Publication Date

December 1, 2012

If you consider diplomatic history a dusty methodological backwater populated by intellectual troglodytes yearning for a bygone age, I've got one question for you:

Where've you been?

As Perspectives enters its second half-century, diplomatic history resembles only faintly its former self, derided as mere tales of clerks conversing. This critique carried in its wake an even more piercing criticism: that the field was populated by elite males of European descent, similar to those who had populated the U.S. State Department since Thomas Jefferson’s time, primarily concerned with investigating (and thus perpetuating) the kinds of ingrained power that engendered imperialism, slavery, and class warfare. Only in the 1990s did Madeleine Albright—a woman of elite education and European extraction—break American diplomacy’s ultimate gender barrier. Until then, the theory goes, diplomatic historians, like their subjects, were stuck in the same old ruts.1

This view is archaic. We are a long way from Charles Maier's 1980 critique that diplomatic history was merely "marking time" rather than pressing forward, deserving exile to the scholarly wilderness due to its "lack of innovation" and "resistance to new work."2 We are simultaneously a generation removed from Lynn Hunt’s less caustic but no less perceptive 1989 insight that social history had become “the most important area of research in history.”3 These two statements sparked vigorous soul-searching among diplomatic historians. Many rose to protest; many still bristle at their charge.

Taking a broader view, such critiques and their refutations intertwine when tracing diplomatic history's own recent history. The study of foreign affairs, like the rest of the broader historical profession, grew substantially in the wake of the social focus of the 1970s and the cultural turn of the ensuing decade. While far too many one-time avant-garde historians of the 1970s and later were assiduously avoiding the latest writings in diplomatic history, taking Maier's critique as continuing revelation, the field in their absence embraced broader trends. We need only review the list of prize-winning titles honored over the past generation to see words like "race," "power," "culture," "rhetoric," and "empire" repeated.

This is no longer your dissertation adviser's field, having evolved in line with broader changes within the academy and the wider world. New attention to social and cultural factors occurred in step with a profound age of decolonization and ensuing diffusion of global power. The roll of United Nations member states, to take one snapshot metric, grew from 51 to 193 since 1945. Much of the world's financial and political resources simultaneously transferred, albeit inconsistently, beyond the UN's initial cast. Comprehending this new international system, what Fareed Zakaria has dubbed the "rise of the rest," demands a new kind of scholar capable of looking beyond Washington, Moscow, Tokyo, and European capitals.4 It requires historians with increasingly sophisticated toolkits capable of understanding and explaining an ever growing variety of nations, races, and languages, sources, and subjects. Diplomatic historians have readily answered gender and labor specialist Jeanne Boydston’s plea to investigate “questions very locally” as a means of understanding an increasingly complex world, at least “until we can demonstrate connections and interactions.”5 In her final published essay, Boydston argued—and certainly not with diplomatists in mind—that “distinction becomes important” in direct relation to an encounter’s complexity. I’d suggest that this study of interactions between localities is precisely what diplomatic history has always been about.6

The purpose of this essay is not to report diplomatic history's transformation, but to ask instead two broader questions: First, why so many professional historians continue to hold outdated views of their colleagues who study diplomacy, and second, to ponder the subfield's future. The old stand-by of change over time might explain the first. Allowing for some biographical self-reflection, let us accept for the sake of argument the aforementioned critiques of diplomatic history as behind the cutting edge of historical scholarship as the 1970s concluded. Maier's 1980 critique found me in second grade. Hunt's thoughtful observation, offered while the Berlin Wall still stood, appeared while I was in high school.

The generation educated after those assessments trained beneath their shadow. There has literally never been a moment when my own formal education in diplomatic history, and those of my contemporaries, has not included history's social and cultural turns. My graduate education at the University of Wisconsin—famous within diplomatic circles as source of the New Left or "Wisconsin School" approach—featured two courses on diplomacy. As home to path-breaking historians of gender, race, labor, migration, geography, and ideas, Wisconsin's coursework, required an elective, included far more numerous offerings in these more au courant fields.

The message was starkly delivered and widely received. To succeed in the broader profession, a young scholar needed to speak simultaneously to specialists and the wider profession, to navigate the waves of a subspecialty while charting a course though the broader field's currents. Aspiring historians—at least, and this is key, those seeking employment as such—simply would not write dissertations in the field of diplomacy without engaging, on some level, issues of race, gender, culture, and the like. As Eric Foner and Lisa McGirr recently noted, "categories like race and gender, touchstones of the new social history, are now considered essential to understanding major themes in American development, including the law, diplomacy, and public policy, rather than being limited to relations between blacks and whites or men and women."7 Furthermore, Erez Manela has termed the past generation of diplomatic writing a “creative frenzy” featuring “relentless expansion of its spatial, thematic, and methodological boundaries.”8 There are, of course, constants. The study of diplomacy and foreign affairs remains intrinsically concerned with transnational power (more on this point momentarily), yet in tone and explanatory lens the discipline has matured along the same trajectory as the historical profession at large.

This frenetic transformation—viewed within the longue durée we are only talking the difference of a decade here—begs the question, why do so many persist in thinking diplomatic history methodologically deficient? Two explanations surface. First, that there was at least some truth to the critiques of the 1970s and 1980s and many have not reconsidered their negative views since. This is their loss. Reams have been published debunking Maier's critique, but like advocates of any catechism, original adherents are unlikely to be swayed from opinions long held. Converts are more likely found within the open minds of the uninitiated. We gain more by further pushing the boundaries of our field than by wasting time and energy defending our utility. Eleanor Roosevelt sagely advised that "no one can make you feel inferior without your consent." 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.

The second explanation for longstanding if outdated negative views of diplomacy is less painful and more enlightening. Many scholars critiqued or exiled diplomatic history for the ironic reason that it was, in fact, ahead of the curve. The cultural and social turns within history were, at their most fundamental, efforts to recalibrate and reconceptualize power within society. The desire to identify agency within previously understudied groups underlay much of academic history's expansion by the close of the 1980s. Joan Scott's influential 1986 endorsement of gender as an analytical category, for example, relied heavily on her assertion that it was "a primary way of signifying relations of power."9 Similar statements can easily be found for other categories if space allowed, though one more should suffice. Nell Painter, writing about Herbert Gutman but simultaneously channeling the state of the field in the late 1980s, summed up his work as an attempt to see “blacks, workers and women as makers of history, not merely victims. Once it became apparent that the relatively powerless nonetheless contested for power, conflict, not consensus, characterized the analysis.” Power, in other words, became by the close of the 20th century, the academy’s coin of the realm. “Such a perspective necessarily recast American history as a whole,” Painter concluded.10

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. As evidence we need look no further than the field's own recent internal debates over its name. Believing "diplomatic history" no longer represents current scholarship, some practitioners, in journal forums, blog posts, and a series of panels and plenary sessions at the discipline's annual meeting, have favored "international history" as a more useful description of interactions among peoples. Others prefer "transnational history" to emphasize global connectivity rather than division; for some, "foreign affairs" best describes the wide range of international interactions modernity affords. In the end, the purpose of these debates, to my eyes at least, has been less to dictate new directions for the field and more to highlight paths already taken. In each case, the study of power's creation, deployment, and consequences unifies the field no matter the nomenclature.11

Focus on formal power made diplomatists appear archaic in a previous age, when cutting-edge work attempted to identify power in new locations, yet this ingrained fascination with power now ensures a bright future, especially as we increasingly progress from merely studying power's origins to broader examinations of its effects. Power underlies every global interaction: commercial, social, religious, elite, subaltern, or the messy combinations that characterize human history. Such power is most often associated with the state, a force and structure even truly avant-garde diplomatic historians, whether studying nongovernmental entities, cultural infusion, modernization, migration, decolonization, or any number of innumerable ways in which humans interact across and around boundaries, must engage. Nongovernmental agencies are forever seeking state sanction and protection. Communications networks are ruled by laws and regulations imposed by states. Decolonization is impossible to understand without rejection of one governmental authority for another.

When expanding the definition of power in search of its myriad locations and sources in the 21st century, historians run headlong into the centralized force of governmental authority—in other words, the very place where diplomatic history began. The contemporary scholar must be willfully blind to suggest state power does not matter. Notions of culture and race help us understand European anti-Semitism and disdain for gypsies, homosexuals, and the handicapped, but it took the power of the German state—coupled with industrialization—to transform long-standing hatreds into systematic slaughter. Dissolution of state power at the end of the Cold War enabled Yugoslavia to descend into ethnic chaos; incubated starvation in Somalia; facilitated carnage in Rwanda; and more recently aided the Arab Spring. Given the centrality of the state in communist China and the Soviet empire, to write the state out of those histories is to excise much of the 20th century.

Clearly, study of the state alone, and of interactions among states in the global system, insufficiently provides a holistic picture of the past. A contemporary historian would be intentionally ignorant of recent literature to discuss World War II's origins in the Pacific, for example, without reference to longstanding notions of racial superiority on the parts of both Japanese and European-American policymakers. The same scholar, however, would be equally at fault for ending the story there, failing to discuss old-fashioned metrics of hard-edged state power such as access to natural resources. Most dramatically, it took the power of the state to construct the atomic bomb that helped to end the war. Only since 1945 have humans been forced to consider their own power to eliminate life on the planet: That is power worth studying, indeed.

Thus, what once was old is new again. Now fully re-embedded within the mainstream of the field, diplomatic history enjoys a bright future because, for good and ill, power is unlikely to dissipate as an organizing principle in the 21st century and beyond. Sadly, as someone who studies international conflicts and their avoidance, I often quip that mine is a growth industry. International conflict appears ubiquitous, growing in variety and complexity after the Cold War and following 9/11 in particular. I am therefore confident in the durability of diplomatic history as a field of inquiry. It has embraced the demands of cultural and social history without losing its focus on transnational and state power. It has steadily expanded the range and variety of its subjects and actors beyond the state itself without losing sight of the state's awesome power. It has grown without forgetting its origins while remaining relevant to the contemporary world and future. We should all be so lucky.

directs the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University.


1. The author would like to thank Katherine Carte Engel, Susan Ferber, Margaret Hogan, Richard Immerman, Andrew Preston, and Tom Zeiler for their helpful critiques, and Tom McCormick for instilling appreciation of power.

2. Charles Maier, “Marking Time: The Historiography of International Relations,” in Michael Kammen, ed., The Past before Us: Contemporary Historical Writing in the United States (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1980), 355–87.

3. Lynn Hunt, “Introduction: History, Culture, and Text,” in Lynn Hunt, ed., The New Cultural History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), 1.

4. Fareed Zakaria, The Post-American World (New York: Norton, 2008).

5. Jeanne Boydston, “Gender as a Question of Historical Analysis,”Gender & History 20 (November 2008): 578.

6. The field’s transformation has been well-noted by practitioners. See, for example, Thomas Zeiler, “The Diplomatic History Bandwagon: A State of the Field,”Journal of American History 95 (March 2009): 1053–73; and Jason Parker, “‘On Such a Full Sea Are We Now Afloat': Politics and U.S. Foreign Relations History across the Water's Edge,” Perspectives, May 2011.

7. Eric Foner and Lisa McGirr, “Volume Editor’s Preface,” in Foner and McGirr, eds., American History Now (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2011), Kindle edition.

8. Erez Manela, “The United States in the World,” in ibid.

9. Joan Scott, The American Historical Review, 91: 5 (December 1986), 1067.

10. Nell Painter, “Herbert Gutman, Historian of Class,” The Washington Post Book World, January 17, 1988, 5.

11. For a snapshot view of debates over diplomatic history’s proper name, see the roundtable discussion “SHAFR in the World,” Passport: The Society of Historians of American Foreign Relations Review (September 2011): 4–17.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Attribution must provide author name, article title, Perspectives on History, date of publication, and a link to this page. This license applies only to the article, not to text or images used here by permission.