The study of political and diplomatic relations between nation states was central to the discipline of history as it was professionalised and institutionalised in the 19th century.(1) As the discipline expanded and diversified, the study of statecraft became the preserve of a discrete sub-field known as diplomatic history. After the Second World War, diplomatic historians gradually developed a more expansive view of their subject matter. Although formal relations between states remained central, more systematic attention began to be paid not only to diplomacy, but also to economics, strategy, the domestic sources of foreign policy, ideology and propaganda, and intelligence.
Thus in the 1960s and 1970s diplomatic history mutated into a specialism predominantly denoted as international history. This expansive evolution has continued with each successive generation and at the cutting edge of the sub-discipline today scholars are plying cultural modes of analysis and emphasising non-state actors and transnational processes in ways which in turn call into question the adequacy of the descriptor international. Mingling traditional and innovative approaches, this is a vibrant area of historical inquiry, albeit with a dynamism that engenders a lack of consensus over what should constitute its core concerns.
The classical diplomatic history of the later 19th and early 20th centuries was hallmarked by assiduous attention to the archival record and an interpretive focus on the foreign policies of the great powers, the making and breaking of treaties, and the deliberations and actions of foreign office clerks, diplomats and statesmen. At a time when developments in philosophy and politics combined to make the rise of the modern European nation-state seem the central drama of the age, it was natural that statecraft and war should occupy centre stage in historical writing.
Such inquiry was also facilitated by the growing inclination of governments to publish edited collections of diplomatic correspondence to justify their foreign policies to a broader (and newly enfranchised) public. Diplomatic history thus appeared to possess potent explanatory force, its popularity fuelled by a belief that by revealing 'the secret stratagems of monarchs and statesmen' it could uncover 'the pattern of the past which explained the present'.(2)
Following the cataclysm of the First World War, the relevance of diplomatic history only intensified as the questions it tackled were demonstrably 'of fundamental importance both to the recent history and to the future of mankind'.(3) An idealist and internationalist conviction that discovering the roots of past conflicts would contribute to the cause of peace was integral to the sub-discipline: this motivated the endowment of the Stevenson Chair in International History at the London School of Economics, first filled by Charles Kingsley Webster in 1932. (This concern was shared by the nascent discipline of international relations, long one of international history's most significant others: Webster had previously been Woodrow Wilson Professor of International Politics at Aberystwyth.)
That said, most diplomatic historians disdained present-centred concerns, professing scrupulous objectivity and hard-line empiricism. This did not, however, prevent ideological entanglement and much diplomatic history was saturated with pernicious patriotic sentiment. Explaining the origins of the First World War became a matter of enormous contemporary political significance through the interconnection of the issue of 'war guilt' with German demands for the revision of the Treaty of Versailles. The controversy was played out through the official publication of archival material and the propagation of conflicting, often stridently nationalist, interpretations.
If these contingencies secured a place of unprecedented privilege in political and intellectual discourse for diplomatic history, circumstances after the Second World War induced a malaise. The rise of social and economic history and the Annales paradigm, the growing influence of Marxism in the academy and the burgeoning of fertile social science approaches in a revitalised international relations conspired to endow diplomatic history with a reputation as 'the most arid and sterile of all the sub-histories'.(4) Its fixation on events, elites (almost exclusively male) and formal power, together with its predilection for careful narrative reconstruction, came to be regarded as both ideologically dubious and intellectually restricted. The growing complexity of contemporary international relations also cast doubt on the explanatory power of politics narrowly defined.
Practitioners responded by creating a much more expansive international history, attentive to profound structural forces, the formulation as well as execution of policy, a wider range of actors and a host of new thematic concerns. The gradual opening of British (and other) state archives pertaining to the pre-1914 and pre-1939 periods in the 1960s provided a further catalyst for this development, as it made available a wealth of new materials that scholars eagerly devoured in constructing new histories of the origins of the First and Second World Wars.
By the 1970s, international history was clearly established as a mature intellectual practice, acquiring the appropriate paraphernalia of dedicated journals, conferences, specialist degree schemes and professional associations. Its terrain became more complex and contested, as new approaches proliferated without entirely displacing more traditional practices and the volume of publications perceptibly increased. Naturally there were tensions between competing approaches and internal debate about the proper balance to be struck between different analytical factors. So, for example, Paul Kennedy's masterly The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers was castigated by some critics for its economic determinism.(5) Equally, new sub-specialisms such as propaganda history – deploying modish visual source materials – initially struggled to win legitimacy within the field.
Moreover, despite its innovative diversity international history continued to be regarded by many other historians with 'condescension and antipathy' as a reactionary field remote from the discipline's cutting edge.(6) So paradoxically even as the 'new international history' was proclaimed, the reflective literature was hallmarked by self-flagellatory introspection and ruminations on decline. One critic famously declared international history to be 'marking time', too stubbornly attached to conventional modes of explanation and narrow Rankean exegesis and lagging behind theoretical advances elsewhere in the discipline.(7) With some justice many international historians believed such critiques slighted their sophisticated achievements. (8)
In the 1990s this ambiguous condition persisted. On the one hand, there was further renewal. The collapse of communism and the end of the Cold War appeared to underline the self-evident importance of high politics; more significantly, the archival materials that began to become available from former communist states facilitated the emergence of a 'new Cold War history' of unprecedented depth and multinational reach. On the other hand, many scholars felt their specialism was ever more alienated from a wider profession apparently obsessed with the triptych of race, class and gender. A milestone was perhaps passed when in a 1998 Institute of Historical Research survey of UK historians 387 respondents identified their main interest as 'women/gender' whereas only 386 expressed a similar concern with international relations.(9)
The theoretical turbulence generated by postmodernism intensified the sense of crisis, as many international historians judged it inherently hostile to the study of politics and diplomacy and the use of their favoured empiricist methodologies. Through the mid and late 1990s there were fierce debates – sharpest, admittedly, in the United States – about these fundamental theoretical issues and the validity of the interpretive approaches that they spawned.
In the present century, the rise of culture as both an object of study and an interpretive lens has rejuvenated practice.(10) Whole new sub-fields have emerged dedicated to cultural diplomacy and cultural transfer and the transnational activities of philanthropists, tourists, intellectuals, technical experts and a range of other non-state and societal actors. There is also a significant and growing body of work exploring how 'beliefs about national identity, ideology, race and ethnicity, gender, and class', together with other cultural attitudes, 'shaped the exercise of economic, political, or military power'.(11) These approaches challenge foundational assumptions about the nature of the international, the border between the domestic and the foreign and the validity of 'realist' approaches in international relations.
Perceived changes in the fabric of real world international relations were again in play here. Globalisation suggested the need for new forms of explanation as 'the nation-state fades as the necessary organizing principle of all global relationships and their histories', and the post-Cold War rise of ethnic and cultural antagonisms demonstrated the need to take ideas more seriously.(12) The cultural turn also represented an acceptance of the less polemical claims of postmodernism about the constitutive role of the linguistic. Yet although the common sense of the sub-discipline has thus been partially reshaped, the claims of 'culturalism' remain contested. 'Mainstream' international historians evince scepticism about its explanatory power and conceptual precision and fear it might portend the eclipse of traditional concerns with elite decision-making and life and death issues of war and peace.
International history today is a thriving and varied field. Important work is being produced on all periods of modern international relations, from the 17th and 18th centuries through to the recent past, even if a Rankean hunger for fresh archival evidence means there is a perceptible bias towards the Cold War. Thematically, practice has never been more diverse. A glance at the programmes of the annual conference of the British International History Group reveals that traditional studies of diplomacy and statecraft are by no means absent, but these are supplemented by rich bodies of work on economics, strategy, domestic politics and intelligence, as well as the more voguish forays into 'culturalism'.
Few universities aside from the London School of Economics possess dedicated departments of international history, but many history departments contain significant clusters of international historians – for example, at Birmingham, Cambridge, Leeds and Nottingham – as do interdisciplinary units such as War Studies at King's College London and International Politics at Aberystwyth.
Although international historians remain prone to status anxiety, haunted by the spectre of their lost 19th-century pre-eminence, in many respects the place of the study of international relations within the wider discipline and culture is more secure than for some time. The impact of 9/11 and the subsequent 'war on terror' demonstrated that the traditional concerns of the field – how states and societies interact; the nature, rationale and justification for the exercise of military power; when war can be avoided and how it should be fought – were once more of vital political, intellectual and moral relevance. International historians of all complexions can make distinctive contributions to these debates and are finding a ready audience.
This said, diversity also brings the risk of waning cohesion. International history has always existed in a complex web of relationships with cognate disciplines like international relations and sub-disciplines such as military or imperial history and its borders have thus not always been readily apparent. Moreover, its sovereignty over the terrain of the international is today additionally threatened as other historians, literary and cultural scholars and social scientists in myriad disciplines make their own postcolonial, transnational and globalising turns.
Suggested responses to these challenges are starkly contrasting. Some international historians hark for a return to the past, advocating a fully-fledged flight from fashion back to the grand traditions of classical diplomatic history. More sophisticated 'mainstream' scholars acknowledge a productive contribution from 'culturalism' but urge a stabilisation that leaves the core analysands of states and policy-makers at centre stage. At the other extreme, some 'culturalists' advocate the near dissolution of the sub-discipline as they preach the virtues of further interdisciplinary collaboration and the acceleration of the transnational turn.(13) How international history will move forward thus remains an open question.
Patrick Finney teaches international history in the Department of International Politics, Aberystwyth University.