Bridging the Divide

Recently, I gave an interview to a website known as Women in Foreign Policy. Aside from being an opportunity to shamelessly plug myself (if you want to read the interview it’s here) it made me think about the connection between foreign policy and history. I suddenly had a small panic: ‘what if readers wanting to know more about working in foreign policy stumble across my profile? Will they be disappointed by my history qualifications?’ It also made me think about this blog, and how many posts were about international relations and how many about history. Again, if foreign policy devotees read my blog, would they find it lacking?

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In thinking on the topic I came across this post by George Lawson, an Associate Professor in the International Relations department of LSE. Ultimately, Lawson argues that history and social science need each other:

…the eternal divide is more imagined than real. Indeed, there are various tools that can help to construct an alternative understanding of the relationship between social science and history Much of the time, these differences are elevated into insurmountable barriers. [My] argument…is that history and social science should be seen as a common enterprise. 

Stephen M. Walt, Robert and Renée Belfer Professor of International Affairs at Harvard Kennedy School also believes that those interested in foreign policy should know their history:

Trying to understand international affairs without knowing history is like trying to cook without knowing the difference between flour and flounderAmong other things, it’s useful to know how other societies see the past even if you don’t agree with their interpretation, so make sure you read histories written by citizens of other countries.

Both writers extort foreign policy devotees to understand history better. On the other hand, what can historians learn from practitioners of international relations? Gordon A. Craig, late president of the American Historical Association had this to say:

Th[e] audience is interested in foreign affairs, as can be seen from many signs and portents, ranging from its continuing fascination with diplomatic memoirs to the nuclear freeze movement, and not excluding the revival, on some campuses, of international relations programs outside and at the expense of history departments. The general public has a right to feel that our work should bear some relevance to its concerns…

Craig was a renowned scholar of German history and his point about what the public wants from historians is particularly interesting when considered in the light of Nazism, the Second World War, the Cold War and so on. There is a danger, however, of practitioners of foreign policy using historical example to support their current Gordon Craigdecisions – for instance, ‘appeasement’ seems to have become a dirty word following Chamberlain’s failed attempt to deal with Nazi Germany in the late 1930s. Likewise, it becomes unfortunate when some historians feel the need to prove the value of their work by shoe-horning in a connection between history and current affairs.

The editors of Bridges and Boundaries: Historians, Political Scientists and the Study of International Relations, talk about this in further detail. The book is a collection of pieces written by historians and international relations academics; some chapters discuss key aspects of the study of both disciplines, others look at world events from each perspective. It’s an interesting read, although it does focus on the academic study of these two subjects. How useful debate on theory is, for example, to those working outside of academia, I am not sure. It’s certainly a book I’ll explore deeper later on – but perhaps in a different blog post. In fact, I think this entire topic is one that requires more thought and discussion. For now, I’m happy to end this short post with the corny saying that there is more that unites us than divides us.

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