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.
"It's weird to end up where you're from," remarks Irwin, as he reflects on the road that brought him to Albany in 2013. Indeed, in a time when many academics are used to peripatetic careers, Irwin's return "home" is uncommon. Born in Portland, ME, then raised in Syracuse, Irwin spent his formative years in upstate New York. A career as a historian was not predestined: Mom (an Albany native) is an English professor at a community college and Irwin's father worked as a community organizer. He grew up in a family where stories mattered. Asked about his childhood, Irwin fondly recalled the summer his dad read J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings to him and his brother. While he found the plot and narrative gripping, what really appealed to his 8-year old mind was the sense of a huge backstory lurking behind said plot in Middle Earth. History, Irwin suspects, later offered that chance to connect primary narrative with a broad, rich back canvas of global context.
Irwin spent his undergraduate years at SUNY-Geneseo. He worked with Emilye Crosby, who deepened his understanding of history and social justice in equal measure. Embarking on then-unfamiliar grounds, in his honors thesis, Irwin wrote about the connections between JFK's and LBJ's view of the civil rights movement at home and their perception of African decolonization abroad. After graduation, Irwin returned to Syracuse and helped launch a program for urban high schools students who were managing the transition from school to the workplace. Like most, perhaps, he started the effort committed to making a difference in "the real world." Irwin's experience revealed the grittier side of a city he thought he knew and underscored the difficulties of lasting social reform movements. "Some of my students didn't have heating at home, they were coming from extreme poverty," he explains. "I still remember sitting in this one young man's living room, in the middle of a Syracuse winter, surrounded by space heaters, trying to sell his mom on the premise that this program would somehow change their situation."
Looking back, the job left a deep mark. For someone raised within an American liberal tradition defined by FDR, JFK, and LBJ, the work taught Irwin how "good intentions and a particular vocabulary of governance actually interacted with people in these sorts of social ecosystems." The experience pushed him to explore the limits of the liberal tradition he'd taken for granted, and provided a vantage point to think about scholarly subjects such as subjectivity and subalternism. Most importantly, Irwin proceeded from his time in Syracuse with a certain humility to avoid writing histories that merely point out how schemes of development abroad or urban renewal at home "didn't work." Historians needed a sense of intellectual tradition, in short, but also an urgency to reinvent or challenge–not merely attack–that tradition through scholarship.
Irwin went to Ohio State University in 2004. His introduction to United States in the world history came from Peter Hahn and Robert McMahon, as well as Judy Wu, Kevin Boyle, and Alice Conklin. He also benefited from a strong graduate community that included Paul Chamberlin, Kate Epstein, Joe Orser, Alex Poster, Jessica Pliley, and Chapin Rydingsward. "Originally," he jokes, "I thought that I would work on the United States and the Middle East, since the war was on. But it turned out that all of my colleagues who were going in that direction were smarter than me! So I started looking for other areas to explore."
A solution revealed itself in a graduate seminar where he authored an article about the influence that African nations at the United Nations exerted on the United States vis-à-vis its policy towards apartheid South Africa. Could U.S.-African relations be the subfield for him? Sort of. Irwin hoped to transcend area studies and diplomatic history debates, and Washington's response to the growing number of black-ruled states in the United Nations' General Assembly as well as said postcolonial regime's absolute rejection of the apartheid state raised stimulating, fresh questions about the nature of internationalism itself. Irwin was writing at a time when scholarship on the Third World's Cold War was notably sparser than it is today.
The piece, "A Wind of Change? White Redoubt and the Postcolonial Moment, 1960-1963," eventually appeared in Diplomatic History (and won the Stuart L. Bernath Prize for best article in the field of American foreign relations history), but a suggestion from Kevin Boyle made him re-think what a book-scale investigation along the same lines would look like. "He made me realize," Irwin explains, "that if I wanted to do this right, I needed to re-cast the United States as a somewhat distant anchor to my story, not the central player."
By doing so, Irwin hoped, he could write a dissertation that would go beyond the specifics of the apartheid debate itself and instead explore the way ideas became legitimate and illegitimate in the international arena. What did the addition of forty-something African countries to the General Assembly do to the United Nations and the way that Washington related to it? What kind of norms did Sub-Saharan African states demand for postcolonial internationalism? Here was the kind of project that Irwin wanted to pursue. "We see debates all the time today, typically led by China or India, on whether the United Nations is an appropriate tool for international order, or whether it's imperialist or exclusionary of rising powers." Exploring the 1960s debate around apartheid, the United States, and decolonization offered a way to explore the genealogy of these larger debates.
In 2008, Irwin relocated to New Haven after receiving a predoctoral fellowship from Yale University. With support from Paul Kennedy and John Gaddis, he completed his dissertation, revised it into a book, and eventually became the Associate Director of the International Security Studies (ISS) program at Yale. While teaching courses about decolonization and directing ISS's academic programs, Irwin shepherded what began as a seminar paper into a book, Gordian Knot: Apartheid and the Unmaking of the Liberal World Order, and sent it off to Oxford University Press for review.
On the surface a history of the global apartheid debate, Gordian Knot more fundamentally sought to make two interventions into the writing of Cold War history and international history. Firstly, argued Irwin, African independence in the 1960s was a seminal moment in international history, a major change that granted former imperial subjects two vehicles–the nation-state and international institutions that hosted nation-states–powerful new tools to pursue political confrontation. More than that, however, Irwin contends that there was a fundamental shift in American policy towards liberal internationalist institutions like the U.N. precisely because of the change driven by a new Black Atlantic defined no longer by the slave trade but by the postcolonial nation-state.
These might sound like curious terms to be throwing around in a book ostensibly about apartheid. Intuitively, one might view the story of apartheid and its eventual dismantling as a long march to freedom by activists like Nelson Mandela. Put enough pressure on an oppressive dictatorial regime, the thought goes, and eventually it will fall apart through a coordinated effort of brave activists at home and support from an anti-imperialist European and American public abroad. Yet, contends Irwin, this is manifestly not what happened in the case of South Africa. During the Sharpeville Massacre (1960) the ruling National Party made clear that it would brutally stamp out acts of protest. Mandela himself was thrown into prison with a life sentence, and it is conceivable that in a world without decolonization outside of South Africa, he could have–like many other activists–died there.
In fact, argues Irwin, even the more sophisticated narrative one has in one's head about South Africa's road away from apartheid misses a more substantial pre-history. Looking back, it's easy for some to remember the excitement and sense of common purpose that anti-apartheid marches generated for a transnational Left. But such a strategy, predicated around a language of human rights and transnational action, was actually quite new, and can only be understood in light of a first wave of campaigning against the apartheid state–one taken up forcefully by the African Group at the United Nations. That story–the global apartheid debate's first stage, from roughly 1945-68, during the major wave of African decolonization–constitutes Gordian Knot's real focus.
During that period, Irwin reminds us, Pretoria still existed in a southern Africa that was still largely under white rule: Angola and Mozambique were Portuguese colonies until the mid-1970s, and Rhodesia continued along as a white-ruled state from 1965-80 following its Unilateral Declaration of Independence, recognized only by … South Africa and Portugal. Crucially, too, South Africa refused to withdraw from the former German South-West Africa (Namibia), which it had occupied as a mandate territory under the League of Nations from 1919 onwards.
However, none of this should distract from where the winds of change were blowing. If, prior to decolonization, only Liberia and Ethiopia (of which more in a moment) were independent black-ruled countries, by the early 1960s dozens more countries joined them, becoming fully entitled members of the U.N. and, importantly, other institutions like the International Court of Justice. Furthermore, as many postcolonial leaders argued, apartheid was not merely a policy that one could agree or disagree with while still admitting the basic legitimacy of sharing the same international order as South Africa. Rather, apartheid qua system was so odious that it was impossible to conceive a just international system that accepted apartheid. Through U.N. institutions and fueled by an ideology of Pan-Africanism, African leaders sought to pursue a campaign of international sanctions through the United Nations.
Yet with many of these countries economically impotent, their leaders knew that there was a main show in town when it came to applying pressure to Pretoria: the United States of America. As we now know from works like Rob Rakove's Kennedy, Johnson, and the Nonaligned World, moreover, the Democratic Administrations of the 1960s took Non-Alignment and postcolonial countries more seriously as potential partners in the making of American foreign policy. It was not necessarily a disaster if Guinea, for example, flirted with Moscow over aid and infrastructure projects (as it did in the late 1950s). Right or wrong, for American policymakers much of Black Africa was no Vietnam, or even an Afghanistan. But if the cost of supporting anti-Communist Pretoria was to alienate an entire continent's worth of nation-states–many of whose leaders also flirted with the Soviet Union, too–then the costs and benefits of one South Africa policy or another clearly had to be weighed.
Much of Gordian Knot, then, traces the Washington debates between figures in the Department of Defense and the Treasury Department, which tended to favor closer defense and economic ties with South Africa in spite of the loss of goodwill in the rest of Africa; and the Department of State, where Assistant Secretary of State G. Mennen "Soapy" Williams took on a leading role in advocating closer U.S. ties with independent African nations. South Africa was not tone-deaf to the problem: throughout the 1960s, it sought to use its relative economic clout to encourage nearby black-ruled Zambia (a major player in the Non-Aligned Movement) to dampen the organization's stance on apartheid.
Still, this dance of pressure and counter-pressure could only go on so long in a world where post-independence leaders grasped the power of the nation-state as a vehicle for political confrontation. Gordian Knot's middle chapters focus on the drama behind the 1966 decision by the International Court of Justice dismissing complaints over South Africa's presence in Namibia. The court case brought the intellectual stakes of the moment into focus. African leaders despised Pretoria's continuing occupation of Namibia, which it treated as a "fifth province" and which saw waves of white settlement in these years. Still, Pretoria recognized, because Namibia was a former League of Nations mandate, a technical and narrow reading of the ICJ's mandate meant that only states that were parties to the League of Nations had standing to file a complaint. Liberia and Ethiopia had been signatories to the League of Nations, allowing them to file the complaint in spite of South African objections in 1962. Further, with more and more African states at the United Nations, the General Assembly passed a Resolution. The hopes for postcolonial solidarity through the nation-state and international institutions seemed bright.
But those hopes proved ill-founded. In its opinion, the ICJ accepted the earlier 1962 standing that Liberia and Ethiopia had to sue (itself a narrow 8-7 decision). But it rejected the idea on even narrower grounds, arguing that there could be no purely legal standard by which to judge whether a mandate still claimed by a former League member was ready to be wrapped up or not. "Had individual members of the League possessed the rights which the Applicants claimed them to have had," the opinion duly noted, "the position of a mandatory caught between the different expressions of view of some 40 or 50 States would have been untenable. Furthermore, the normal League voting rule was unanimity, and as the mandatory was a member of the Council on questions affecting its mandate, such questions could not be decided against the mandatory's contrary vote." More fundamentally, the opinion noted that "humanitarian considerations can constitute the inspirational basis for rules of law," but that these cannot "generate legal rights and obligations" without a jurisdictional expression. Translated into plain English, even if postcolonial nations felt that the South-West African case (much less apartheid inside sovereign South Africa) was unjust, international institutions like the ICJ could not consider arguments clothed in the language of justice as having juridical character.
This, Irwin contends, presented a huge challenge–and a turning point–for the fate of subaltern activism in years to come. Prior to the ICJ decision, optimistic if also naïve post-independence leaders could think that the U.N. or other internationalist institutions were on their side. Afterwards, however, it became clear that the struggle would have to be borne through different institutions. Writes Irwin: "As frustrations mounted in the mid-1960s, global politics started to bifurcate along state and non-state lines, leaving South Africa politically secure yet devoid of legitimacy and positioned opposite an amorphous legion of transnational activists who found solace in broad discourses of human rights, Third Worldism, and Marxist internationalism." True, during the 1970s, the Third World dominated the General Assembly of the United Nations more than ever before thanks to its numerical superiority, but Irwin argues for a turn towards strategy that "did not reward abstract arguments about nationhood and international law, but [rather] embraced tropes of power/resistance and shamed oppressors by explicating their cruelty to the world."
In making this argument, Irwin saw himself as contributing not just to the scholarship on South Africa or apartheid, but also to a larger methodological conversation about how to write international and global history. Composing the introduction to Gordian Knot in the late 2000s, Irwin noted that "the field has clustered towards camps that either embrace the motif of imperial continuity or subsume diplomatic exchange within macro-processes such as cultural transfer, disease control, and population management."
But, shows Gordian Knot, the emergence of the nation-state as a vehicle for subaltern grievances in the 1960s–seen nowhere else more forcefully than in the case of Africa–created distinctively post-imperial dynamics of political confrontation. These dynamics have been richly explored by historians like Matthew Connelly or Erez Manela, but, even more than this earlier scholarship, Irwin's is a plea for historians of international life to understand the radical new ways in which the emergence of the postcolonial nation state affected options for internationalism. No major power was as visible as the United States in this process, and understanding the trajectory of American liberal internationalism sheds light on the myth and motif of decline in international history. Even today, the attempts of Palestinian leadership to join institutions like the General Assembly or the International Criminal Court arise particular ire from American officials seeking to balance strategically important alliances–in this case, Israel–with the umbrage those ties may arouse.
But these were not the only questions that remained with Irwin. After submitting Gordian Knot to the presses, he remained chased by several broader methodological questions about how to study the history of U.S. foreign relations. "To a certain extent," he explains, "our picture of the United States during the Cold War is plagued by the idea of 'containment,' or, more specifically, the idea that in an effort to push back against the perception of Soviet expansionism, the U.S. continually betrays Third World nationalism." Yet his study of the apartheid debate suggested a wider story about American internationalism in the mid-twentieth century, especially about Washington's engagement with international institutions and how that engagement facilitated opportunities for postcolonial actors. "The United States may have been a 900-pound gorilla in the international arena," he explains, "but it was influenced deeply by the explosion in alternative ideological programs offered up in the 1950s and 1960s." Older questions of whether containment was offensive or defensive were inadequate. "The real question here that American élites were struggling with since the 1920s, and probably since the late nineteenth century," explains Irwin, "was how do you organize complexity?" How, in short, does an offshore economic colossus with commercial needs from Peking to Paraguay to Persia create or replace the international order defined in the late nineteenth century by the British Empire?
If we view "the Cold War" as just one phase of this larger multi-decade American struggle to organize a complex world, Irwin suggests, then the questions–and answers–we ask of and receive from our sources change. He cites the reception of John Foster Dulles (Eisenhower's Secretary of State) as an example. Read the sophisticated scholarly literature–Andrew Preston's Sword of the Spirit, Shield of the Faith–or recent popularizations like Stephen Kinzer's The Brothers, and you can walk away with an impression of Dulles as a religious zealot committed to the struggle against Soviet Communism for primarily theological or ideological reasons. That's an important part of the story, Irwin notes, "but if you go to the John Foster Dulles papers, his personal papers, and make stacks out of the papers devoted to religion, to Communism, on the one hand; and to the rule of law, on the other hand, the rule of law pile is several times larger." Was Dulles inspired, passionately so, by his Christian beliefs? Of course. But historians need to be careful not to over-emphasize that part of the story at the risk of missing how this man–a lawyer, deeply familiar with international trade and investment through white shoe work at Sullivan and Cromwell–became invested in a longer project of creating a predictable, rule-of-law based international order.
Reflections along these lines are what structure Irwin's current ongoing project, tentatively titled Castle of Sand: The American Century and its Afterlives. In one sense a historically-grounded investigation of political scientist G. John Ikenberry's Liberal Leviathan, Irwin's project aims to provide the reader with an in-depth intellectual history of liberal internationalism. While Irwin is still busy researching and drafting the project when he has time away from his teaching duties (of which more in a moment), he starts the story around the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, when, he says, conventional conceptions of natural law as the undergirding of American jurisprudence broke down. Jurists like Oliver Wendell Holmes, later a Supreme Court Justice argued that the decisions of judges and courts were not the enforcers of unwritten moral precepts, but that rather law itself constituted an independent sphere of order made and enforced by man. "General propositions," wrote Holmes in 1905's Lochner v. New York, "do not decide concrete cases." Far from endorsing anarchy, however, Holmes insisted that enforceable law constituted a civilizing force on society. More accurately, suggests Irwin, one could read Holmes as arguing that "law is what power makes." Embraced by the likes of Felix Frankfurter, Harold Laski, and Dean Acheson, Holmes became an authority for Progressives and, later, New Deal Democrats who sought to create legal and institutional forms that protected the labor movement.
But the point, Irwin hopes to illustrate, is that what appears to be a domestic American story of legal history actually became a trans-partisan approach to international institutions as the United States became a superpower. "What you get from figures like Dean Rusk and Dean Acheson," argues Irwin, "is this obsession with the form of American power. There's a sense that you can put a structure out there–the United Nations, say–and that skilled craftsman could use these institutions to extend American power and respect for U.S. leadership. For this cohort of legal realists, diplomacy was very much the act of making consensus or what they often called 'common law' abroad." Containment was part of this wider project, but not the whole story. There are interesting parallels between the "foreign" and the "domestic" here, suggests Irwin. "When someone like LBJ talked about 'credibility,' this was a concept that referred just as much to domestic projects of ordering as it did to foreign theaters." The liberal project of institution-building, in short, was comprehensive–devoted as much to ordering the (African-)American inner city as a world of (African) nation-states. Here's where readers may sense a connection to Irwin's early biography as well as Gordian Knot: what happens when this project of liberal form breaks down? What happens when the Great Society leads to urban riots, or when the ICJ fails to substantially address Africans' grievances over apartheid? More focused on the foreign dynamic of decolonization, Irwin hopes in Castle of Sand to explore how decolonization–specifically the proliferation of member states within the U.N. order–challenged the American liberal internationalist project in the Cold War.
Castle of Sand is one of several projects on Irwin's desk at the moment. Recently, he's written on everything from the Congo crisis to America's first think tank. A second book project, prospectively entitled What Now: American Internationalism at the End of the American Century, is set to explore the genealogy and popularization of conservative internationalism after the 1960s. He's currently researching Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and George Shultz, among many others, examining how their ideas about norm-making and power evolved in the 1970s.
The mid-1970s are typically remembered as a time of domestic doubt: Watergate, the findings of the Church Committee, the embattled Presidency of Gerald Ford, stagflation, and so on. But Irwin seeks to explain the shaken primacy of America by focusing on changes in the international system, and he hopes to do so in a way that moves past the politicized historiography about U.S. foreign policy in the late twentieth century. What connection is there, for example, between the fact that the mid-1970s saw the near-complete triumph of decolonization in Africa, on the one hand, and American disengagement from the United Nations on the other? Irwin's is not the first voice to intervene in this debate: Daniel Sargent's excellent A Superpower Transformed, published this December, examines the United States in the world during the 1970s, although with more of a focus on Administrations than American internationalism qua project per se. But Irwin, traveling back and forth to the personal papers of influential American thinkers and leaders,hopes to explore the period through just that lens.
In the meantime, students at SUNY-Albany continually lend Irwin fresh eyes for his material. We ask him how he teaches courses on the history of U.S. foreign relations and global history to an undergraduate audience. "My global history survey starts in the mid-nineteenth century and goes to the present," he explains. Referring to Michael Geyer and Charles Bright, he seeks to explain to students "the rise of a global condition, of a highly economically interdependent world in the late nineteenth century." The more he can get students away from an exclusively polemical relationship with empire to the question of organizing complexity as the starting point, the better a job he feels he's done as a teacher. "If you can convince students of these starting points, then you have a couple of semi-obvious themes that you can use to structure content over the length of a semester. You might talk about the intellectual argument between Karl Marx and John Stuart Mill, and frame Marxism and liberalism as distinct, interdependent responses to industrialization and globalization. Take this into the late nineteenth century, and you can begin to look at nationalism and imperialism less on polemical terms than as differing devices to consolidate power in a world that's getting rapidly more complex and interconnected."
Continue into the twentieth century, and for Irwin, the key question regarding decolonization is "how, and why, people came to view the nation-state–not some other device–as their ticket to global community." A general global history course might treat the Cold War in traditional terms, but Irwin stresses that "the Cold War was an incubator of scientific rationalism" that was then imported by decolonizing, re-integrating nation-states–most spectacularly so in the case of China–to overcome the Soviet-American East-West divide entirely, getting us closer to our world today.
More than just teaching university students, however, Irwin notes that he also takes satisfaction in meeting with Albany residents. He recently finished a lecture series for a local organization called the Humanities Institute, which explored the making of the modern world and brought in 150+ participants each week. It makes perfect sense for someone who used to conduct extracurricular discussion groups with students at Yale, someone who has a passion to reach out to the local community–his home community. Within these settings, Irwin seeks to make historical scholarship accessible to local audiences and puncture myths about American history. His "students," he says, often push back by insisting that America was "really" isolationist after World War I, or that the Cold War was "really" about a good vs. evil battle between American freedom-fighters and dastardly Communists. Received memories are powerful, granted. But rather than parachuting in to tell World War II, Vietnam or Iraq veterans that their struggle was really about something else, Irwin takes the opportunity to gently nudge his audience to think in other terms. "How do you organize an interconnected world?"—that, not narratives of American exceptionalism, is what Irwin seeks to impart on his audience. In doing so, Irwin provides a great example of how historians can engage laypeople in a way that illuminates work by scholars like Jason Colby, Erez Manela, Jeremi Suri, or Adam Tooze, all of whom write about American in the world in complex, beguiling ways.
Finally, we ask Irwin about the books that are currently on his nightstand. "Would it be embarrassing," he jokes, "if I admit that my evenings are mostly spent with Mo Williams, P.D. Eastman, and Shel Silverstein?" He hopes to instill in his daughter a love of reading that his parents gave him, and perhaps some day build up to Tolkien. Pressed, he replies that he typically rounds out his nights with selections from Ira Glass' New Kings of Non-Fictionor essays from the website The Browser. For him, it may be in part a return to earlier interests–the art of narrative, of non-fiction narrative, as a craft independent of subject. Historians have just as much to learn, at least as writers, he suggests, from well-crafted magazine or non-historical prose, even children's books, as they do learn (or unlearn) from scholarly discourse.
Irwin also notes that he enjoyed teaching Adam Tooze's The Deluge to his graduate students this past autumn, a book which was the subject of a recent Global History Forum in-depth piece. "What impressed me about the book is Tooze's equal interest in discourse and 'the ground,' that is, his awareness that ideas and economics aren't disparate domains but affect one another." He cites Tooze's work as a model for historians looking to make interventions in fields not necessarily the same as the Yale historian's. "We speak all the time about a transnational turn, and it's especially tempting to show how ideas moved across borders," says Irwin. "But I am sometimes concerned about the absence of a connection between ideology and economics. Historians need to understand that the world is, for lack of a better word, real, and do the legwork to see how ideas, whether economic, legal, or some other kind, establish facts on the ground." Asked to name examples of scholars whose work he sees as doing this, he names Boston University professor Brooke Blower and Northwestern historian Daniel Immerwahr (the latter an upcoming guest to the Global History Forum).
From upstate New York to South Africa, from the internationalism of the nation-state to apartheid–our conversation with Irwin has been truly wide-ranging. Professor Irwin's work–from his interest in rise of the postcolonial nation-state to his ongoing project–shows what vibrancy a global history approach can bring to the study of the United States. In doing so, his work also constitutes one bud in the bloom of nationally-defined fields informed by a global approach. We've been delighted to feature him as our latest guest to the Global History Forum.