Political History Today
The Business in Between: U.S. Foreign Relations and Domestic Politics
Christopher R. W. Dietrich, May 2011
The Challenge of Internationalization
The historiography of American foreign relations, like other fields, has its share of ongoing methodological debates. Though driven by many factors, these debates have more recently been dominated by the influence of international history. Matthew Connelly argued, for instance, in a plenary session of the 2010 OAH annual meeting that diplomatic historians have not done enough to place U.S. foreign policymakers and their decisions within their greater international contexts.
Not everyone agrees with this proposition. In a March 2009 article for The Journal of American History, Thomas Zeiler described diplomatic historians as "an advanced guard driving"—or at least riding shotgun on—"the bandwagon of internationalization." As interesting was the lively debate under the heading "Terminology" that followed on the H-Diplo discussion list, one of H-Net's largest and most active, on the pros and cons of the growing array of methods used to study the international dimensions of politics and power.1
At the other end of the spectrum stands Fred Logevall, who depicted international history as a new historiographical "steamroller" at last year's meeting of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations. His most recent book, co-authored with Campbell Craig, holds that although international history has "tremendous explanatory power" for certain subjects, it does not recognize the extreme power imbalances of international politics and therefore has little to offer in terms of understanding major U.S. policy decisions. "America-centered questions demanding immersion in American sources and knowledge of American institutions," Logevall and Craig forcefully argue, offer much more. Divorcing foreign policy decisions from domestic politics, from this perspective, makes little sense if one wishes to understand either.2
The Integrative Potential
In this context of attitudinal diversity, how does domestic political history relate to the practice of the history of U.S. foreign relations? If we follow Mark Leff's decade-old definition of political history as dealing "with the development and impact of governmental institutions, along with the proximate influences on their action," there is a fertile middle ground for the practice of "intermestic" history, to use Logevall and Craig's neologism.
In fact, as practiced today, one of the merits of political history is that it does not suffer from the "your-chocolate-is-in-my-peanut-butter" syndrome of territorial specialization that many believe afflicts our profession. At least in part, the resurgence of political history stems from this integrative potential. While disagreeing about which topics merit greater attention, political historians have incorporated the growing methodological subtlety of other fields—including social, cultural, intellectual, environmental, and technological history—to detail the variety of conditions that interact with politics. This dexterity complements the political historian's orthodox concern with politics' impact on society—the presidential synthesis Eric Foner proclaimed "dead (and not lamented)" in 1990—in a way that meets high standards of logic and evidence.3
A Capacious Vision
As recently published books show, Leff's capacious definition of political history promises distinct benefits for diplomatic historians. In Mary Dudziak's adroit treatment of Thurgood Marshall's personal and official diplomacy towards Kenya, Exporting American Dreams, politics does not stand at the center of analysis. Still, especially as she details how Marshall's movement from life as a private citizen to that of a federal judge affected his position toward Kenyan democracy, Dudziak notes that political questions cannot help but play a major role. In fact, the U.S. government first tapped Marshall to visit Africa with political motivation, to counter the prevalent international impression of American racism. Dudziak thus emphasizes the personal balance Marshall struck between the politics of legal reform, ideals of equality, and his own preoccupation with the constitutional dilemmas presented by minority rights. As her story extends from the 1950s United States into 1960s Kenya, it certainly includes important state-centered considerations. But this is not her primary goal. Rather, it is to analyze the links between the U.S. civil rights movement and the political development of post-imperial Africa.
Another fine example of how the ecumenical definition of political history can benefit diplomatic historians comes from Susan Brewer's Why America Fights. Unlike Dudziak, Brewer places politics front and center, holding that what Donald Rumsfeld famously (and cynically) called "perception management" has inundated American wartime politics for over a century. By delving into six wars—the Philippine War, World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the Iraq War—Brewer draws out a pattern for understanding American foreign military involvement: politicized rhetoric enshrines American actions as humanitarian and denigrates the enemy as barbaric. The politicking of presidential persuasion, according to Brewer, is as important a reason for the momentous decisions of war and peace as more commonly invoked threats to national security.
Julian Zelizer's Arsenal of Democracy shares the same principal theme: the intimate relationship between domestic politics and American national security policy. Zelizer, who sets the tone with a riveting description of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's December 29, 1940, fireside chat on national security, argues persuasively for the closely entwined nature of international and domestic politics. His argument is bold: the attempt to maintain FDR's "great arsenal of democracy," defined as the immense machinery of "a permanent national security state," created a tension that has shaped American politics ever since. This tension between the "arsenal" and the "democracy," between elite policymakers and the electoral system, rests at the core of perennial debates about the authenticity of American democratic principles.4
Pluralism and Vigor
Important distinctions characterize the above-mentioned works, which, as individual approaches, can only begin to note the methodological options available in such a variegated field. In itself, this variety leads to a significant conclusion. Despite their differences, the historians referred to in the preceding discussion share a roomy understanding of the boundaries of political and diplomatic history. Their stories do not fit neatly into any one particular field. Second, although the state remains a principal category of analysis, these histories eschew narrowly focused state-centrism. By creating a sense of movement and interpenetration between literatures, these authors have gained in precision at the same time as they draw broad conclusions regarding the intersection of politics and international history; politics, you might say, is not always local.
Zelizer believes that the potential of political history to accommodate other approaches is an attribute that strikes at the heart of deeper questions about history. A "dynamic and complex definition of politics," he argues, allows for the possibility of historical interpretation that is "less instrumental or predictable, one that is more varied or robust." By sharing its vocabulary, the study of politics is employed in a way that invites new analysis and moves against the still-strong tendencies to fragment the study of history, lamented by Bernard Bailyn and Gordon Wood, among many others, since the 1980s.5
Bailyn stated this most clearly in 1982: Coherence is too often sacrificed on an altar of overspecialized knowledge. Many foreign relations historians agree. Diplomatic history, Robert McMahon argues, is naturally Janus-faced, a field where internal and external forces come together. His analysis of the consequences aligns neatly with the arguments of Zelizer, Bailyn, and Wood. An accommodating posture towards variety yields an overwhelmingly positive return. Historians can only benefit from working in "a more vigorous, diverse, open, and plural field."6
As a new generation plumbs national and international archives, it is important to remember that the appeal for coherence is also a call to push past traditional boundaries. If historians continue to draw on a shared lineage calling attention to the important intellectual links across fields, many of the future's best histories will as likely be the product of a methodological cocktail as the assiduous study of one field.
Christopher Dietrich is a PhD candidate in the Department of History at the University of Texas at Austin and a Smith-Richardson Fellow at Yale International Security Studies. His dissertation examines the 1970s energy crisis.
4. Mary L. Dudziak. Exporting American Dreams: Thurgood Marshall's African Journey (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008); Susan A. Brewer, Why America Fights: Patriotism and War Propaganda from the Philippines to Iraq (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009); Julian Zelizer, Arsenal of Democracy: The Politics of National Security from World War II to the War on Terrorism (New York: Basic Books, 2009).
5. Zelizer, 506; Bernard Bailyn, "The Challenge of Modern Historiography," American Historical Review 87 (1982); Gordon Wood, "The Significance of the Early Republic," Journal of the Early Republic 8 (1988).
6. Robert McMahon, "Toward a Pluralist Vision: The Study of American Foreign Relations as International History and National History," in Michael Hogan and Thomas Paterson, eds., Explaining the History of American Foreign Relations, 2nd ed. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 37–38.