Category: Interviews

Protectionism and Empire: An Interview with Marc-William Palen

‘Free Trade England Wants the Earth.’ Pro-Republican Judge magazine depicts US protectionism shielding the country from the British free trade spider’s grasp, 27 Oct. 1888. Source: he ‘Conspiracy’ of Free Trade: The Anglo-American Struggle Over Empire and Economic Globalisation, 1846-1896 (Cambridge University Press, 2016).

The last twenty-four months have witnessed world-wide dissent against the current regime of trade liberalisation. The United States disengaged from the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Britons renounced the EU, and in Tokyo, Sydney, Lima, and other cities across the Pacific Rim thousands protested a potential transpacific trade partnership. While the popularity of protectionism is not unexpected, its recent embrace by political elites everywhere is more surprising. This is particularly true of the United States, which one president ago was still steering the global economy towards freer trade.

In The ‘Conspiracy’ of Free Trade: The Anglo-American Struggle Over Empire and Economic Globalisation, 1846-1896 (Cambridge University Press, 2016), Marc-William Palen traces the roots of this debate to the United States in the 1840s. There began a political and ideological battle between Victorian free trade cosmopolitanism and economic nationalism which lasted the remainder of the century and beyond. Talks about tariffs dominated American political life. Through them, Palen is able to tell a much broader story. The Republican and Democratic parties were transformed in the process. Debates about trade influenced the character of American imperial and commercial expansion, as well as the contours of the Anglo-American struggle for empire and globalisation. Palen’s argument that economic nationalism dominated the period also forces us to rethink received notions of the US Gilded Age, which is usually portrayed as an era dominated by laissez-faire and free trade.

We recently met with Marc-William Palen in Bristol, where he resides. He discussed nineteenth century American political thought, the political economy of Anglo-American globalisation and empire in the Victorian Era, and his future research plans. Dr Palen is a historian at the University of Exeter. The ‘Conspiracy’ of Free Trade is his first book. You can follow him via Twitter: @MWPalen.

Martin Crevier

Reintegrating Apartheid into Post-War Global History: An Interview with Jamie Miller

John Vorster meets with President Hastings Banda during his state visit to Malawi in 1970. Source: Jamie Miller, An African Volk: The Apartheid Regime and its Search for Survival (OUP, 2016).

In 1975, South African Prime Minister John Vorster met with Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda at Victoria Falls. The purpose of the meeting? To end white rule in Rhodesia.

This is not how we usually picture apartheid South Africa. But it sits at the heart of the story told by Jamie Miller in An African Volk: The Apartheid Regime and its Search for Survival (OUP, 2016). During an interview that lasted several hours, Miller spoke of the importance of taking self-conceptions of apartheid seriously, of historicizing decolonization in all its messy contradictions, and of the role of anticommunism in this history. He also elaborated on the process of writing the book: on his experiences interviewing former apartheid leaders and the ethics of entering the apartheid worldview.

Jamie Miller is a  Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Pittsburgh. He holds a masters and doctorate from the University of Cambridge and has previously been a Fox Predoctoral International Fellow at Yale University, a Visiting Assistant Professor at Quinnipiac University, and a Postdoctoral Fellow at Cornell University. An African Volk is his first book.

Aden Knaap

Hesitant Hegemony for China and the US? An Interview with Lixin Wang

Speculation is mounting that the United States, with Donald Trump cast in the role of president, will step back from the world stage, and China will increasingly lead. But what would China face if it decided to assume international leadership and advance its own ideas and agendas for global order? Drawing lessons from the American…

The 1970s in Arab-American Perspective: An Interview with Salim Yaqub

Richard Nixon and Anwar Sadat ride past cheering crowds in Alexandria, Egypt, June 1974. Provided by the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum.

In recent months, a young and charismatic Arab-American doctor running for governor of Michigan has stirred up US politics. The son of Arab immigrants in the United States, Abdul El-Sayed is part of the latest generation of Arab-Americans. El-Sayed and people like him suggest a significant sociological transformation taking place within the Arab-American community. Their political activism can be seen as a generational leap beyond the activism of their fathers and grandfathers.

How to Start an Empire: An Interview with Steven Press

Dr. Steven Press

Open a world map. Chances are it carves the world into a multi-colored jigsaw of national territories.  We’re used to thinking of the contemporary international order as composed of regular nation-states. But what happens if we imagine a different map—one made up of irregular, overlapping, and contested claims, not just to territories, but to languages and peoples as well? A cartography of international disorder would emerge.

For starters, the large landmass conventionally thought of as Australia would be overlaid with the black, yellow, and red flag of the Aboriginal Provisional Government (APG). The APG claims Aborigines never ceded sovereignty over Australia; that they “are and always have been a sovereign people.” The APG has enacted Aboriginal sovereignty by issuing birth certificates and Aboriginal passports (which have been accepted in Libya, Norway, Switzerland, and the Mohawk nation), and sending diplomatic delegations overseas. Just off the coast of Australia, a small set of mostly uninhabited islands and reefs would feature the rainbow coloring of the Gay and Lesbian Kingdom of the Coral Sea Islands. In 2004, the Kingdom’s soon-to-be Emperor, Dale Parker Anderson, raised the rainbow flag on one of the islands, claiming them “as homeland for the gay and lesbian peoples of the world.” The Kingdom has adopted the rainbow pride flag as its official ensign, the Euro as its official currency, and issued its own stamps. And what about the territory beyond Earth? Zoom out and you would see the proposed Space Kingdom of Asgardia. Its Head of Nation, Russian-Azerbaijani scientist and businessman Igor Ashurbeyli, plans to create a new nation in outer space, with orbiting satellites serving as the space nation’s initial capital.

We might be tempted to dismiss these claims to sovereignty as oddities of the contemporary world. Not so, according to Steven Press’ new book, Rogue Empires: Contracts and Conmen in Europe’s Scramble for Africa (Harvard University Press, 2017). In Rogue Empires, Press offers a pre-history to these claims to sovereignty, taking his readers back to a time in the mid-nineteenth century when empires across South Asia and Africa were started and governed by companies and adventurers. Many of these individuals were what Press deems “disreputable types”: men like James Brooke, a British East India Company veteran who, by agreement with the Sultan of Brunei, became rajah of Sarawak on the island of Borneo in 1841. In Press’ telling, the ventures of private actors like Brooke culminated in the Berlin Conference of 1884–1885, where Belgium’s King Leopold and the German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck extended the imprimatur of European legitimacy to these “rogue empires.” The European powers would later rely on these private entities as precedents for establishing and extending colonies in Niger, South Africa, the Congo, Namibia, Cameroon, and beyond.

We recently spoke with Steven Press from his office in California. Press explained his interest in territorial anomalies and “disreputable” individuals, and foreshadowed his current book project on the afterlives of these rogue empires. Press is Assistant Professor of History at Stanford University. Rogue Empires is his first book.

—Aden Knaap…

A Muslim Cosmopolis, Or, the Individual and the Nation in Global History: An Interview with Seema Alavi

Dr. Seema Alavi

People tend to assume the origins of contemporary events, alliances and disagreements belong to the recent if not the immediate past. Recent news articles highlight with surprise the Arabicization of Islamic practice in South Asia – most prominently with respect to the murder of several bloggers in Bangladesh. But India has a long history of intellectual contact with the Arab world. The Madrasa Saulatia in Mecca was set up by an Indian Muslim Rahmatullah Kairanwi – a key protagonist in Seema Alavi’s book Muslim Cosmopolitanism in the Age of Empire (2015) – as a “centre for embracive reformist Islam with a strong Indic tradition.” It remains a major scholarly hub, retaining intellectual contact with Sunni Muslim seminaries all over the world. It’s own orientation now can be described as a purist intellectual tradition of Islam. For example, it receives patronage “from the Abd-al Wahab impacted Saudi ruling house,” even as – Alavi is quick to remind us of this – its scholarly tradition stands in stark contrast to the violence that is often perpetrated in the name of Wahabi Islam. In this respect, Alavi’s book Muslim Cosmopolitanism is a fundamentally revisionist text that works through the category of the individual and of the nation. She draws out the history of how a modern vision of Islamic universal selfhood was articulated in the mid-nineteenth century: the processes that connected Indic reformist strands in Islam with Hamidian notions of modernity centred on jurisprudence. In her account, cities such as Cairo thus appear as more than just a site that elucidated anti-British nationalism. Importantly, the book foregrounds how modern histories of South Asia limit key protagonists in this larger global story to the territorial bounds of modern India, even as the records of imperial Britain show how they negotiated trans-imperial identities across South Asia and the Ottoman empire.…

Acts of Faith: Talking Religion, Law, and Empire with Dr. Anna Su

Dr. Anna Su

Religious freedom is back in the news. Just last week, the State Department released its report on religious freedom for 2017. Speaking at its unveiling, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson pledged solidarity with a diverse group of persecuted religious groups: Iranian Baha’is and Christians, Chinese Uighur Muslims and Tibetan Buddhists, Pakistani Ahmadiyya Muslims, Saudi Arabian Shia Muslims, and Turkish non-Sunni Muslims, among others. Government officials did not miss the opportunity to extol the US’s “long, strong tradition”  of promoting religious freedom abroad.

No sooner than these announcements were made, reporters began pointing out the gap between rhetoric and reality. In a series of blistering questions, journalists underscored inconsistencies in the administration’s stated prioritization of persecuted Christian refugees; the restrictions on travelers from several majority-Muslim countries; the politicization and selectivity of its interventions; and the absence of any self-reflexivity, particularly in relation to spikes in hate crimes directed at American Muslims. China promptly followed suit, questioning America’s moral authority on religious freedom amid white nationalist rallies in Charlottesville.

The history of America’s interest in religious freedom abroad is the focus of Dr. Anna Su’s first book, Exporting Freedom: Religious Liberty and American Power (2016). As Su shows, the US has a long history of intervening in countries on behalf of religious freedom. Su tracks the development of official government policies toward religious freedom: first as part of its “civilizing mission” in the Philippines from 1898, then in the democratization of Japan after World War II, and finally through the championing of human rights in Iraq and elsewhere. Working at the intersection of history and law, Su is currently Associate Professor in the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Law. She previously earned an SJD from Harvard Law School, and worked as a law clerk for the Philippine Supreme Court and a consultant to the Philippine government negotiating panel with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.

Su presented at the Harvard International & Global History Seminar earlier this year. While she was in town, the Foundation caught up with Su to discuss the shifting valences of religious freedom and American empire, as well as the benefits and dangers of watching historical films starring Tommy Lee Jones.

Aden Knaap

Of Prostitution and Port Cities: A Conversation with Liat Kozma

Dr. Liat Kozma

Prostitution may be considered the world’s oldest profession, but its practice and regulation has been far from fixed throughout history. As Dr. Liat Kozma explores in her most recent book, Global Women, Colonial Ports: Prostitution in the Interwar Middle East (2017), state-regulated prostitution in the Middle East—and the lives of prostitutes themselves—was directly influenced by major global shifts following World War I. These shifts included the transition from Ottoman to French and British colonial rule in the Middle East, as well as the ongoing processes of industrialization, urbanization, and large-scale migration set in motion in the nineteenth century.

Exploring prostitution through the regional lens of the Mediterranean—rather than through a political lens like that of a single nation or empire—Kozma innovatively dissects the many layers of state-regulated prostitution and the involvement of global and local institutions. From Casablanca to Beirut, Alexandria to Haifa, people, practices, germs, and attitudes toward prostitution and sexual practices migrated and spread during the interwar period.

Importantly, this story of the internationalization of prostitution regulation is far from one of top-down colonial policy-making. It involved a complex web of interactions and knowledge-sharing between individuals at every level, including actors from the newly created League of Nations, who sought to monitor traffic in women and children; colonial officials who shared policies maintaining racial boundaries between populations; local feminists, abolitionists, and medical doctors who wrote and debated about how to best prevent the spread of venereal disease; and individual prostitutes and brothel keepers who migrated to different cities in search of employment opportunities. As Kozma puts it, “the drunken sailor affected international policies on clinics that treated venereal disease, and international conventions affected the availability of care in his port of call.”

Kozma’s narrative telescopes in and out, between the local and the global; between the individual brothel keeper in Port Said and the League of Nations meetings in Geneva; between the syphilitic soldier and the history of Salvarsan. In doing so, Kozma sketches out a new model for writing global history—one that connects the dots between social history, women’s and feminist history, and Middle Eastern history.

We recently had the opportunity to speak with Kozma, a senior lecturer in the Department of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. We talked about her research process for the book and her main findings about prostitution in the interwar period. We also discussed some of the broader challenges of writing a social and gendered history of a global phenomenon, the exciting potential of multi-archival research, and her recent work in bridging the divide between academic and non-academic audiences through social history.

–Caroline Kahlenberg

Human Rights and the Global South: A Conversation with Steven L. B. Jensen

Dr. Steven L. B. Jensen

Human rights are facing perhaps their greatest challenge yet. After a failed military coup in July last year, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has led a purge of the country’s central institutions. A much-contested referendum in April only expanded Erdoğan’s stranglehold on the government. Over a similar timeframe, Erdoğan’s Filipino counterpart, Rodrigo Duterte, has spearheaded a devastatingly brutal antidrug campaign, sanctioning the extra-judicial killing of thousands of suspected drug users and sellers. In Egypt, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has imprisoned members of the political opposition, arrested human rights activists, and outlawed many aid organizations. Meanwhile, the United States—traditionally considered human right’s earliest and greatest champion—has seen the election of President Donald Trump. According to a tally compiled by Amnesty International, in just one hundred days in office, Trump threatened human rights in at least as many ways.

Viewed from today’s perspective, it might seem like it’s only recently that the US has ceded global leadership on human rights. But, as Dr. Steven L. B. Jensen shows in his book The Making of International Human Rights: The 1960s, Decolonization, and the Reconstruction of Global Values (2016), the history of human rights was never simply a story of American or Western hegemony. Moving the locus of study to Jamaica, Ghana, the Philippines, Liberia and beyond, Jensen argues that human rights were as shaped from within the Global South as they were from without. In Jensen’s words, actors from the Global South “gave a master class in international human rights diplomacy to both the Eastern and the Western actors.”

Many scholars struggle to connect with non-academic audiences. In his work and in his writings, Jensen straddles the border between academia and international policymaking with comparative ease. Currently a researcher at the Danish Institute for Human Rights, Jensen is the author and editor of multiple books and articles. Prior to completing his PhD at the University of Copenhagen, he worked in international development: first at the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Department of Southern Africa, and later for the Joint UN Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) in Geneva. His PhD thesis was published as The Making of International Human Rights last year. Since then, he’s been on something of a roll. Most recently, his book received the Human Rights Best Book Award and the Chadwick Alger Prize for the best book on international organization from the International Studies Association.

The Toynbee Prize Foundation was lucky enough to chat with Jensen during a recent visit to Cambridge, Massachusetts. Jensen was in town to attend a workshop on socioeconomic rights convened by Professors Samuel Moyn and Charles Walton at Harvard Law School. Jensen spoke about human rights’ origins in the Global South, how exactly he came to be known as the “Jamaica guy,” and what the future holds for human rights scholarship.

Aden Knaap