Is Diplomatic History Dying?: And Other Considerations in Preparation for the SHAFR Annual Meeting

With the annual SHAFR Meeting coming up in one week, I have diplomatic history on my mind. It may come as a surprise to some that I would be attending. I am a historian of American religion after all: a subfield that exists, ostensibly, alongside other subfields like diplomatic history. Based on the stereotypes, I study a subject that deals with the abstract, immaterial thoughts and, at times, unverifiable, subjective experiences of historical figures; diplomatic history, in contrast (and equally stereotypical), is practical and pragmatic, concerning itself with realpolitik, almost allergic to that which cannot be casually linked with empirical data and material evidence. Historians and American Studies scholars who concern themselves with religion in the U.S. have long been interested in the plurality of traditions throughout American history, focusing on groups marginalized by the white Protestant mainstream and figures who have been ignored, neglected, or overlooked by a continued emphasis on white, male clergy who have led periods of revivals. Whereas diplomatic historians remain interested in “great men,” elite and white, who steer the course of world events.

When described in this way, it would be surprising that I would look forward to the SHAFR meeting. This is the characterization Timothy J. Lynch, Editor-in-chief of the Oxford Encyclopedia of American Military and Diplomatic History, gave diplomatic history back in May in his post “Is Diplomatic History Dying?” (to be fair, he does not evoke the stereotypes for religious studies I outlined above). In this piece, Lynch notes that most historians, and by extension undergraduates and the general public, tell a story of American history divorced from the people and events that populate diplomatic history. Citing Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States as one the most popular textbooks, Lynch contends that much of American history has moved past the interests of diplomatic historians. American history is more liberal, leftist, and socialist; is less white, less male, and less elite; and (therefore, he seems to imply) revisionist in nature. Lynch writes:

“university students are increasingly presented with impersonal forces and told these are responsible for injustice or are, conversely, the locomotives of progress. Racism, economic deprivation, and gender inequality color the research agendas of a substantial number of historians. Ameliorate these forces and we can enter the sunny uplands of progress and equality. It is not individuals that move history but forces, pressures, classes, sexes, races, even climate. Nations, led by individual leaders, are made to matter less than the United Nations, led by supposedly progressive impulses.

The diplomatic historian, of course, may be in sympathy with some of this. But he or she must also acknowledge the elite nature of much of what he or she studies: the president and his foreign policy principals, ambassadors and military commanders. And that elite, until the era of Condoleezza Rice, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama, was overwhelmingly white and male.”

Lynch clearly sees diplomatic history at odds with the legacy of the social turn (or as he said earlier in the post “liberal hegemony”): individuals vs. impersonal forces, national leaders vs. United Nations, and “all the great commanders-in-chief” vs. “economic deprivation, and gender inequality.” These binaries, however, need not exist in the mind of the scholar. Individuals, especially US presidents, are not divorced from or mutually exclusive to race, class, gender, or “even climate.” Not only were/are these 44 men shaped by each (including, particularly, the construction and maintenance of whiteness), but each were/are also instrumental in shaping these “impersonal” forces. Not least of all US presidents’ conception of American citizenship (who is a full citizen and who is not—a subject intimately related to race, gender, and class) and national sovereignty (how and why “we” may intervene in another nation’s affairs is bound in issues of race, class, and gender—which borders may we penetrate and in what manner may we penetrate them). If anything, conceiving of diplomatic history as in opposition to the social turn is, what I argue, would push it to the sidelines. Assuming the primary subjects of diplomatic history exist outside of race, class, and gender reifies the power structures in which they existed and maintained through their positions of power; this approach to diplomatic history, I contend—and not the subject matter itself—is what keeps scholars and students away.

This need not be the case, however. Countless scholars (in fields like American Religious History, for example) are moving toward diplomatic history. The theme for SHAFR’S annual conference is “America and the World—the World and America,” a topic that interests many religion scholars who focus on America and those who do not. For example, the number of undergraduate courses and textbooks related to “World Religions in the US” is on the rise. Even when they do not contain this official title, there are instructors, like me, who focus on the role of religion in international affairs. Likewise, the number of American religion scholars interested in the role of the state in shaping religious life in US is also on the rise. Creighton University’s Kripke Center for Religion and Society, for example, is sponsoring a three-year seminar focused exclusively on Religion and US Empire to develop scholarship and theoretical frameworks for studying topics I imagine are of interest to diplomatic historians. Finally, the topic of religion itself may be a fruitful avenue for diplomatic historians looking to, as Lynch wrote, “bridge the divide” between the methodological stalemate some diplomatic historians find themselves in.

Religion, as a socially constructed category of human experience, shapes race, class, gender, nationhood, and internationalism; as individual actors employ their conceptions of “the good” or “God’s divine order” on national and international levels, their thoughts and actions become scriptualized and naturalized. Rethinking “religion” as a morally neutral social construct—rather than creeds, churches, or NGOs that only contribute to nonviolent, peaceful, and altruistic ends—is another avenue in which scholars of American religion can help bring diplomatic history into this “social” focus while even maintaining an interest in predominately white, elite, male actors. More and more scholars of American religion are concerned with power (see Katie Lofton, for instance, on the topic of “higher power”) and diplomatic history is, primarily, a story of power–how it is constructed, how it is maintained, how it is negotiated over time. Paying attention to these aspects of religion in American history offers scholars interested in diplomatic history a framework with which they can situate their work among recent decades of historiographical development and reach out to scholars across a number of interdisciplinary divides. Frustrations and feelings of being left behind, ignored, or circumvented are not evidence of an intellectual turn away from diplomatic history but of, it seems to me, an identification with and internalization of the concerns of our historical subjects and their place in the narrative of American history.

The SHAFR program can be found here:

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