Dead, Dying, or Declining Recent Thoughts on Diplomatic History

This coming week I will be attending the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations Conference (SHAFR).  The main reasons I am attending this year is the conference’s proximity to my current location.  I have no paper to give but I am hoping to meet other graduate students and historians with similar interests to mine – what we call networking.  I am also quite interested in hearing papers and discovering what topics are being researched.  Conferences always prove interesting as historians often present new research in order to refine ideas and arguments.  However, with the words like declining and dying hovering around the field, it appears as if a dark cloud is hanging over the upcoming event and the study of diplomatic history and American foreign relations in general.

Three recent essays that I know of have recently addressed the idea of decline in the field of diplomatic history.  In December 2012 Jeffrey Engel wrote an article titled “Diplomatic History’s Ill-Deserved Reputation and Bright Future” in Perspectives, the AHA’s news magazine.  In this article, Engel acknowledges that in the 1980s sharp critiques of diplomatic history “sparked vigorous soul-searching among diplomatic historians.”  Nevertheless, Engle is optimistic and remarks that decolonization the diffusion of global power will require diplomatic historians to approach their subject with a large toolkit of skills that the previous generation of scholars lacked.  Recognizing the transformation in diplomatic history since the 1980s, Engel places the focus of his essay on why historians maintain an antiquated view of diplomatic historians and to “ponder the subfield’s future.”

In terms of the diplomatic history’s negative stereotype, Engel suggest that many historians outside of diplomatic history have not changed their minds about the discipline since the 1980s.  Regarding this problem, Engel spiritedly remarks “To engage the question of relevance is to accept the possibility of irrelevance, ceding crucial ground for debate not readily recaptured. Diplomatic historians have largely, and prudently, avoided debating their right to exist. We do better to prove the historiographical ignorance of our detractors by publishing insightful work than by attempting to dispel the ingrained dogmas of the prior generation.”  Thus good scholarship by diplomatic historians proves their value.  Secondly Engle suggests that diplomatic history was exiled because it was ahead of the curve.  “The cultural and social turns within history were, at their most fundamental, efforts to recalibrate and reconceptualize power within society . . . Diplomatic history has always privileged the study of power, but now does not solely study the privileged who exercise that power in the most straightforward ways.” 

Diplomatic history’s study of power also proves why the future is bright for diplomatic historians stating that “Power underlies every global interaction: commercial, social, religious, elite, subaltern, or the messy combinations that characterize human history.”  This power is often associated with states which all peoples at some point must engage.  Studying the state alone, concludes Engle does not provide a complete picture of the past as diplomatic historians today need to be conscious of underlying social, cultural, religious, economical, and political factors when studying human interaction at any level. 

More recently, Timothy Lynch has asked why there is an imbalance between those historians of studying race, gender, and ethnicity and those studying foreign policy.  Lynch explains this imbalance through the “great man thesis” of history suggesting that the study of foreign policy focuses on men and the nations they led, wars they fought, and terms they negotiated.  In Lynch’s view, this leaves little room for gender and race, at least until the 21st century.  Lynch also emphasizes the way history is taught in university classrooms stating that “students are increasingly presented with impersonal forces and told these are responsible for injustice or are, conversely, the locomotives of progress . . . It is not individuals that move history but forces, pressures, classes, sexes, races, even climate. Nations, led by individual leaders, are made to matter less than the United Nations, led by supposedly progressive impulses.”  Concluding his short essay, Lynch remarks that diplomatic historians need to bridge the divide between impersonal forces and the great men. 

Finally, in a thoughtful rebuttal to Lynch, historian Cara Burnidge remarks that Lynch is at odds with the social turn and that his argument of great men versus impersonal forces is what is sideling, or leading to diplomatic history’s death.  Moreover, as a religious historian, Burnidge, discusses the role of religion can play foreign policy and, like Engel, states that diplomatic historians need to focus on the idea of power.  Studying power relations writes Burnidge, “offers scholars interested in diplomatic history a framework with which they can situate their work among recent decades of historiographical development and reach out to scholars across a number of interdisciplinary divides.” 

Ultimately, my sympathies in this discussion lie with Engel and Burnidge.  While I, like Lynch, lament the fact that universities have one or maybe two historians of American Foreign Relations, I do not think diplomatic history should be privileged above other fields and believe that the study of gender, race, and ethnicity are important to the historical profession and can help diplomatic historian glean ideas and concept they would otherwise overlook.  Furthermore, Lynch’s understanding of diplomatic history is narrow and focuses only on the elite policy makers of the nation overlooking impersonal powers such as social, religious, and cultural influences that Engel and Burnidge argue are important to diplomatic history.  For example, studying the U.S. relation with Iran is impossible without factoring in the religious nature of Iran and the United States; the Arab Spring makes little sense if one does not understand the social and religious nature of northern Africa; foreign policy towards South Africa must include a discussion of race; and future historians will need to understand the complex religious, social, cultural differences of multiple countries and non-state groups to understand the current situation in Syria.  Foreign policymakers inc any state are influenced by impersonal powers and they must be factored into the narrative.  Finally, the study of great man history is not dead and, in fact, remains healthy with recent biographies of Bismarck, Churchill, Jefferson, and Coolidge. Although Engels sanguinity for the future of the discipline appears overly optimistic, I agree with his assessment that diplomatic history is relevant and can be cutting edge just as much as gender studies.  

One area where diplomatic historians can make some headway is to embrace the “digital turn” and become active in purveying diplomatic history online.  While the State Department’s Historian’s Office does an excellent job of placing documents online, scholars need to embrace the digital humanities and the audience that one can reach.  An academic monograph can sit on a university shelf for decades as students wonder through the stacks, but a website accessible by those beyond the ivory tower creates an opportunity for diplomatic historians to reach a large audience.  Moreover,  endorsing the digital humanities can breakdown the idea that historians of foreign policy are elitist and demonstrate the depth and breath of the scholarship.  

All of this only needs good scholarship of which I plan to find in abundant this coming week. 


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