in so many of these discussions: “traditional” diplomatic history “versus” international (and now, transnational) history; state “versus” non-state actors; war “versus” peace; and so on. The proposal was a simple one. It was an appeal to heterodoxy and a suggestion, for those who like novelty, to embrace the trend of network analysis. This would mean including all relevant actors as inhabitants of a society or system, and examining their “webs”—as the McNeills have urged—and inter-relationships in time. Surprisingly few international historians have done this until only recently.

There is more to this than sociography. Like any map, social maps reveal the realities of humanity, often in new ways. They can alter the standard chronologies and redirect attention to “new” areas and sets of causes. An interest in historical networks has been popular in Europe for some time and has begun to catch on elsewhere. The difficulty has been its conflation to a degree with the “non-state” actor category wherein networks are identified and described for their own sake. That really is mere sociography. It differs from other approaches (prosopography, for example) in emphasizing the “what” over the “how” and the “why,” which naturally has reinforced the paradox of subjectivity already discussed.

Inclusion and inclusiveness are generally good things. Thus the shift in Anglo-American historiography from “diplomatic” to “international” over two generations ago was also good. Where inclusion has given way to subjective hierarchies of actors, phenomena, periods, and so on, however, the impulse has merely perpetuated the shortcomings of its predecessors.

This is the root of the call now for a new diplomatic history. It is not meant to supplant the “old,” whatever that may be, or international history. It is really a subset of the latter, although diplomats—again, broadly speaking, include both official and unofficial actors and many others in between—may act inter- and transnationally, as well as nationalistically, all at once. The members of our network may differ on who is a diplomat. My own view emphasizes the functional or operational definition: the history of diplomats focuses on the people who perform diplomatic roles, which means anyone who imparts to himself or herself the role of intermediary for reasons beyond his or her own individual interests. They need not serve or represent states, although many do. They must, however, serve a set of interests, cause or collective unit above and beyond themselves, and which in some way involves the crossing of borders and the inter-relationship of political entities.

How does this differ from what most people now call international history? Or transnational history? These are even broader categories. International history relates to anything, animate or inanimate, that mediates (or fails to mediate) between two or more nations. Transnational history relates to anything that crosses a border or, as some would have it, transcends, or even transforms, a border into a borderland. The two differ from one another in that the former would appear to re-inscribe the nation-state, while the latter would diminish or overtake it. Both types of actions are possible in diplomatic history as I have described it. But unlike the other two categories, diplomatic history deals primarily with the human record.

To return to the initial point: to innovate is not the same as to renovate. American culture prizes innovation. This includes academic culture. It even includes historians, who should theoretically be among the more skeptical of innovators. None of this is necessarily fatal to sound scholarship. At the same time, some cultural self-awareness is in order. American history is part of world history just as America is part of the world. The burdens of inclusion for American historians (and historians of the United States, whether Americans or not) therefore demand a perspective that does not excuse the exclusion or marginalization of significant groups of actors in the name of scholarly innovation.

Put differently, it is long past time to stop asking, where are the diplomats? They have ranked low in American popular tradition and many are unknown historical figures; this is less the case elsewhere. It is all the more reason why, in addressing my letter to historians of American foreign relations, I sought to address the problem at one of its principal sources today and, at the same time, imply that American diplomatic history in principle is no more or less exceptional (and therefore ought to be no more casual or marginal) than anyone else’s.

Other historiographies may be more or less culpable of revealing the same sins of omission. This is for others to decide. Diplomats meanwhile may like their anonymity, but their rich and complex histories need not disappear from the record. Its standards of scholarship should be at least as high as diplomats’ own standards of performance. This network is devoted to filling the gap.