Between Reaction and Irrelevance: the regrettably contested politics of diplomatic history

Nick Danforth
7 min readAug 19, 2018

This piece was originally commissioned as a response to Hal Brands’ “The Tragedy and Triumph of Diplomatic History,” published in the December 2017 issue of the Texas National Security Review (Volume 1, Issue 1).

Too often, debates over diplomatic history appear to pit scholars hoping the field can return to its roots against others who see those roots as inherently reactionary. On one side are defenders of traditional diplomatic history, often conservative, who think discussion of race, gender, and culture are a distraction from truly important questions of hard power and statecraft. On the other side are liberal historians in other subfields for whom this dismissive attitude has tainted the entire enterprise. And, as Niall Ferguson recently demonstrated, in these debates it is often the defenders of traditional diplomatic history who are most vocally calling for “publicly engaged” or “applied” history, usually meaning work of immediate use to U.S. policymakers.

This, of course, is a caricature of a far more complicated discussion. But these attitudes are sufficiently widespread on both sides to hinder the efforts of all those scholars seeking to actually apply the insights of history’s cultural turn to the questions long asked by diplomatic historians. As the number of positions in diplomatic history decline — Hal Brands notes that there were three advertised for the 2015–2016 academic year — professional incentives push young scholars toward topics that will make them competitive in other history jobs. The result is a situation where journals like Diplomatic History try to catch up to trends in the broader field with special issues like “Sports and the Cold War” that satisfy no one. And graduate students still focus their efforts on journals that will be more appealing to hiring committees than Diplomatic History.

Historians on the left who are more critical of state power may understandably be less interested in writing “applied history” that readily appeals to policymakers.[1] But up to a point, if you want people to listen to answers they don’t want to hear, asking the right questions can be a helpful first step. Making an extra effort at engagement, in this context, is all the more important when pushing the public or policymakers to engage with criticism. The alternative for liberal historians is ceding the entire conversation about international affairs to their colleagues across the hall in international relations or a handful of conservative scholars at think tanks. If historians and their departments remain hesitant to engage with power politics, their intellectual insights will gradually be written out of an important national conversation. And while many will be content to blame their newfound irrelevance on the very political institutions they disdain, the loss will the world’s.

Subjects like race, gender and culture are important to study for their own sake, and history departments have every reason to devote more resources to them. But scholars have also done important and often overlooked work in showing how these subjects can help answer longstanding questions about power politics rather than replacing them. Following President Donald Trump’s tweet about the size of his nuclear button, for example, there was a moment of pre-apocalyptic interest in the role of masculinity into mainstream security debates.[2] But it need not take the threat of nuclear war to have a serious conversation about gender in diplomatic history. Indeed, among the many statesmen who believed in its importance was apparently President Lyndon B. Johnson, who, when asked by a reporter why the United States was fighting in Vietnam, allegedly responded “this is why” before whipping out his Lyndon Baines.[3]

What’s more, changes in the field of history as a whole have already transformed diplomatic history in ways that actually make it more policy relevant. Chief among these is the successful incorporation of non-European languages and perspectives into the discipline. Today, for example, scholars would hesitate write about the Suez Crisis without using Arabic sources or Turkey’s entry into NATO without using Turkish ones. As a result, historians have come to better understand how global and local politics interact, how political motives are perceived and misperceived by diverse actors, and, more broadly, how American power has both succeeded and failed in shaping the world. As long as the United States remains militarily and diplomatically engaged around the globe, understanding these subjects will be crucial for effective policy-making.

Beyond the substance of historical scholarship, the debate over public engagement also touches on issues of style and venue and presentation. Historians working on the subject of interstate relations, whether they think of themselves as diplomatic historians or specialists in specific regions, now have a range of opportunities for sharing their insights with a wider audience. Hostility toward writing politically-relevant history in mainstream publications is nowhere near as widespread as sometime assumed. If more academic historians don’t, it is largely a result of the already overwhelming demands on their time in a comically competitive job market. Frustrating, however, is that to the extent this hostility exists, it takes a perniciously counter-productive and hypocritical form. The condemnation of presentism, for example, often seems most widespread among historians whose own work represents an elaborate, historically-couched critique of contemporary American foreign policy. Similarly, the historians most concerned with attacking mass media representations of, say, the Middle East, end up being the most judgmental toward scholars who try to fight these representations by writing for the mass media themselves.

Taking Middle East history as an example, one could think of the challenge politically-engaged scholars face as navigating between the perils of crude oversimplification and gratuitous obfuscation — a Scylla and Charybdis represented all too well by the rival figures of Thomas Friedman and Timothy Mitchell. The success of Friedman’s aggressively reductionist analysis of the Arab world — unburdened by a deep knowledge of its language or history and often deployed in support of American power — has helped tarnish the very idea of accessible writing in the minds of many scholars. Mitchell, in turn, a Columbia professor well known in the field for his work on British imperialism in Egypt, has played a similar role in promoting inaccessible writing as a stylistic and ideological alternative.[4] Indeed, through his work on subjects such as colonial techno-power and carbon democracy, Mitchell has helped encourage the idea that the entire edifice of Western power is best critiqued in language that leaves any potentially sympathetic listeners outside of academia (and many within) hopelessly confused.

For anyone who believes that critiques of Western power deserve a wider hearing, the results of this trend are dangerously counter-productive. A generation of young scholars working on the Middle East has been encouraged, via websites like Jadaliyya, to present their valuable insights on contemporary politics in deliberately obtuse ways.[5] And yet this approach comes at the expense of writing for publications that engage a wider audience extending beyond the already converted. In most mainstream publications, editors are far more likely to impose a strict stylistic litmus test on potential contributors than an ideological one. Plenty of articles appear every day demonstrating that relatively progressive ideas, presented clearly, can find a place in foreign policy debates.

To take just one example: A great deal of recent research on U.S. foreign policy during the Cold War has built on the work of scholars like Mitchell to explore how Washington mobilized ideas about modernity to justify and advance its political interests in the third world.[6] It is a particularly relevant body of research, as many of the bedrock assumptions about modernity that emerged from that era continue to shape U.S. foreign policy for the worse today. Conveying the essence of this critique without oversimplifying remains difficult. But if you want to declare that modernity is a con game, there are publications like Foreign Affairs that will let you.

Beyond the substantive and stylistic concerns, there is also a structural element. The quickest way to ensure more publicly relevant scholarship focused on the traditional questions posed by diplomatic history would be to create more positions for it. And, of course, the quickest way to make sure the scholars filling those positions, whether at think tanks, research institutes or universities, share your politics is to make sure the funders do. With luck, as the range of people paid to research and write about foreign policy from a historical perspective becomes more ideologically diverse, it will encourage a deeper and more organic relationship between the vital concerns that have long animated diplomatic history and the equally vital concerns of liberal historians across the discipline.

[1] A point made well in John Glaser’s earlier entry: “Truth, Power, and the Academy: A Response to Hal Brands.” War on the Rocks, March 26, 2018

[2] Carol Cohn, “The Perils of Mixing Masculinity and Missiles,” New York Times, January 5, 2018.

[3] David M Friedman, A Mind of Its Own (Penguin, 2003), quoted by Emily Nussbaum, “The Penis as Text for Serious Thinkers: Be Careful What You Wish For,” New York Times, Dec 22, 2001.

[4] Timothy Mitchell, Rule of Experts: Egypt, Techno-Politics, Modernity (University of California Press, 2002).

[5] Examples are legion, but consider just one: A piece about the Gezi Park and Tahrir Square protests, making the eminently sensible point that there were similarities and differences between the two, both of which were rhetorically exploited by oppressive governments for problematic ends. Somehow, in the hands of Jadaliyya, the conclusion to the piece came out like this: “we choose to situate ourselves between the statements ‘is’ and ‘is not,’ claiming that Tahrir (is) (not) Taksim Square.” Needless to say, both the Gezi and Tahrir protests generated enormous interest among American policymakers and the editors of mainstream American publications. Engaging them simply required a willingness to defer to the conventions of readable prose. Danya Al-Saleh and Mohammed Rafi Arefin, “Taksim Is/Is Not Tahrir: Comparative Frameworks in Managing Protest,” Jadaliyya, July 27, 2013.

[6] For just one recent overview, see the H-Diplo Roundtable XIX, no. 13, “Envisioning the Arab Future: Modernization in U.S.-Arab Relations, 1945–1967” at