Conference report: What is International History now?


Our series of workshop and conference reports continues with Anastassiya Schacht’s and Ben Huf’s detailed account of Glenda Sluga’s conference entitled ‘What is International History Now?’, which took place in Sydney in July 2018. (Do get in touch if you are going to any interesting events and are able to report back!)

As the world moves into an increasingly uncertain future that is at once globalised and fragmented, the importance of thinking at the level of the ‘international’ so to understand the legacies of the past and imagine possibilities for the future proves evermore salient. Over the past five years, the Laureate Research Program in International History at the University of Sydney, led by Professor Glenda Sluga, has established itself as one of the world’s leading institutions in exploring how best to interpret the political and economic trajectories that have shaped our modern, internationalised world. In July 2018, the Laureate Program hosted “What Is International History Now?”, a fitting apogee to the Program’s achievements, which has helped re-establish the centrality of international history (IH) to historical scholarship and fostered new networks and relationships between its globally-flung practitioners. The five day conference congregated some of the world’s leading and emerging international historians, IR theorists and international lawyers to address new directions for the sub-field and the role IH might play in helping engage our troubled times. Collectively, the conference mapped out a series of research agendas that addressed longstanding methodological questions, regional diversity, the economics of internationalism, as well as feminist and non-state perspectives. The conference ran from July 23 to 27, with generous assistance from the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (Sydney University) and the universities of Vienna, Geneva, and Glasgow, as well as the Harvard Committee on Australian Studies.

The first morning of the conference was dedicated to a Graduate Laboratory on International Thinking, designed to give practical and methodological grounding in ‘doing’ international history. Matthew Connelly (Columbia University) opened with a critical overview of the strategies, challenges and politics of preserving and utilizing traditional and digital archives within national and international institutions, with particular attention to the possibilities and pitfalls of an emergent archive of ‘big data’.  Peter Jackson (University of Glasgow) then unpacked a series of problems inherent to the study of IH. Jackson began by warding off longstanding critiques that IH suffers tendencies towards methodological nationalism and triumphalism, before problematising the deeper and often unconscious research decisions international historians face. International historians, Jackson suggested, are often pitted to either approach their subject in deep but narrow detail that captures institutional complexity but loses international diversity, or with panoramic overviews that loses local complexities. In a simple aphorism that permeated the conference, Jackson encouraged his colleagues to put aside these methodological contortions, and advocated a question-driven approach to international history.

These tension were nonetheless elaborated and illustrated in the afternoon session which discussed approaches to IH from the perspective of institutional organisations. Offering an overview of the Geneva-based project, History of International Organizations Network, Sadrine Kott (University of Geneva) retorted that it was possible to achieve simultaneously in-depth and panoramic perspectives of IH by treating organizations such as the UN as social spaces in which the international is created and played out in discrete national, even local settings. Nadia Sartoretti (University of Geneva) picked up on aspects of Connelly’s presentation, exploring the politics of audio and visual material housed at the International Committee of the Red Cross, and demonstrated how an ‘international memory’ is constructed (rather than ‘preserved’) through the curation of such collections. In a similar key to Kott, Michelle Carmody (University of Melbourne) utilized Amnesty International as a case study to advance an argument international organizations are ‘laboratories’ in which the geography of internationalism is simultaneously shaped by the global and local contexts and politics of such organizations.

These methodological and historiographical dimensions were extended that evening, in the plenary panel on “The Past and Future of International Thinking?”, featuring Anne Orford (University of Melbourne), Chris Reus-Smit (University of Queensland), Patricia Owens (University of Sussex), David Armitage (Harvard University) and chaired by Glenda Sluga. Drawing on their respective experiences and expertise in international law, IR and history, the panel offered critical reflections on their own work and searched for possible interdisciplinary intersections. Armitage’s now-familiar appeal to presentism provided an important common ground for the panel to discuss the ongoing contemporary resonance and politics of their work, a platform by which truly interdisciplinary approaches to the international can be achieved. This theme complemented Reus-Smit’s plea for IR scholars to loosen themselves from the strictures of theory and recognize the historical and contingent nature of their subject matter, and Orford’s perceptive recognition of the way international lawyers both study but also constitute their material.

Day Two of the conference opened up a series of critical reflections on the existing domains and possible new directions of IH. In the morning Keynote, Naoko Shimazu (Yale-NUS) made an argument for a ‘multimodality’ approach to IH, with reference to her own research on the East Asian cooperation conferences under the Japanese occupation during the 1930s. Similarly innovative interventions followed in the panel, “Mapping the Terrain”. Erez Manela (Harvard University) challenged the identity of IH, arguing that the recent ‘turns’ to transnational, global, world and ‘new’ international history had each proven frustratingly imprecise or methodological cul-de-sacs. Manela outlined an alternative research program, positing that IH might be more fruitfully refocused as the study of ‘international society’. By this Manela meant not the arena of relations between states, but a unique historical subject or artefact in its own right, comprising state and non-state actors and institutions. The remainder of the panel offered similarly innovative, if less programmatic approaches to IH. In their respective papers, Brian Cuddy (Macquarie University) and Jayita Sarkar (Boston University) returned internationalism to its traditional remit of war and national security. Cuddy offered an historiographical overview of how international historians have recently made sense of the blurring juridical boundaries of war over the past century, as war moved from being conceived as the constitutive act of international relations by diplomats, lawyers and historians, through to its putative outlawing as inimical to international order in twentieth-century liberal internationalist thought, even as war has become ‘endless’ and ‘everywhere’ in the twenty-first century. In a related discussion, Sarkar explored how US nuclear non-proliferation through the Cold War was as much animated by a commercial as security interests, in an efforts to challenge IR theorists to more carefully historicise their analyses of security strategies. In a very different key, Sarah Dunstan (University of Sydney) offered a new kind of research perspective for historians working at intersection of race, internationalism and post-colonialism to consider. By sketching a ‘cartography of black internationalism’, Dunstan drew new links between African, African-American, Caribbean and European twentieth-century black internationalist thinkers that promoted the spatial and political realities of cities such as London, Paris and Algiers as both incubating internationalist ideas but also constituting the racial identities of these thinkers. Moving from geography to linguistics, William Mulligan (University College Dublin) promoted IR scholars embrace speech-act theory as a way of relocating diplomatic historians’ traditional emphasis on moments of political and military decision-making within the cultural and linguistic contexts that shaped those decisions.

The afternoon session presented a different set of innovations, namely the increasingly recognition of women and feminist thinkers in shaping the history international thought and international relations. Patricia Owens (University of Sussex) outlined plans for her new Leverhulme Trust-funded research program that will correct the longstanding neglect by IR scholars of women as internationalist intellectuals. Owens presented the case of Lucy Philip Mair, the scholar of colonial administration, to illustrate what has been erased but also what can be gained in refocusing attention on women as scholars of IR. Katharina Rietzler (University of Sussex) developed the details of this research program with showing how the presence of women can be illuminated in the archives of international institutions and think thanks, while Tamson Pietsch (University of Technology Sydney) offered a case study of the aviator and peace activist, Elizabeth Lippincott McQueen, that added another dimension to conceptualising the centrality of women in constructing twentieth-century internationalism.

Discussions of how to approach IH was given a different gloss on Day Three, as the focus was de-centred from well-established European and Anglo-American institutions, and historiographical themes and debates, to less studied regions, perspectives and problems. This shift was opened up with Madeline Herren’s (University of Basel) keynote which reconfigured the international dimensions of World War II by comparatively examining the control of ‘foreign enemies’ by different belligerents. Papers in the morning sessions sought to extend the contexts and connections that constituted processes of internationalism. Fiona Paisley (Griffith University) unearthed important networks between British Caribbean politics and Australian Aboriginal rights in the interwar years. Nicholas Ferns (Monash University) examined Australian officials’ aid provision in Southeast Asia to illustrate development was not always ciphers for Cold War strategizing, but reflected the seriousness and salience of modernization theories in global discourses on development, but also its ambiguity, as such language was equally used to justify Australia’s colonial projects in Papua New Guinea. ‘Development’ thus facilitated both internationalist and colonial ends. Emma Kluge (University of Sydney) maintained attention on New Guinea, retracing the links West Papuan activists for independence shared with proponents of Pan-Africanism. The case study also served to complicate Indonesia’s role as both a leader for non-intervention after WWII but also its role as a colonial power (over West Papua), thereby highlighting the Pacific as a domain with its own dynamics of IH.

Cait Storr (University of Melbourne) carried over the theme of imperialism into the afternoon session, by reconsidering the establishment of C Mandates (over former German-held territories) at the League of Nations as an expression of the broader shift from nineteenth-century imperialism to twentieth-century ‘international law’. For Storr, reading the C Mandates as a comprise between US-led internationalism and the sub-imperial aspirations of the Australian and South African governments brings into focus a new consideration of the complicated, ambiguous and often dangerous legal fictions that were created by the League. Ambiguity was also a central theme for Beatrice Wayne (University of Sydney). Turning attention to Cold War Ethiopia, Wayne highlighted the inseparability of the local and global, and of gender and the international, by drawing out the relations between UN and Pan-African institutions, transient diplomats, development agents and local sex workers that together constituted Addis Abba as an ‘international’ city. Finally, in a broader survey, Miranda Johnson (University of Sydney) challenged international historians to invert received categories and perspectives by making a case for an IH that considers the way Indigenous peoples of settler and postcolonial societies are both implicated and constituted by programs in internationalism, but also sit outside its conceptual remit at ‘the sharp edge of empire’.

Day Four was dominated by studies in economics and the international. In the morning keynote, Vanessa Ogle (UC Berkeley) outlined a new research program that conceived of North-South relations not in terms of the reified vectors established by the UN, modernization theorists or multinationals, but the less structured or visible connections of finance, banking and off-shore accounts.  Participants in the succeeding panel, “Adding Economics”, were similarly keen to rediscover the international as a space of economic relations, knowledge and power.  Focusing on diamond-rich German Southwest Africa, Steven Press (Stanford University) unpacked the complexities and blurred legal and economic relations  between the German imperial state, colonial companies with territorial rights, banking and financial interests, and, following WWI, an annexationist South African government and ambitious African mining companies, to illustrate the long afterlife of empire, and the indistinct boundaries in studying imperial, international and business relations. Moving away from Ogle and Press’s attention to the blurriness and complexity in economic international life, Ben Huf (University of Sydney) intertwined the history of economic thought with British imperial practice to offer a genealogy of the ‘international economy’ as it came to be seen and governed by experts and bureaucracies as an empty space comprising a hard binary between competing ‘opened’ or ‘closed’, ‘free’ or ‘protected’ national economies during the late nineteenth- and early-twentieth centuries. Reflecting the historiographical pitches made throughout the morning, Claire Wright (University of Wollongong) then surveyed prominent, recent works of economic history to both highlight the resurgence of the economic as an analytical category in the study of IH, but also to make a case this has opened new possibilities for interdisciplinary research between economists, IR scholars international historians that have long been promised but yet to be delivered. Jamie Martin (Georgetown University) turned focus to the ‘raw materials problem’ of the early twentieth century, showing that the intertwined questions of commodity control, access and pricing were generative of some of the most important innovations in international administration. For Martin, not only does the focus on raw commodities give ‘material’ weight to a literature that has recently been dominated by studies of international finance and money, but offers new ways to conceptualise the co-dependencies between industrialization, globalization and international governance. Similarly looking for ways to re-narrate international economic history, Alessandro Iandolo (Oxford University) addressed recent trends in the historiography of developmental studies. Noting a tendency towards postcolonial rather than economic approaches, Iandolo made two prescriptions to his colleagues: first, to treat the causes of evident if uneven growth and stagnation across global living standards much seriously, and second, and relatedly, to look beyond the inherently racist, neo-colonial and oppressive character of governmental development, but ask what role they have played in making some nations wealthier than others.

Turning attention to the Global South, the afternoon session brought a number of the foregoing economic, imperial and regional themes into a single framework. Alanna O’Malley (Leiden University) offered a new way of thinking about contemporary global inequalities by looking beyond the North-South binaries that have tended to organize histories of the UNTAD and NIEO, and examined – with a specific focus on African signees of the Charter of Casablanca – how contestation, competition and confrontation between countries of the Global South were crucial in defining, shaping and  sometimes stymying attempts for a new global economic order in the 1960s and 70s. Shifting focus to Latin America, Stella Krepp (University of Bern) explored a similar set of themes in a similar period, excavating the role of local economists working in regional UN institutions who defied the orthodox prescriptions of the US, IMF and World Bank to achieve nationalist ends. Again, we were reminded of the ways local players and political contexts have shaped and redirected international programs and institutions. Also interested in de-centring accepted narratives, Jon Piccini (University of Queensland) examined the role of the Australian Elizabeth Reid at the 1975 International Women’s Year Conference at Mexico City to re-evaluate Cold War debates over human rights, decolonization, development, and global economic reform for women. For Piccini, rather than examining these concepts within established Cold War binaries, these concepts are best studied in the context of unexpected linkages between post-colonial leaders, international feminists and non-aligned Western politicians so to illuminate the long standing contestation over the control and meaning of these ideas.

The final day of the conference fittingly pushed into lesser chartered territories of IH, and presented a further set of novel research agendas. Speaking to the theme of “Seeing Beyond the State”, each of the presenters explored dimensions of IH not explicitly structured by states, economies or key institutions.  Echoing challenges laid out earlier in the conference, Barbara Haider-Wilson (Austrian Academy of Science) suggested that from the perspective of much German historiography, US and Anglo-dominated IH has appeared far less ‘international’ than long-standing approaches to the Hasburg monarchy and empire. In turn, she outlined the  ‘Hasburg International’ as a new research field that could both widen and deepen the study of IH, offering  scholars a temporal and spatial context that integrates new themes unique to a disintegrating monarchy in a world of rising nationalism and internationalism, and a declining territorial empire  that did not easily maintain binaries of domestic and foreign. Lydia Walker (Harvard University) then returned focus to the UN but for a novel purpose, exposing that because constituting the institution required congregating ‘recognized’ member states, this necessarily has had the effect of making minority peoples in those states invisible to international society. Walker recounted the decades-long efforts of a Naga nationalist leader, General Mowu Gwizan Angami, to reach the UN, to demonstrate how we might write an international history of the UN’s fissures and elisions. Again looking to dislodge the accepted narratives, themes and actors of IH, Heidi Tworek’s (University of British Columbia) focus on the construction of an international infrastructure of epidemiological intelligence with the creation of the League of Nations Health Organisation, served to highlight the multiple timelines that run through twentieth-century IH. Even as trade and migration decreased in the interwar years, thereby prompting many historians to assume this a period of broken internationalism and slowing globalisation, Tworek argued that the evident increase in exchanges of health communication between borders suggests the chronology, and character, of international cooperation might be rethought. The internationalism of health was also a starting point for Johanna Conterio (Flinders University), however in a very different context. Conterio’s study offered a new dimension to the character of Marxist internationalism (and, in the wake of Tworek, perhaps an unexpected intersection between illiberal and liberal internationalisms), by highlighting the importance of public health as a constitutive idea of the Second and Third Internationals, and its ongoing role in shaping Lenin’s soviet system and Russian and German social democracy. Finally, Dirk Moses (University of Sydney) opened one further research direction in his historiographical review of the curious absence of dialogue between international historians and scholars of modern genocide. In bringing these two bodies of scholarship into conversation, Moses cautioned his colleagues from any triumphalist engagement with IH and the history of internationalism, whose definitive century was also of course marked by an unprecedented inhumanity which was, in some respects, itself facilitated by the international imagination.

The preceding five days of discussing not only the methodological and theoretical challenges of IH, but also its entanglement with imperialism and post-colonialism, regional fracture, economic exploitation, gendered inequality, and the politics of making some peoples invisible and others powerful, demonstrated that international historians are under no illusions of the confronting nature of their subject matter, or of the risk that the very practice IH presents in perpetuating these logics in their own work. But against the contemporary background of a fracturing, globalised world, it is also becoming clear why these stories need to be told. As the diversity and creativity of research presented at the conference attested, international history is proving one of its most powerful qualities today is to establish a lasting dialogue for sharing common stories and common aspirations that cut across long-established divides.

Anastassiya Schacht ( & Benjamin Huf (