Historians seem to have a problem with Trump. I do not mean by this the dominance of partisan hostility to Trump in the ranks of the historical profession, or even the way in which many historians have been offended by the way in which the president has treated history as a resource to be exploited, rather than a reality to be respected or understood. The more substantial problem posed by Trump is that for many historians he simply should not exist. The possibility that the conclusion of the evolution of the United States across the half-century since the 1960s could be the election – albeit against the weight of individual votes – of a man who boasts of his distaste for the goals of racial equality, wider health-care provision, and a narrowing of income differentials, seems to many historians to be somewhere between an institutional outrage and an absurd accident of history. But the political is supplemented by the personal. Trump’s swagger, and his disregard for bureaucratic procedure and legal constraints, stands as a refutation of deeply-held assumptions among historians about how the democratic politics of the U.S. are supposed to work. The complexity of institutional procedures, the careful reconciliation of competing interests, and above all the prestige of the presidency as the symbol of democratic legitimacy, have all been bulldozed by a man whose personal qualities – or lack of them – seem like an insult to the historical narrative.
We should be wary when we look back at our own lives and try to discern a pattern. Historians know that one of the common fallacies in looking at the past is to assume that things were bound to turn out as they did, to see a chain of causality in what may be random events or simple coincidences. And we should also remind ourselves that success or failure is not due to the individual alone but to circumstances, timing and luck.
Unlike, perhaps, any previous occupant of the Oval Office, the election of the 45th president of the United States in 2016 triggered intense soul-searching in America, and this introspective exercise is likely to continue for some time yet. Unfit for office in the first place, far from being tamed by the weight of his responsibilities, President Trump became more disruptive and dangerous with time. But whatever the economic costs or the social, racial, and cultural divisiveness of his brand of politics or the strain he has placed, by design, ignorance, or recklessness, on America’s constitutional arrangements, his turbulent presidency also left an imprint on international affairs, and historians will find in that period much on which to reflect and debate.
I was born on February 9, 1946, the same day that Soviet leader Joseph Stalin gave a speech which U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas famously called a “declaration of World War III.” This was a bit of an exaggeration, but the Stalin speech was certainly one of the opening shots in the Cold War. And the great conflict that was about to begin would have a profound effect on my life, in more ways than one.
Four years ago, I wrote that the Trump presidency would provide a test for many IR theories. It was clear from Trump’s campaign and his personal style that both his policy preferences and his methods of operation were outside of the political mainstream, and indeed this was a major part of his appeal to voters, even if they did not necessarily approve or even know of the specific policies he was advocating. What made this period so valuable to IR scholars, even if they disapproved of Trump, was that it would provide insight into the classic arguments about how much freedom of action an American president has and how much he was constrained by domestic interests, politics, and the international system. On this topic I found Kenneth Waltz’s well known levels of analysis framework particularly useful. The classic statement of the president’s power in the realm of foreign affairs is Aaron Wildavsky’s “The Two Presidencies.”
I never imagined I’d become a political scientist. As a child, my passion was for paleontology, and I pored over my books on fossils and dinosaurs until the pages were tattered all along the edges. Today, while I do have an impressive rock and mineral collection and I know where my loupe and rock pick are, I never became a paleontologist. As an undergraduate major in geology in the late 1970s, I discovered that jobs in that field were created with men and men’s lives in mind. I refused to accept either/or choices when my male peers would have only both/and choices. At the same time, General Education requirements forced me to take classes in anthropology and international relations, and I discovered that people and the societies they build were much more interesting than rocks, which were typically only dynamic if one lived far longer than the average human being. With nations and peoples, on the other hand, a lively soap opera of change fixed the gaze. It was almost impossible to look away once one understood the players, their interests, and their histories. From that detour when I was a young college student came an unexpected journey as a social science researcher.
Fintan Hoey’s book Satō, America, and the Cold War is a detailed, somewhat revisionist examination of the diplomacy of Japanese Prime Minister Satō Eisaku (in office 1964-1972), especially toward the United States. In contrast to prevailing scholarship that has tended to portray Satō as either an unwitting pawn of the United States, a dull, wishy-washy technocrat who survived by never committing to anything, or a cynical political operator who knowingly sacrificed Japan’s national interests to burnish his personal legacy, Hoey seeks to argue that “Satō Eisaku was a visionary statesman and leader” who “skillfully navigate[d] the ship of state” through rough currents to become “not only one of the great leaders of modern Japan, but also a major statesman of the twentieth century” (1, 21, 181).
It is difficult to pinpoint the moment at which I decided to pursue a Ph.D. in Political Science or to focus on political theory. I think of it more as a slow drift. I grew up until 13 in Ethiopia and Botswana. My dad, a biologist, taught at Addis Ababa University (AAU) and the University of Botswana, but while I had an academic parent, it never occurred to me that it would be my path too. My dad’s trajectory was part of a generational experience. He attended AAU at the height of the Ethiopian Student Moment and right before the Ethiopian revolution. In a Cold War context, he won a United States Agency for International Development (USAID) scholarship to study in the U.S., which allowed him to escape much of the repression of the 1970s. Yet, like many of his friends and colleagues, he pursued this opportunity with the intention of returning home to support the work of transforming his native land. Both his research and pedagogical preoccupations were tightly wound up with Ethiopia’s developmental project.
Reader: this H-Diplo series is full of great examples. Outstanding scholars with inspiring and even heartwarming stories that might inform your own journey. This one is the counter-example. I must confess: I did everything wrong.
Becoming an intellectual historian of France’s modern overseas empire, and its legitimating discourses, was perhaps overdetermined in my case. I was born in a small Midwestern town near Peoria in the late 1950s, and my family of seven (the fifth sibling was still in utero) moved to the Netherlands for five years when I was five. My father was a manufacturer’s representative, peddling American-made work gloves at a time when mighty little companies were still thriving in rural Illinois alongside odiferous family-owned hog farms and acres and acres of corn. In the 1960s, European nations were just beginning to develop the North Sea oil reserves, and their workers were my father’s target market. Within a couple of years of our arrival in The Hague, my parents decided to send their twin daughters (I was one of them) to the Lycée français, on the theory that learning a foreign language was a good idea and that French was a more “useful” language to acquire than Dutch.