Publication Date

May 1, 2011


  • United States


Diplomatic/International, Political

As scholars of U.S. foreign relations—of “U.S. International”—history well know, the adage “politics stops at the water’s edge” ranks high on the list of falsest phrases ever spoken. It is true that many of the figures we study—not just the George Kennans or Henry Kissingers, but a good many of their underlings—themselves claimed to hold mass politics at arm’s length. However, this did not prevent political dynamics from infiltrating the actions ultimately undertaken by the administrations they served. Moreover, foreign actors watching American diplomacy unfold have long known this to be true. They might lament the degree to which domestic politics factors into U.S. decisions, but they could little doubt it. Michigan Senator Arthur Vandenberg’s 1947 adage regarding the limning power of the American shoreline, though perhaps true enough in that particular historical moment, was far more exception than rule in the longer view.

In the literature at present, however, the study of U.S. foreign relations has come to something of a strange pass regarding the nexus of diplomacy and domestic politics. The subfield has ended a long, soul-searching exile at the margins of the profession, conventionally dated to Charles Maier’s 1980 assessment “Marking Time,” which seems even to this day to be the only required “diplomatic history” reading in many doctoral-exam bibliographies. Maier famously warned of the looming irrelevance of a focus on top-down state-power in an era dominated by social history “from below.” The subfield took the critique to heart, and spent the wilderness decades reinventing itself. The consequent revitalization has been unmistakable. Scholars in the area have embraced a wide range of innovative approaches and a far-broader evidentiary base to produce literature that expands and transcends its traditional categories to speak to other areas and interests. In particular, the subfield’s early adoption of “internationalization” and its transnational turn predated that of the wider profession. In combination with its creative deployment of cultural and related analyses, this arguably has put its scholarship at the profession’s cutting-edge.

This invigoration has been on the whole wonderfully salutary for the subfield. It has enriched our internal discussions, research directions, and contributions to the profession at large, producing the “full sea” to which Brutus’s words in the title of this article refer. It has, however, had a curious side effect. “Diplomatic history” has flourished as it has embraced internationalization and the transnational and cultural turns—but in doing so it has distanced itself from political history. This is ironic, given the traditional and apparently natural affinities of the two subfields for each other, and this distancing is neither inevitable nor irrevocable.1 A review of the principal developments and challenges in foreign-relations history today shows that political history—properly and expansively defined—can play an important role in understanding and addressing them.

This very topic has been the focus of a debate within the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations (SHAFR) over the last decade. In a variation on the earlier years of soul-searching, some of the organization’s recent presidents, and some of its leading lights (most notably in the pages of the Journal of American History) have assessed its strength while worrying to varied degrees whether the “political history” dimension of our studies is being unduly short-shrifted.2 There may, however, be a kind of middle ground. If a broader definition of “political history” is applied, one extending beyond campaigns and elections, there appear several promising points of contact with U.S.-international history as currently practiced. Taking “political history” also to encompass state power, institutional landscapes, policy-making and -implementation, rhetoric and culture, negotiations and constituencies, and perhaps above all what we might call the “L Word”—legitimacy—can allow the study of domestic politics and political culture, and of U.S. foreign relations, to strengthen one another. Among other benefits, this has the potential to prompt both subfields, and outsiders to each, to appreciate what Fred Logevall and Campbell Craig call the “intermestic” dimension where foreign and domestic dynamics intersect.3

A closer look reveals how the recent trends in diplomatic history have distanced it from political history—and how a savvy realignment could advance the literature as a whole. The limited space here prevents an extended discussion, but much more can be had in the publications cited above, especially theJAH roundtable. A centerpiece of that discussion is what might be called Tom Zeiler’s “three i’s”: ideology, internationalization, and identity. “Ideology” denotes the conceptual space where ideas, mentalités, and discourse meet, to inform and manipulate the realities of state power; “internationalization” is shorthand for the way that a multilingual, multiarchival source-base reveals the fluidity and multivalence of relations—and the agency of foreign actors in shaping them; and “identity” employs cultural analysis to trace the meanings and influences—gender, linguistic, racial, and other—shaping the causes, courses, and aftermaths of U.S.-international encounters. The three i’s cover most of the proverbial waterfront, and several of the most important works of recent years touch them all, although, as Fred Logevall points out in theJAH forum, missing from the picture—perhaps tellingly—is domestic politics.4

However, the same historiography and its trends can be parsed another way, one spotlighting what we might call their temporal, archival, and conceptual dimensions, and pointing to the contributions that political-history scholarship might make. The three dimensions are very much interrelated, indeed interdependent. The “temporal” refers principally to two ongoing trends in foreign-relations history: the rising interest in the 1970s as a crucial decade in U.S.-global affairs, and the inadequacy of a Cold War framework for understanding the 20th century. Long understood to be turbulent, the decade of the 1970s nevertheless tended to be overshadowed in the literature by its predecessor (and especially 1968), whose chaos and tumult marked it as transformative on both domestic and foreign fronts. A number of outstanding junior scholars such as Daniel Sargent, Sarah Snyder, Hang Nguyen, and others have begun amending this consensus. These authors join with senior colleagues to emphasize “the shock of the global,” as the currency and oil crises, and Mideast war, terror, and revolution—all of large imprint both domestically and internationally—came to eclipse détente as the decade’s big story.5 On a yet-longer timeline, the turn away from Cold War periodization is of potentially large import for a subfield whose ranks are dominated by specialists on the post-1945 era.

None dispute the power of the Cold War to shape and distort events in its time. But it is increasingly clear as the Cold War recedes that the superpower conflict did not dominate its century in quite the comprehensive way its inhabitants then believed. Other stories that unfolded concurrently—globalization, decolonization, religious fundamentalism, the rise of Asia—appear with hindsight to have had an equal or greater impact.

Both of these temporal evolutions were in a sense driven by archival developments. The “25-year rule” (effectively 30-plus when processing-time is taken into account) for the release of most official government records sets a kind of historiographical rhythm. It marks on a predictable timeline the first moment when scholars will have their fullest and deepest chance to explore a given topic. It does not, of course, automatically follow that scholars will conclude that the “newly discovered” period qualifies as transformative in the way the 1970s are now seen, although dissertation-writers will always have an incentive to argue thus. But it does permit a first and best crack at evaluating the period on historians’ terms—that is, on solid archival ground.

Beyond these sources, forays into foreign archives—and through them into earlier time-periods—have led historians to rethink the periodization of the Cold War and of the 20th century. While these archives often present difficulties of access alongside the obvious linguistic barriers, they have richly repaid those scholars who have invested in them to study crosscurrents of gender, nationalism, decolonization, culture, and economics. The transnational nature of many of these has reinforced the “transitional” nature of Cold War, and demoted the latter from its ontological supremacy in understanding 20th-century history. As the scholarship has followed the Cold War into new corners of the globe, it has found that East-West conflict to be just one—albeit very large—force among several. Not least among these was the longer-running North-South split carved by European capital and empire. The dynamic, crosscutting interactions of all of the above have helped to reorient scholars’ mental map of the 20th century to a more global, less Europe-bounded, and less “Cold War-centric” view.

Though it is unclear which is chicken and which is egg, these developments have begotten the subfield’s broader reconceptualizations of the “diplomatic” past. Along with the trends noted above, the incorporation of cultural analysis into U.S. foreign relations has had a significant impact. Such analysis pays attention to actors and forces “beneath,” or at least independent of, state power. These encompass international institutions and norms, transnational movements and non-state actors, racial and gender dynamics, migration and borderlands, capital and technology flows, religion, the environment, and empire and decolonization. “Culture” courses through all of these to greater or lesser degree, and all have enriched our literature.

While all of the above trends face particular logistical, linguistic, interpretive, and other challenges, perhaps the largest of these points back to political history. If the Maier critique prompted a crisis of confidence driven by fears of irrelevance, which the subfield answered by pioneering new approaches ultimately embraced by the larger profession, the consequent flourishing prompts a kind of crisis of identity. Much of this latter turns on the fundamental questions of how “American” and “state-centered” our work should be. Domestic politics, as part of the connective tissue between those matters in real life, can be part of the solution in the intellectual and historiographical spheres. Not only are there still lacunae in the literature that can be best illuminated by a domestic politics approach—Andrew Johns’s excellent study of the Republican Party’s role in the politics of the Vietnam War comes to mind—but even subjects that at first glance reside somewhat removed from that approach often lead their investigators back to it.6

If “domestic politics” are considered this way, in their fullest dimensions—not just elections and campaigns but political culture and rhetoric, public and partisan opinion, and state policy, -power, and -institutions—then these very much deserve a place in our analyses, even given our “3 i’s” explorations beyond the subfield’s traditional frontiers. This is straightforward on the merits; we simply cannot tell many of our stories—Madison and the War of 1812, FDR and American isolationism in the 1930s, LBJ and Vietnam, or more recently George W. Bush and the Senate’s Iraq War Resolution—without reference to domestic American politics. But even beyond this “homefront” corner of the picture, far from being incompatible, the recent trends in the literature invite attention to “domestic” politics at home and overseas alike. Archives abroad can shed light on foreign actors’ navigation of their own domestic political landscapes, as well as their attempts to influence the American one. Whether one thinks of Emiliano Aguinaldo timing guerilla violence in hopes of defeating McKinley’s re-election bid; or foreign-based but U.S.-connected ethnic and labor lobbies seeking Washington’s support for their struggles; or Nehru, Sukarno, and Nasser jockeying after the Bandung Conference in response to domestic pressures; or Anglo-German propaganda battles in U.S. media before and during World War I, there is no shortage of examples demonstrating the importance of internal political currents, not least but not alone within the United States. Given that both American leaders and foreign actors alike were paying close attention to these, we should ourselves do no less.

The “3 i’s” and the cultural and transnational turns have strengthened the subfield, as they have been good for the profession as a whole. They have enlivened the literature and deepened our understanding of relations writ large, and teased out the political dimensions of struggles and encounters big and small, within and among cultures, peoples, beliefs, empires, and regimes. Having learned to read everything from “the personal” outwards through community, society, and culture as being at least implicitly political, we are left with little good reason to disdain the explicitly political parts of the story. Moreover, and especially in a 21st century whose everyday flows—of currency, information, culture, among others—spread effortlessly across borders and into polities, we historians should be mindful of how “politics” ebbs and flows in multiple directions over and across the water’s edge.


1. Equally ironic is the somewhat artificial distance between diplomatic and policy history. See Robert McMahon, “Diplomatic History and Policy History: Finding Common Ground,”Journal of Policy History 17:1 (2005), 93–109.

2. See Michael J. Hogan, “The ‘Next Big Thing’: The Future of Diplomatic History in a Global Age,”Diplomatic History 28:1 (January 2004), 1–22; Thomas Schwartz, “‘Henry… Winning an Election is Terribly Important’: Partisan Politics in the History of U.S. Foreign Relations,” Diplomatic History 33:2 (April 2009), 173–190; Tom Zeiler et al., “The Diplomatic History Bandwagon: A State of the Field,” roundtable, Journal of American History 95:4 (March 2009), 1053–1091.

3. Fredrik Logevall and Campbell Craig, America’s Cold War: The Politics of Insecurity (Cambridge, Mass., 2009), 10–12.

4. Recent notable works conjoining the “3 i’s” include Erez Manela,The Wilsonian Moment: Self-Determination and the International Origins of Anticolonial Nationalism (New York, 2007); Elizabeth Borgwardt, A New Deal for the World: America’s Vision for Human Rights (Cambridge, Mass., 2007); Odd Arne Westad,The Global Cold War: Third World Interventions and the Making of Our Times (Cambridge, 2005); Paul Kramer, The Blood of Government: Race, Empire, the United States, and the Philippines (Chapel Hill, 2006). Fredrik Logevall, “Politics and Foreign Relations,” Journal of American History 95:4 (March 2009), 1074–1078.

5. Niall Ferguson, Charles Maier, Erez Manela, and Daniel Sargent, eds.,The Shock of the Global: The 1970s in Perspective (Cambridge, Mass., 2010).

6. A selection of recent examples would include Andrew Johns,Vietnam’s Second Front: Domestic Politics, the Republican Party, and the War (Lexington, 2010); Kenneth Osgood, Total Cold War: Eisenhower’s Secret Propaganda Battle at Home and Abroad (Lawrence, 2006); Julian Zelizer, Arsenal of Democracy: The Politics of National Security from World War II to the War on Terrorism (New York, 2009); Jeffrey Engel, “The Democratic Language of American Imperialism: Race, Order, and Theodore Roosevelt’s Personifications of Foreign Policy Evil,” Diplomacy and Statecraft 19:4 (December 2008), 671–689; and Susan Brewer,Why America Fights: Patriotism and War Propaganda from the Philippines to Iraq (New York, 2009).

Jason Parker is associate professor of history at Texas A&M University. He is the author of Brother's Keeper: The United States, Race, and Empire in the British Caribbean, 1937–1962.

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