In Other Words

New Age Diplomacy

Diplomatic History, Vol. 24, No. 4, Fall 2000, Columbus Just as feminism, post-colonial theory, and postmodernism have long challenged cultural historians to "deconstruct" society, the same motivation is now leading diplomatic historians to deconstruct the state and rethink the relationships between peoples and societies. Several articles in the Fall 2000 issue of Diplomatic History — ...

Diplomatic History, Vol. 24, No. 4, Fall 2000, Columbus

Just as feminism, post-colonial theory, and postmodernism have long challenged cultural historians to "deconstruct" society, the same motivation is now leading diplomatic historians to deconstruct the state and rethink the relationships between peoples and societies. Several articles in the Fall 2000 issue of Diplomatic History — the quarterly, 25-year-old journal of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations — highlight the recent evolution in this field.

In his essay "Christians, Muslims, and Hindus: Religion and U.S.-South Asian Relations, 1947-1954," Colgate University historian Andrew J. Rotter considers the influence of Protestantism on U.S. policy toward India and Pakistan during the early years of the Cold War. Rotter argues that John Foster Dulles, the devoutly Presbyterian U.S. secretary of state, regarded Pakistan — a monotheistic Muslim state separated from a polytheistic Hindu India — as a rough equivalent to a Christian United States. Accordingly, in 1953, Dulles sought to ally with Pakistan, because India’s religious pluralism and Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s views on the moral equivalence of the United States and the Soviet Union made India an unreliable partner.

Robert Dean, from the University of Arizona, elaborates on Rotter’s work in his article "Tradition, Cause and Effect, and the Cultural History of International Relations." Dean maintains that Dulles’s religious views made him act against U.S. strategic interests: Had Dulles focused mainly on military power, he would have recognized that Pakistan represented an ineffective bulwark against Soviet expansion. However, Dean chastises historians such as the University of Florida’s Robert J. McMahon, who argues simply that the U.S.-Pakistani alliance reflected a "deeply flawed strategic vision." Dean posits that Dulles and others used "conceptions of morality and social order" to assess potential friends and foes. "To put this another way," explains Dean, "religious beliefs became a part of the strategic reasoning of these national leaders."

But Rotter and Dean’s emphasis on religion undercuts more meaningful analytical tools, such as those based on sex, class, and race, argues Wesleyan University historian Patricia R. Hill in her essay "Religion as a Category of Diplomatic Analysis." Hill examines Rotter’s earlier work — which studied U.S. policymakers’ use of gender stereotyping — and suggests that American diplomats considered Pakistan a masculine power and India a feminine one. She concludes that the United States’ tilt toward Pakistan thus had less to do with Dulles’s own religious beliefs than with the institutional culture of the U.S. State Department, which perceived India as weak and submissive in the struggle against communism.

Traditional diplomatic historians, of course, reject many of these new approaches as too left-wing or biased. University of Virginia historian Melvyn Leffler, for instance, laments that cultural historians concern themselves "with discourses rather than subjects, structures rather than actions, process rather than agency, the construction of meaning rather than the definition of experience." But perhaps the greatest problem the new diplomatic history presents is that it leaves out the diplomats, as a subject as well as an audience. Until the 1960s, most historians believed that history could teach something about the world — how a war was started, or how a peace was made — and inform those who made policy. Today, however, few have such confidence, even fewer such aspirations. This abandonment of diplomatic history, coupled with the strong influence of theoretical innovations such as game theory in political science, has left policymakers with few reliable guideposts. Studying what one Foreign Service clerk wrote to another may bore today’s historians, but it remains essential for tomorrow’s diplomats.

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