Outbox – The Transnational Trend in U.S. Foreign Relations 10 Years In: Reflections on a Path-breaking Book Series

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Recent titles from The United States in the World

by Michael J. McGandy

One hears so much these days, in academic circles, about the transnational that it is surprising that a decade ago it was a new concept in many fields. This was particularly so among historians of United States foreign relations, where high-level diplomacy and affairs of state had been the focus of attention as long as anyone could remember. So it was that the inaugural publications in The United States in the World—a book series dedicated to transnational scholarship—were unexpected, innovative, and trend-setting in the study of what was once termed “foreign affairs.” This year marks the ten-year anniversary of the first two books published in the series, and it is time to recognize the insight of the founding series editors and give tribute to the field-changing impact of the twenty volumes that have been published since 2007.

The story of the series goes back to 2005, when Mark Philip Bradley and Paul A. Kramer collaborated with my predecessor at Cornell University Press, Alison Kallett, to frame the series concept. At that time no press had a series of books in history focusing on the role that non-state actors, flows of capital and peoples, and non-governmental organizations had in state diplomacy and international relations. The editors proposed to push beyond the then-popular idea of global history and then to “draw on domestic and international archives,” “challenge conventional periodizations,” and “explore how people, ideas, and cultures traveled between the United States and the rest of the world.” Moreover, while looking ever outward to the larger world, the books were always intended to enrich and broaden, as Mark and Paul wrote in their series proposal, “our understanding of modern United States history.”


Today it is hard to find a work in the history of U.S. foreign relations that does not recognize the relevance of informal networks, migration, and popular protest in the development of diplomacy and military policy.


The initial books in the series—Aims McGuiness’s Path of Empire and Usama Makdisi’s Artillery of Heaven, followed quickly by Hiroshi Kitamura’s Screening Enlightenmentdemonstrated the utility of transnational methods in understanding the application of American power, in formal and informal modes, and the reciprocal actions that often changed formal American policy. Early reviews of the books were highly positive and they were quickly adopted for use in courses. A trend had been set.

Numerous scholars and, not surprisingly, a handful of university and commercial academic presses noted the efficacy of transnational analysis and got on board. Now it is hard to find a work in the history of U.S. foreign relations that, at the very least, does not recognize the relevance of, for instance, informal networks, migration, and popular protest in the development of diplomacy and military policy. There are now, by my count, four book series dedicated to exploring transnational themes in the history of American foreign relations. Arguably all of them have been inspired by The United States in the World.

The ubiquity of the transnational in 2017 should not obscure the risky innovation embarked upon by Mark and Paul in 2005. No doubt the country or area study concept (institutionalized by the Federal Research Division of the Library of Congress) was long out of date by the early 2000s, as were analyses of bilateral relations. But traditional historians of foreign relations were nonetheless hewing to standard (and worthy) topics for their new books. New models for writing the history of foreign relations were available but hard to transfer to a field that placed the state at the center of its work. The concept of the Atlantic world, for instance, was something that scholars of early Modern and Early American history had been exploring, and fruitfully, for a while. But those were eras of empires and not nation states, and most historians have been trained to understand that the nation state makes all the difference. Thus you will rarely find a self-styled scholar of the Atlantic world pushing his or her work past 1848, and most prefer to stay safely in the periods prior to the nineteenth century; most Atlantic world scholars were not trained in the history of the nation state, but they still respected the mid-nineteenth-century rise of nation states as a boundary of their work.

So to look at affairs of the nation state from a perspective that downplayed the primacy of presidents, formal diplomats, and military leaders was highly unorthodox. Some wondered how one could study affairs of state and yet not focus on the authorized actors of the state. And there were certainly discussions among scholars in the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations as to whether this new transnational work was really the history of foreign relations or a different sort of history altogether.


The transnational turn in the history of U.S. foreign relations, ten years out, has clearly enriched the field.


The answer to those questions came in the clear value of the research published in the series. Keying in on, for example, American missionaries in the Middle East, vagabond prospectors in the North American west, and motion picture executives in U.S.-occupied Japan did offer deep insight on the foreign policy of the United States across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The perspective shifted, but many of the goals of traditional histories of foreign relations remained—the analysis of power and its application, the understanding of policy formulation, and how domestic political regimes affect foreign policy. The transnational turn in the history of U.S. foreign relations, ten years out, has clearly enriched the field.

Yet there was another risk embedded in the transnational proposition. This intellectual move came at a time when, arguably, the American state was at its strongest on the international scene and when the American executive was preeminent in its power. So, many people asked if, while it was intellectually defensible to study U.S. foreign relations by following non-state actors, it was not ethically questionable. Was this not a time when we needed deeper and more critical histories of the state, its institutions, and its officers? Of course, The United States in the World series sought to expand the field of scholarship and discussion, not dominate it; there was no pretense that, in fostering transnational work, more traditional analyses of the state would or should cease. But the challenge remained (and remains): Was it wise to decenter the state when some were making arguments that the United States was enjoying a unipolar moment of power and influence? And even if that unipolar moment has passed (now that we are in 2017) the legal and administrative prerogatives of the so-called unitary executive have not waned. Does not overweening presidential power require more state-based history and not less?


Rather than offering a set of outsider stories to the larger history of U.S. foreign relations, the best transnational histories have shown how putative outsiders have been integral to carrying out, reforming, and sometimes outright resisting the foreign policy of the American state.


Considered from the standpoint of historical method, there is a case to be made that transnational work can and does augment critical engagement with state institutions, offices, and actors. Mark and Paul, and then new co-editors David C. Engerman and Amy S. Greenberg, have been keen to investigate the feedback loop connecting the projection of American power, its mediation both abroad and in non-state institutions, and then its reflection back to the seats of domestic U.S. authority. No matter how far the analysis goes from the formal state, it does come back. And the vectors by which power is projected and then reflected are often where one finds non-state actors and non-governmental institutions, for instance, most engaged and influential in the transmission and implementation of policy. Rather than offering a set of outsider stories to the larger history of U.S. foreign relations, then, the best transnational histories have shown how putative outsiders have been integral to carrying out, reforming, and sometimes outright resisting the foreign policy of the American state.

As the scholarship in the field of U.S. foreign relations has followed the path charted by The United States in the World, the series itself has grown and changed. In 2012 David Engerman came on board as a co-editor, bringing with him strong expertise in the post-World War II histories of Europe, the Soviet Union, and modernization and development programs. Then, in 2013, the board of editors expanded again with the addition of Amy Greenberg. Amy’s arrival consolidated the series’s unique strength in the history of American foreign relations in the nineteenth century. Recently acquired titles addressing democratization efforts in Russia in the early post-Soviet period and American policy and social movements addressing the Greek Revolution of the 1820s and 1830s are key examples of how the expertise of Engerman and Greenberg have further broadened the series.

With Sean L. Malloy’s excellent book on the internationalism of the Black Panther Party, Out of Oakland, just published and eight more titles anticipated to appear in the next couple of years, The United States in the World is as productive and vital in its tenth year of publishing activity as it was in 2007. It has been my honor to be associated with the series since that first year of publication, and I look forward to another decade of innovative, influential, and well-written books.

Michael J. McGandy is Senior Editor and Editorial Director of the Three Hills imprint at Cornell University Press. Follow him on Twitter @michaelmcgandy.

Outbox – The Transnational Trend in U.S. Foreign Relations 10 Years In: Reflections on a Path-breaking Book Series