Of Nation-States and the United States: An Interview with Ryan Irwin

It’s hard to escape the conclusion today that writing about American decline is a growth industry. For at least the last decade, pundits have spoken of a “post-American century” in which, China, the BRICS, or the “Next Eleven” will constitute an alternative power center to Washington. Scanning global headlines, whether it’s the recently published The Governance of China (a collection of speeches on global governance by Chinese General Secretary Xi Jiping), Vladimir Putin’s assertion of a “Russian world” or the inauguration of the Eurasian Union, or Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s pretensions to lead the Muslim World against an alleged upswell in anti-Islamic attitudes launched by Europe, the world does not lack today for leaders of global and regional powers claiming to articulate a post-American moment. Conversely, in the United States itself, neoconservatives like Robert Kagan argue that “superpowers don’t get to retire“–that the United States must re-assert itself globally around the world to respond to challengers like China, Russia, or Turkey.

Lost, however, in all of the debates about new powers or the reinvention of old ones is what exactly the American project stood for in the first place. What do we mean when we talk about a “post-American world”? About an international system of rules and practices anchored by Washington? True, look to the writings of pundits like Walter Russell Mead or Thomas Friedman, and you can find some articulation of this vision. Even then, however, it’s difficult to understand the roots of our current global system of economic and financial globalization secured by overwhelming American military might and the embedding of American power into alliance systems in Europe, East Asia, and the Middle East. How did America, “the most belated of all nations” (Theodore Roosevelt), come to occupy such a dominating position in the international system? Why did American élites come to favor this style of internationalism, as opposed to flat-out imperialism and annexation of territory? Assuming this system is actually coming to an end today, challenged by the emergence of a multipolar world system, why didn’t the whole house come crashing down when faced with the Soviet challenge, the explosion in the number of sovereign nation-states through decolonization, or the collapse of Bretton Woods?

In short, understanding the present and future of American internationalism requires understanding its past–not only through the lens of America, moreover, but understanding how the American project interacted with exogenous shifts and shocks to the international system, too–the ebb and flow of German, then Russian power, or decolonization, for example.

Ryan Irwin, our latest guest to the Global History Forum

It’s for this reason that the work of Ryan Irwin, our latest guest to the Global History Forum, is so valuable. Irwin, an Assistant Professor of History at SUNY-Albany, writes on the United States in the world, but from an international perspective that makes his work unusual. As comfortable in U.S. national archives as in those of the United Nations–or South Africa, Irwin seeks to understand the trajectory of American power as it interacted with an international order of its making, but not always under its control. We were delighted, then, to sit down with him this winter to discuss his evolution as a historian, his early work, and his ongoing projects.

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Immigrants, Railroads, America, Germany: An Interview with Julío Robert Decker

People often ask scholars of history what, exactly, the discipline constitutes–what its unique methodologies are, what precisely its subject of study is, and what contemporary questions it offers to clarify. As our recent Global History Forum interviews have shown, one of the joys of the field is that it rejects the reassuring but often illusory national containers of traditional historiography, and that, precisely by doing so, it can help us, a twenty-first century readership, understand problems that exceed the boundaries of the nation.

Look through the headlines today, or follow the reception of recent works in the field, and potential points of intervention and debates already launched are everywhere. In the United States, for example, President Barack Obama’s November decision to grant “deportation relief” to millions of illegal immigrants has revived a heated debate about American identity and obligation. From all across the political spectrum, commentators and activists put forward arguments about the role race does, does not, should, or should not play in American identity. The argument that many illegal immigrants have entered the country unfairly while tens of thousands of more “deserving” non-Latin American immigrants wait in line raises all sorts of questions about the shifting moral sentiments towards Latinos, Asians, and Europeans as “good” and “bad” future Americans. Even the counter-use of the the term “undocumented immigrant” as a term opposed to the more judgmental “illegal immigrant” reminds us of the entire regime of documentation that accompanies the immigration process in America today.

Julio Robert Decker, feature of our latest Interview with Global Historians
Julio Robert Decker, feature of our latest Interview with Global Historians

As global history at its best–and our guest to this edition of Global History Forum–reminds us, however, debates like these have a long history. More than that, debates like these are also inevitably entangled in networks of ideas that go beyond the nation-state itself. In his work to date, historian Robert Julio Decker, a scholar at the Technical University in Darmstadt, has explored the history of immigration regimes, while his future work promises to contribute the exploding literature on the history of capitalism. Speaking with him earlier this year during his tenure as a fellow at Harvard University, we discuss his path to global history, his early work, and his ongoing research on the global history of capitalism in the United States and the German Empire.

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Peace Without Victory: Adam Tooze on “The Deluge: The Great War, America, and the Remaking of the Global Order 1916-1931”

In case you haven’t noticed, this year marks the 100-year anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War. Visit a bookstore, and you’re likely to be greeted at the entrance by scores of books devoted to explaining how the assassination of Austrian Archduke Ferdinand sparked a European conflagration. Search beyond the piles at the front of the store, and, if you’re lucky, you may even find books that explore the war outside of its European context.

But in a year full of books devoted to the centenary of the war, few works have been so eagerly anticipated as that of historian Adam Tooze, whose The Deluge: The Great War, America, and the Remaking of the Global Order 1916-1931 has recently appeared on bookshelves on both sides of the Atlantic. Tooze has long been well-known to specialists on European economic and intellectual history since his earlier work on statistics and state-making in Germany. To more general readers, however, he may be better known for his 2008 The Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy, which secured his reputation as one of the leading historians of German and European history writing today.

Cover image of Adam Tooze's new book, "The Deluge"
Cover image of Adam Tooze’s new book, “The Deluge”

Economic history may have a reputation as dusty, dry, and, well, boring in some quarters today. But in Wages, Tooze showed how an economic history perspective was crucial to understanding Nazi grand strategy and even the origins of the Holocaust itself. More than that, Wages relocated the pivotal place of the United States in the worldview of Adolf Hitler and other leading Nazi figures. As the United States emerged as a qualitatively new force in global affairs, anyone seeking to shape the global order had to draw lessons from the new colossus. Figures like Hitler recognized that “American economic might would be the decisive factor in the shaping of the world order.” More than that, the American challenge was a new political and economic formation on a new scale, “a consolidated federal republic of continental scale, a super-sized nation state” that, thanks to its might and geography, “had a unique claim and capacity to exert global influence.”

The American entrance into European and global affairs really took on full shape concomitant to the First World War–an insight that drives much of The Deluge, and which explains its temporal framing. 1916 was the year when American economic output exceeded that of the British Empire, 1931 the year of Herbert Hoover’s moratorium on war debts. As commentators today question whether we might be entering a “post-American century,” understanding how the American giant burst onto the global scene in the first place is all the more urgent. The Toynbee Prize Foundation had the opportunity to sit down with Tooze recently to discuss his path to history, the book, and his future projects for this installment of Global History Forum.

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The Sino-Soviet Split and the Left as Global History: An Interview with Jeremy Friedman

Among the crimes cartographical and otherwise perpetrated by the Mercator projection, the Cold War projection of an Asia dominated by the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China numbers among the most egregious. Famous for inflating land areas the further away they were from the Equator, when applied to the world of the early 1950s, the map projection made it seem as if the Communist world was monolithic. The greater part of Asia was covered with red ink, while the freedom-loving (and less cartographically distorted) blue fields of the earth shrunk before the grim crimson blob stretching from Berlin to Vietnam.

Of course, the “Communist world” was never as unified and cohesive as the mapmakers suggested. While the Soviet vision of proletarian workers unifying to overthrow capitalist oppressors and the Maoist vision of peasant armies challenging imperialists from from Hanoi to Havana seemed to march in lockstep to Cold Warriors, by the early 1960s, the two socialist powers came to irreconcilable differences. Soviet advisers were expelled from Beijing as Chinese leaders castigated the Soviets for making peace with the imperialist Americans; Soviet leaders denounced Mao as a revisionist and a nationalist.

But the Sino-Soviet Split, as it is called in English and Russian (“Sino-Soviet Hostility” in Chinese – zhōng sū jiāo’è), had ramifications that went far beyond the oceans of red dye spilled by the Mercator projections. As country after country “the Third World” gained independence, the Soviets and the Chinese were among the few major powers that offered compelling developmental – and historical narratives – to fledgling nations. But what would the meaning of Revolution be in a decolonizing world? Was Revolution really about anti-capitalism, as the Soviets argued? Or was the real essence of Revolution opposition to empire, as their Chinese rivals put forward? How did the Chinese challenge affect the Soviet outreach to the Third World, and vice-versa? And what was the effect of the Sino-Soviet Split on the intellectual repertoire of a global Left?

Jeremy Friedman, whose work forms the basis of this latest installment of the Global History Forum. Image courtesy of Yale University Office of Public Affairs and Communications
Jeremy Friedman, whose work forms the basis of this latest installment of the Global History Forum. Image courtesy of Yale University Office of Public Affairs and Communications

These are among just some of the questions at the heart of the work of Dr. Jeremy Friedman, our guest in this latest installment of the Global History Forum. Friedman, the Associate Director of the Brady-Johnson Program in Grand Strategy at Yale University, is the author of the forthcoming Shadow Cold War, scheduled to appear with the University of North Carolina Press next year, in 2015. Global History Forum spoke with Jeremy recently to discuss his intellectual journey thus far, the book, and a forthcoming project on the history of the Third World.

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Empire of the Air, Empire of the Earth: American History in a Global Context with Jenifer van Vleck

Scan through recent headlines, and it will quickly become clear how much modern societies and international politics revolve around the airplane. During the ongoing Ebola crisis, national health authorities–even those for countries whose flag carriers didn’t run direct flights to West Africa–have panicked over the possibility of a rogue infected passenger contemning whole countries during a fluke layover. Meanwhile, the American military continues to conduct its counter-terrorism policy in Central Asia and the Middle East in large part through strikes from drones. Try boarding an airplane bound to the United States with stamps from countries in those regions in your passport, and it’s likely that your ticket will be stamped with a mysterious “SSSS”–a sign that you’ve been singled out as a security risk, a putative airborne threat that has to be scanned before even boarding a flight from, say, Frankfurt to the United States. Whether governments today think about protecting the nation at home (as with Ebola) or abroad (air strikes as foreign policy), it’s clear that our notions of security have become linked with a logic of the air that goes beyond the boundaries of the nation-state.

It all seems like a far cry from the supposed heyday of air travel–glamorous flight attendants, supersonic travel, and the possibility of a seamlessly connected world that a look at the departures board from a major airport today can still awaken. But even if the structures of airspace in the early 21st century invoke more pessimism than inspiration, it bears asking how things got so bad in the first place. It demands, in short, history. Visions of what how travel through the skies could be–and the relationship of states and empires to the air–have a deep history that demands scrutinizing. Indeed, with airline alliances touting themselves as “One World,” it’s especially worthwhile for scholars interested in global history to do that kind of work.

Fortunately, our latest interviewee for the Global History Forum, Jenifer Van Vleck, explains much of this back story in her recent Empire of the Air: Aviation and the American Ascendancy, published recently by Harvard University Press. Van Vleck, an Assistant Professor of History and American Studies at Yale University, devoted years to scouring through the archives of Pan American World Airways (Pan Am) and numerous government and Presidential Archives to tell the story of a corporation–and an industry–that reveals much about the shape of American corporate globalism and American empire. The Global History Forum was delighted to sit down with her this summer to discuss her intellectual journey, Empire of the Air, and her upcoming work in the history of technology and American foreign relations.

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Globalizing Time, Globalizing Capital: A Conversation with Vanessa Ogle

It’s a familiar routine for scholars of global history. Having squeezed in a visit to an archive during a spring break or stretch of summer vacation, you get off the airplane in a foreign land, stretch your legs, and feel, in spite of the local caffeine injection, tired. You set your watch, several hours ahead if coming from the United States and several hours back if coming to Europe and try to make the best of the first day on foreign soil.

Soon, however, jet lag sets in. You either fall asleep in your dinner or wake up hours before the local bakers do. Exhausted, you read tips on how to beat the exhaustion, where you learn that the body needs an equivalent number of days to time zones crossed to beat off the exhaustion. The scholar coming from California to Moscow, for example, has eleven days of misery to endure before he or she is fully up to date with local time. You remain grateful for the chance to pursue your research, but, counting the time zones, groan at the routine.

It’s a familiar routine for many, indeed, but not as old as one might think. Until the late 19th century, as University of Pennsylvania professor and global historian Vanessa Ogle shows in her work, efforts towards a global standardization of time ranged from negligible to chaotic. The standardization of time that we have today, and the divisions that we use–Central European Time from Madrid to Montenegro, Greenwich Mean Time, and scientifically controlled Coordinated Universal Time to keep time zones themselves punctual–are all relatively recent inventions.

Unpacking this story, and seeing how contentious the seemingly most universal thing in the world–time–could be are great themes for global history. That’s why the Global History Forum was excited to sit down to interview Ogle, who is close to publishing her findings on the history of time standardization and well underway on a second project on the global history of “archipelago capitalism.” Speaking over coffee, we discussed her journey to global history, her first project, and her current work.

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Conquering Peace: Exploring European History with Stella Ghervas

One century after the assassination of Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo plunged the Continent into war, Europe in 2014 offers observers few chances to catch their breath. The recent annexation of the Crimea by the Kremlin, followed by suspension of that country from the G8 and from the Council of Europe, brought relations with Russia to a new low point. With European leaders calling for more sanctions against Moscow and the Kremlin having declared a ban on European agricultural imports, Russia’s post-Soviet trajectory seems to have taken a decidedly anti-Western turn.

As pundits race to search for historical parallels–the Crimean War, the Sudetenland Crisis, even the rise of the Ottoman Empire–it’s especially important for professional historians with an understanding of peace and the European political system, to share their findings with the public. The tortuous ways by which a warren of quarrelsome princedoms, duchies, and empires became a European Union by the late 20th century–a haven of peace and cooperation in a world too often scarred by conflict–demands explanation. It is also essential for the Europeans themselves to better understand how peace was accomplished, if they wish to better perceive the risks and opportunities that lie ahead with the Ukrainian crisis.

That’s why we at the Global History Forum were delighted to sit down with Stella Ghervas, an expert of European history who is currently a visiting scholar at Harvard University’s Center for European Studies. Ghervas, who organized a major conference on the Congress of Vienna at Harvard in last April (and who is giving several papers on the topic this autumn), graciously took the time out to discuss how she came to write a book on post-Napoleonic Europe, as well as her current book project on the history of peace and peacemaking over the longue durée. Speaking with her this spring, the Global History Forum managed to cover several topics, from her personal journey to history, to her forthcoming projects.

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