Seminar: 30 ans d’histoire des relations internationales

Since the 1970s, French post-graduates starting up their PhD in the History of Contemporary International Relations have but one compulsory reading: Introduction à l’histoire des relations internationales, by Pierre Renouvin and Jean-Baptiste Duroselle. This book was the first stone of what would eventually become a “French school” of International History. In the cruel world of French Academia, the method exposed by Renouvin and Duroselle crystallized as an academic discipline around certain figures (Duroselle, Renouvin, a first generation of students and scholars), institutions, publications. It came to largely dominate the practices of those French historians interested in the History of French foreign policy, and of International Relations generally. The prevalence of this school, and of historical research as the tool of choice for the study of international relations in France has been emphasized by Jörg Friedrichs in his book European Approaches to International Relations Theory (pp. 29-46 for the chapter on France). For a quick, and in my opinion slightly more perceptive presentation of this “French school”, look at Karen Gram-Skjöldager‘s article.  There is much to say about the development of this school and its current state, but it will be for another post.

One of the institutions around which the school has coalesced is the Commission d’histoire des relations internationales, created in 1981 as part of the International Committee of Historical Sciences.The point of this post is to lay down a few notes I took during the seminar organized in Paris in December 2012 to celebrate the 30 years of this Commission. The seminar, organized by the Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne University and the French Foreign Ministry, gathered the cream of the profession, and was also meant to correspond with the publication of a book, Pour l’histoire des relations internationales, edited by Robert Frank. The book is meant as a reflection on International history à la francaise, and was abundantly commented during the seminar.

The seminar was a two-day event, but I was only able to attend the second day’s discussions. Very quickly, some things I gathered from the meeting.

. Matthew Connelly, professor at Columbia, was here to talk about a research project he conducts in collaboration with computer specialists. Talking about the advent of massive, overwhelming series of archival material, he proposed new tools to make sense of it. In his presentation, computer-based “machine reading” and modelization were used to gain insights in these long series of archives. He described the overwhelming mass of archives one has to deal with only in the US, and the off-handed way those are treated by archive personnel, whose background is more technician than before and less able to analyze the content and judge the importance of the archives they manipulate.

Using the analysis tools they developed, Connelly and his team are looking at classified and unclassified documents, as well as documents released through the Freedom of Information Act and censored, in order to find out what words, what contexts, what sorts of documents are statistically more likely to be censored. It gives him also the possibility to find new things in long series of documents, new angles that “human reading” would not find. A fascinating presentation, which gave me a concrete image of what machine reading can do on long series of document: not only help answer historical questions, but also possibly suggest other, new questions. I am not entirely convinced this can fit all aspects of historical research, but there are avenues to explore especially in International history, where the mass of documents to study is already staggering. Of course, the ultimate problem is one of resources and capacities: which History Department in Finland or France can pay for having computer techs running around? That would demand a new conception of what an History Department does, and with which partners.

What made Connelly’s presentation – and the whole debate around machine reading, numeric sources, conservation of archival sources in the future, Big Data – so enthralling is that we are once again talking about archives. Archives are the central element of the Historian’s craft; methodological concerns while dealing with archives are a central criteria of the historical studies’ status as a scientific discipline. Finally, archives are an important social and political object. If debates about “Digital Humanities” could only contribute to refocus the thoughts of historians on methodological and social debates related to these questions, then by all means.

. Following that was a panel, led by prof. Laurence Badel, on International History and Global Public Goods. Very interesting stuff, with presentations framed into wider reflections on transnational issues, relationships between private and public actors, the history of international organizations, etc. Olivier Feiertag presented an analysis on financial stability as a Global Public Good. He emphasized the break of the 1970s, when a newly interconnected world started to think about new common ways to organize this stability. As a historian, he also drew a long-term image of international attempts at stabilizing international finances, presenting the post-1970s break as one pattern in a longer attempt at international monetary and financial stabilization. Léonard Laborie used the same method, picking up what is today seen as a Global Public Good (communications), and looking backward to see how it was considered before, and how it became a Global Public Good. He concentrated on information and communications, going back to the 1884 conference on telegraphic communications to observe the process through which these objects of international cooperation are constructed. Céline Paillette spoke of the health sector, Gia Migami talked about development aid, and Anais Flechet about music and musical heritage. All the presentations insisted on a critical reading of Global Public Goods, described as complex objects constantly redefined through an evolving dialogue between private actors, states, and international actors.

The seminar was closed by a panel dealing with new directions in International History. The panel gathered most of the book’s writers: Georges-Henri Soutou, Robert Frank, Wilfried Loth, and, from the university of Sydney, David Lowe, and from the University of Brasilia, José Flávio Sombra Saraiva. Ensued a very rich seminar, from which I did pick a few morcels.

First of all, Soutou’s entrée, who stated that the goal of the book was to “think the world in order to make the right choices in foreign policy“. Difficult not to see the very obvious link there is between this school of research and the developments of French foreign policy. This link does not exist at the same level than it does in Finland, where there exists an porosity between the academic personnel and the political/diplomatic world, but there are obvious links, and an obviously “national”, policy-oriented dimension to this French school.

Soutou, again, described the specificity of historical research as the study of change and the study of singularities, random events. Nothing new here, but always worth repeating. Historians narrate singular, specific events. No war ever started the same, no decision was ever taken in the same way twice, no border was crossed twice the same way, no idea was exchanged between strangers twice through the same pattern.

Robert Frank asserted a focus on three levels: national, international, and transnational, reminding everybody that, while Renouvin described “international relations” as much more than just state-to-state interactions, the approach of choice, which he considered the most apt at explaining the vast movements of international relations, was state-centered; while extremely wide and open-minded in its research of explanation patterns and “underlying forces”, Renouvin still postulated a central position for the state and its policy-making. This is clearly one of the tensions of the school, between concentrating on the state and accepting to define international relations as the multifaceted, multilevel web of relations between organized political communities.

Frank also reminded the floor of the “turns” taken by the discipline – cultural, transnational and the like – and insisted on the flexibility of Renouvin/Duroselle’s method, which openness to varied underlying forces, structures and explanation levels allowed some adaptation to these turns. The background, thus, remained the same. The “cultural turn”, for example, has been injected in the school as, either an injonction to better consider “cultural influences” on foreign political decisions and international relations, or a renewed interest in cultural, artistic international relations.

To a question by Loth (why “histoire des relations internationales” and not “histoire internationale“?), Frank answered that all historical studies now study their objects in an international setting, thus could be called “international histories”. The difference with the Renouvin/Duroselle school lies in the study of international relations, with an emphasis on the dynamic of relations between organized political communities. Loth also issued an interesting call for a synthesis to follow the deconstruction historical studies have taken as their duty: is the time ripe for a new synthesis to emerge, in the name of some social function of History?

Finally, Lowe and Saraiva presented the state of International History in their respective countries. Lowe’s description of Australia’s International history was completely new to me.

To sum up, that seminar was well worth the trip. I will come back to the book itself and to the French school later.

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