Diplomatic History: The Choice is Yours


Earlier this month, William Mangoman Williams described how diplomatic history went from being the academy’s White Knight to its Black Sheep. While Mangoman believes that the innovations of the last thirty-odd years have renewed the field intellectually, he notes that this has so far failed to reverse its institutional decline. Diplomatic history may be cool again, but diplomatic historians aren’t getting hired.

Mangoman then wonders whether these two trends aren’t related: perhaps it is precisely diplomatic historians’ newfound willingness to incorporate discourse analysis and the like that is responsible for its continuing doldrums? Maybe focusing on the culture of imperialism instead of the crisis of diplomacy has alienated students hungry for a history of diplomats, presidents, and soldiers.

The latter may be true to some degree (though I think changes have also engaged new audiences), but it seems an unlikely place to pin responsibility for the paucity of diplomatic history appointments. After all, in its initial decline, the field was a casualty of the successive social and cultural turns. I doubt that a return to an exclusive focus on high diplomacy will revive diplomatic history’s glory days. That depends on the attitude of the faculty who drive the hiring process.

What’s more, a change in that direction is unlikely, for diplomatic historians themselves seem pretty happy about the changing intellectual contours of their field. At its 2009 annual meeting, the Society of Historians of American Foreign Relations (SHAFR) held a keynote panel to decide whether it ought to find a new name for itself or its journal, Diplomatic History. Despite some hand-wringing on the H-DIPLO discussion boards and in the NY Times piece that Mangoman cites, there was little criticism at the meeting of the field’s expanded focus and new methodologies. Most felt that the term “foreign relations” was capacious enough to describe what they do and few wanted to change the name. (I should mention my favorite proposal, made in jest: the “Society for Historians of International and Transnational Studies” – think about that acronym for a second.)

It’s important to recognize that a broadening of the field does not necessarily entail an epistemological transformation. In other words, much of the “new” diplomatic history still concerns itself with what one clerk said to another; it’s just that these clerks no longer work exclusively in the State Department or an embassy somewhere, but for Amnesty International or the World Health Organization or the New York Philharmonic or Coca Cola. And the study of “power” incorporates cultural attitudes, public relations, and legal norms as well as diplomacy and war.

Nor have the “old” topics been left behind, as a perusal of the 2010 conference program indicates. Using the rhetoric of manliness to explain the War of 1898 does not mean we can’t also talk about geopolitics, any more than discussing the gendered aspects of Progressivism precludes studying the 16th amendment. Yes, limited time and space demand trade-offs, but the added context gives a fuller (and I would maintain, better) picture of the past.

So it has to be counted as a good thing that our studies of how peoples and nations interact are not confined to high-level policymaking, and are more willing to incorporate economic, social, and cultural processes.

Still, if the field is increasingly broadening its appeal and attracting outsiders to publish in its journals (and vice-versa), why so little love from department hiring committees? Some relative decline in diplomatic history was inevitable. Historians are interested in more topics than they were in the 1960s. To demand that 75% of departments have a diplomatic historian—as was the case in 1975—would leave small departments without expertise in other areas that we now consider essential.

It does seem, however, that we are approaching a crossroads, especially in the case of American diplomatic history. Even if there is consensus support for the importance of teaching the history of American foreign relations, broadly conceived (as I believe the field’s transformation has encouraged), it is by no means clear that the group of scholars formerly known as American diplomatic historians will be the ones to teach it. Instead, the field’s new energy seems to be splitting it in two.

On the one side we have the new “International History.” As globalization made area studies seem archaic remnants of the cold war in the 1990s and early 2000s, more departments created tracks for some form of “international history.” Often this also included “world history.” This created its own definitional problems: are we talking about the history of everything? The history of civilizations? Of globalization? Or of foreign relations writ large?

To the extent that international history becomes conceptualized as the global aggregation of the history of foreign relations, it has the potential to swallow American diplomatic history whole. U.S. foreign relations courses would then be taught by those trained in international history, with a U.S. focus. It is significant in this regard, I think, that two of the leading young international historians, Erez Manela of Harvard and Matt Connelly of Columbia, trained with John Gaddis at Yale.

On the other side is the even more amorphous “U.S. in the world.” Recent hiring committees seem to prefer some variant of this (“U.S. and the world” being one example) to replace positions that used to be advertised as “U.S. Diplomatic History.” Framing it more broadly may enable more such jobs to be funded. But fewer “traditional” diplomatic historians may be hired. Where there used to be, say 50 diplomatic history jobs, there might be 65 US in the World jobs in the future. But only 40 of those might be filled by diplomatic historians. Depending on how hiring committees define the field, almost any scholar of U.S. history might be eligible.

Diplomatic history under a different name will certainly persist. It is clear, though, that those interested in the study of American foreign relations will need to stay astride the transnational turn and incorporate a broader focus than the generations of historians who preceded them. But this is perhaps not so new. At a 1969 conference, diplomatic historians bemoaned their graduate students’ lack of language expertise, and paltry use of foreign archives.* In some important respects, the “new” diplomatic history may be merely a return to roots.

Ben Coates

*See the discussion in Milton O. Gustafson, ed. The National Archives and Foreign Relations Research (Athens, OH: Ohio State University Press, 1974).

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