Reflecting on a scholarly career that began more than a half century ago, I’m struck by the confluence of social and historical context, personal inclination, and serendipity. Unlike friends and colleagues who were part of the post-World War II baby boom, I was born just weeks before U.S. entry into the conflict. The war engaged nearly every American family in some way and profoundly shaped the world in which I grew up.
Many of my colleagues have contributed essays revisiting their graduate school days, full of commendations to friends and collaborators. I could do that too—and, in fact, my friends include many of the very authors of these essays—but I thought it more useful to spend this time on tools and methods. As I sit to write this, Athan Theoharis, a friend, just passed away after encountering crazy complications from a semi-routine medical procedure. That reminds me of how ephemeral we are. Also, so many of these essays concern academic careers, which is not where we all end up. As I think back on my doctoral cohort (admittedly, in international relations, or IR), not one of us ended up in academia. Some went to the State Department or other government agencies. One taught in private school. I guess he came closest to academe, but ended up at the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Others went to oil companies or beltway bandits. I am a working historian. My experience shows that it is possible to train in this discipline and branch out far afield.
I was supposed to be a lawyer. That’s what my parents had told me; I was good at arguing, I liked school, and I was really interested in politics. But something went terribly wrong (or right, depending on your perspective) and my professional life took another path into political science and specifically the study of the Soviet Union and then Russia. Try as I might, by my sophomore year at the University of Toronto, I couldn’t get my mind off of the changes happening in the Soviet Union at the time (in the mid-1980s). In March 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev had become General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and was a Soviet leader of a very different sort. He popped out of limousines to shake hands with people lining the streets of the European cities he visited, he spoke of reconstructing the Soviet system in a program he called perestroika, and he threw the doors open to Soviet society, politics, and history in the ensuing years under “glasnost” or openness. Suddenly, the Soviets seemed human, maybe even friendly, and to me as a Canadian, their weather, sports, and outdoors were familiar. No longer would we need to drill for a nuclear attack by hiding under our desks in school (true story), as Gorbachev proceeded to sign arms control and then reduction agreements with presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.
Two-time defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld famously remarked that there are known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns. Scholars and researchers aim at the known unknowns but should remain receptive to the unknown unknowns that may reveal themselves and upend the analysis. Be open to those who disagree; sometimes they are right. Reassessment is a virtue not a fault. My study of Russia, China, and Japan began with false knowns, turned toward elusive unknowns, and has required continual reassessment.
“So how do you compare women’s status in the U.S. and Japan?” Despite advance preparation, I had not anticipated this question. I froze. No, I was not defending my master’s thesis. The question was posed by an immigration officer at Milwaukee International Airport. I was returning to the University of Wisconsin, Madison, after a winter break in my native Japan, and my reason for re-entry, stated in my immigration document, was graduate education in sociology and women’s studies. Before me was a female agent of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), her blonde hair pulled back in a tight bun, her blue eyes expressionless, and her holstered handgun gleaming. At graduate school I was accustomed to handling questions under a figurative gun but never a literal one. If I gave a “wrong” answer, I wondered, would I get into trouble?
On Earth Day 2021, at a U.S.-organized climate summit, the Biden administration pledged to cut U.S. emissions to half of 2005 levels by 2030 and earmark billions in new development aid for environmental projects in developing countries. It was a bold recommitment to climate multilateralism, the administration argued, a restoration of U.S. leadership in the system of global climate governance: the United Nations’ Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and its scientific body, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Both the IPCC, launched in 1988, and the UNFCCC, created at the landmark 1992 “Earth Summit” in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, received strong bipartisan support from a Republican White House and Democratic House and Senate.
It is an honor to join my distinguished colleagues in relating my career as an historian; but it is also a daunting task to create a useful and coherent narrative of the paths I have followed.
When I arrived at UCLA as a 16-year-old undergraduate in 1973, the first Moon landing was still a vivid memory. It seemed to herald wonderful possibilities, and even in retrospect it remains an amazing achievement—something altogether new in human history. Although the astronauts who set foot on the lunar surface were nominally the heroes of the event, the space program was actually the result of a coordinated effort of many thousands of individuals whose efforts were brilliantly harnessed to achieve a common goal. If it was not the moral equivalent of war, it was pretty close.
Agency is what we seek to understand as historians: the demiurge of that disciplinary holy grail, causality. Who or what stirs the cauldron of change? When and how? When we reflect on our own lives, the elusive nature of that power becomes even more palpable. How did I become this thing, a historian of modern Britain? Did I choose it, or did it choose me? And what kind of agency does my being a historian give me?
There is a persistent paradox in the literature (and policy-related discourse) on warlordism that spills over into the larger scholarship on political violence and state formation: while some observers regard warlords as insurmountable spoilers, too strong and sinister to be tamed, others characterize them as paper tigers that could be easily dismissed with the right kind of political will. Romain Malejacq has broken through this paradox and unraveled it once and for all, a task that required an exceptional combination of theoretical creativity and empirical labor. Based on rich and difficult qualitative field research conducted across northern and western Afghanistan, Warlord Survival: The Delusion of State Building in Afghanistan examines the trajectories of the country’s most formidable (and notorious) strongmen to ask the question “How do warlords survive and even thrive in contexts that are explicitly set up to undermine them?”