I was born in 1948 and grew up in the north-east of England at a time when its two major industries – mining and shipbuilding – were in decline. My father had joined the Royal Navy in 1938 as a regular officer. This was quite an achievement for a working-class Jew. He served through the war as a naval aviator, including spending some tough months on the besieged island of Malta. After the war he went into business with his brothers, sometimes successfully and sometimes less so. There were times when we were very short of money. My mother had shone at school but because of the war had not gone to university. These days she would undoubtedly have had a successful professional career as well as bringing up two boys. She never complained about this.
From about the time I was twelve, my father and I would stay up late during summer nights discussing politics. As an immigrant to the U.S., he focused our conversations around international relations, although I didn’t quite realize it at the time. Our talks ranged from the political to the personal. I remember clearly a common refrain. Whenever I would complain, he would reassure me that things would change. “Slowly and slowly,” he would say, it would all work out.
“Do they do the Cold War in Utrecht?” was the first question I was asked after braving a cloud of volcanic ash to arrive at the prestigious International Graduate Student Conference on the Cold War in Washington DC in April 2010. Such was my enthusiasm to join, that I took my suitcase to Amsterdam Airport on a daily basis to ensure that KLM’s crew would let me onto the first intercontinental flight that was allowed to leave the airport after the notorious eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland. Having barely finished my MA-degree in Comparative History, while still working as a Classics teacher at a Dutch gymnasium, I relished the opportunity to share my ideas with such Cold War icons as Odd Arne Westad, Bernd Schäfer and James Hershberg. Although most Europeans – including the entire faculty of the LSE – had not managed to cross the Atlantic, I had gone to great lengths to arrive in Washington exactly to “do the Cold War in Utrecht.” Retrospectively, that seemed a long shot – I had a Classics degree from Cambridge and had only recently embarked on a study of the Cold War – but I did it. In this essay, I will explain how.
I didn’t set out to become a transnational historian, but then again, I’m not sure anyone did in the 1970s. My story begins with women’s history. In 1969, after my first year at Bryn Mawr College and a summer in Cambridge, Massachusetts, studying French, where I first saw a poster for what was then called “Female Liberation,” I found a name for what I had felt since I was a young girl: I was a feminist. I had already fallen in love with history, so the next step felt inevitable. I set my sights on women’s history. I had started college thinking I would major in psychology or political science, but it was history that grabbed me.
Much like its predecessor, the Trump administration came into office rhetorically committed to reducing the American military and political footprint in the Middle East and left office with the American role in the region largely unchanged; like its predecessor, it came into office ready to engage diplomatically on Arab-Israeli questions, with an eye toward a final settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian issue, and it left office with little progress on that core conflict of the Arab-Israeli arena. It succeeded in expanding the number of Arab countries that diplomatically recognize Israel, but those recognitions did little to change the immediate geopolitical dynamics of the Arab-Israeli issue. They were more a testament to the enduring centrality of the United States in the Middle East, a backhanded acknowledgement that Trump’s initial desire to de-emphasize the region in American foreign policy had failed. Unlike its predecessor, the Trump administration increased pressure on Iran, in the failed hopes of either renegotiating the 2015 nuclear deal or, more ambitiously, bringing about regime change in Tehran. The new Biden administration is seeking to restore dialogue with the Islamic Republic. The Trump administration privileged relations with Saudi Arabia even beyond what previous administrations had done, but with the result of making Saudi-American relations a more toxically partisan issue than in the past.
The era of Pax Americana—ushered in by President Harry Truman, put on steroids during the neoliberal wave initiated by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, and seemingly cemented by the profound changes in Europe after the Cold War—led many to proclaim the arrival of a final stage of global democratic peace and liberal order. This teleological view of history has, in recent years, proved an illusion. While progressives would like to believe otherwise, “in geopolitics, as in biology, mankind remains susceptible to new strains of old maladies.” And so a world that had grown accustomed to thinking of progress as inevitable and irreversible is now being rocked by old toxic patterns previously thought crushed by the march of progress—the outbreak of a global pandemic, the rise of authoritarian alternatives to democracy, and the return of great-power competition. The comeback of these old system disturbances conforms with the twenty-first century’s wider theme of “back to the future.” Their reappearance also introduces risks and complications into the international system that threaten to overwhelm the institutions of domestic and global governance. Indeed, order of any kind is becoming increasingly scarce in today’s politics of mounting chaos and randomness, traits associated with rising entropy. History is accelerating, not ending.
A few years ago, I asked a colleague, “what is the relationship between rules, norms, practices, and habits?” The colleague laughed and responded, “nobody knows.” We both agreed that constructivist scholarship had grown increasingly cluttered and vague over the past thirty years. The literature defines a range of concepts—for example, norms, rules, values, identities, habits, practices, and background knowledge—and mechanisms—such as norm creation, change, cascades, socialization, argumentation, contestation, localization, rejection, transgression, adaptation, and evasion. However, the relationship between these concepts and mechanisms has never been clearly specified. Basic questions, like how actors how know to engage in one mechanism over another, why some attempts at social change succeed while others fail, and again, the nature of the relationship between rules, norms, practices, and habits remain unaddressed. Admittedly, I have contributed to these gaps, so I was relieved to find answers in Mark Raymond’s new book, Social Practices of Rule-Making in World Politics.
Many of the essays in the series “Learning the Scholar’s Craft” suggest that for a number of scholars, “learning” depends as much on mentorship, intuition, and luck as it does on the research subjects one pursues. In this respect, my trajectory was no exception. When I went to college, I understood very quickly that intellectual history provided a way of combining my interests in European literature, philosophy, and politics, though I can’t say that I understood that then. I found my way to graduate school primarily because as an undergraduate I had some generous teachers, one of whom encouraged me to apply for a doctoral program in the same institution—I was one of those students to whom it would never have occurred to apply to graduate school—and I was admitted to Berkeley to pursue a Ph.D. in History. In those days, the “new” cultural history was on the horizon, providing, in part through its engagement with anthropology and French theorists like Michel Foucault, a way of understanding the cultural production of ideas, especially by less canonical thinkers who were not addressed by more contextualist versions of intellectual history. During my first year at Berkeley, Lynn Hunt organized a conference on cultural history, and faculty members in English, French, Comparative Literature, and History had recently founded the journal Representations, which provided a perspective – the “new historicism” – that historicized literary texts and was critical of poststructuralism.
“Wednesday, January the sixth two thousand and twenty-one—a date which will live in infamy—the United States Capitol was suddenly and deliberately attacked by a mob incited by President Donald Trump”—with just a few words substituted, this sentence repeats what President Franklin Roosevelt said when he asked for a declaration of war following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. “Infamy” perfectly characterizes this deliberately provoked assault on one of the most hallowed sites and institutions of American democracy.
In a speech at Mount Rushmore on 4 July 2020 President Donald Trump stated that the United States was under threat from a “totalitarian” “cancel culture” which was eroding American liberty, “driving people from their jobs, shaming dissenters, and demanding total submission from anyone who disagrees.” Trump’s invocation of ‘totalitarianism’ speaks to the lasting hold this highly flexible and powerfully evocative concept retains on American political discourse. Political commentators and politicians brought totalitarianism out of its brief retirement in the post-Cold War era to be deployed as a weapon in the ‘war on terror,’ as I show in my research on the life of this concept after its mid-century heyday. In the early 2000s, totalitarianism was invoked by pro-war liberal intellectuals and the George W. Bush administration to link the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to the ‘good fights’ of World War II and the Cold War. In this construction, ‘Islamofascism’ took the place of Nazism and Communism as the ideology perceived to represent an ‘existential’ threat to Western civilization.