My next project, if I can put it together, is going to focus on Africa as a whole during the Cold War. So I’ve been diving into the general historiography of the Cold War as much as I can manage for the last few months, which is a huge and sometimes intimidating body of literature.
One contrast to Africanist writing that leaps out at me is the vigorous presence of a more traditional mode of political and diplomatic history (as well as historical writing that is essentially being done within the discipline of political science), a scholarly form that is relatively rare in scholarly writing about modern Africa in the last twenty years. By training and inclination, I’m a cultural and social historian, but I genuinely try to cultivate a taste for other approaches and styles within the discipline.
There are a lot of things to be said about the formidable work of John Lewis Gaddis within this historiography, and most of them have been said by people for whom this is their primary specialization. His new general overview, first published in 2005, is the kind of work that I think all scholars ought to try and pull off at some point in their career, even in short form: a readable, lucid synthesis of scholarship (and scholarly debates) on a topic they know well. I like Gaddis’ historiographical and methodological statement of principles, The Landscape of History, though I think like many other historians of his generation, he uses “postmodernism” as a kind of all-purpose boogeyman.
Since these are just notes, not full reviews, let me discuss one thing that did strike me reading Gaddis about “traditional” political and diplomatic history. (I think there is a lot of recent work that seems to me to count as political history which nevertheless integrates social and cultural history in a way that Gaddis does not.) I don’t have the driving antagonism towards “great man history” that a lot of older social historians built into their work. Histories which see events as the consequence of decisions made by political leaders and their closest advisors not only have the virtue of great narrative coherence, but are also in many cases empirically correct in a very straightforward way. You can do a social and cultural history of the Cuban missile crisis, but such a history has to focus on what that event meant to large groups of people, or how that event was represented in cultural forms. If you want to talk about the event itself, you’re talking about what a few powerful people did and thought and meant to do, and about how their decisions commanded military and political systems of enormous size and their capacity to act in particular ways.
A really sophisticated “total history” might eventually integrate those two kinds of knowledge by looking at the feedback between these different registers and levels of historical experience. I think that’s the wrong thing to ask of a compact, lucid overview like Gaddis’ book. There is one particular kind of integration, however, that I think even a more traditional kind of political and diplomatic history ought to contain, even when it is a compact overview.
Gaddis does deal with the long-running debate about the relative rationality of Soviet and Western actors during the Cold War, and I like the broad outlines of his composite argument, some of which is informed by the flood of new materials that became available after the fall of the Soviet Union. As I read him, he argues first that ideology was genuinely important to many leaders and their key advisors, both as a prism through which they interpreted their antagonists and as a motivation for their own actions. My reading of Gaddis (not just in this book, but also his other work), is that he sees ideology in this sense asymmetrically, that Soviet or Communist actors were often ideological while Western actors were often pragmatic, flexible and situational. At the same time, Gaddis also acknowledges some structural or systemic aspects of the behavior of political leaders. For example, he discusses a well-known argument in diplomatic history, that one state pursuing greater security for itself can degrade the security of another, which forces the second state to aggressively compensate, which makes the first state less secure.
A social or cultural historian might broaden what is meant by “ideology” in this context to look at someone like Stalin or Kennedy as actors whose personal social and cultural character, in relationship to broader social and cultural patterns, shaped their decision making. For example, reviewing Kennedy’s foreign policy in the context of certain kinds of American and Western histories of masculinity. Gaddis integrates some of that approach as well, again more pointedly in his analysis of Soviet leaders. Certainly more traditional political and diplomatic histories do not lack for attention to the psychology of political leaders.
I think what I’d like to see, however, is more a social historian’s approach to leadership and power. Not as social historians would tend to write it, because social historians often want to deal with much larger collectivities and institutions than “one leader and his immediate circle of advisors and subordinates”. What sometimes strikes me about traditional narrative political and diplomatic history is that there is an assumption of symmetry between a leader’s intention to act and the actions that leader takes, and a belief that any given decision can be atomistically broken down into its causal components.
So Gaddis, for example, argues that from 1941 to his death, Stalin operated with a fairly consistent ideological assumption that capitalist nations would resume rivalrous relationships after the end of the war, and that the Soviet Union merely needed to wait for the inevitable outbreak of conflict and war between Britain, the United States, and other capitalist powers. This view, Gaddis claims, structured a good deal of Stalin’s decision-making in the beginnings of the Cold War.
In the manuscript I’m just finishing on colonialism and individual agency in Zimbabwe, one of the arguments I’m trying to make is that there is first a disconnect between what imperial leaders did and what actors on the colonial periphery did, and that the actions of the latter sometimes drove the former, and that decisions made at either (or both) levels often were internally contradictory, improvisational as well as pre-determined, based on fragmentary or patchwork kinds of knowledge, and frequently opaque to the actors themselves. I’m hoping to carry over some of this approach to the Cold War in Africa.
One of the consequences of the perspective I’m taking is that I’m perpetually skeptical about whether we ever ought to talk about individual intentions in an atomistic way, e.g., where we break down what an individual meant to do and assign proportionate value to different components of intention, and equally skeptical about whether we can ever atomistically describe the relationship between intention and result. That’s just with one individual, but it’s even more so once we talk about how a decision actually is made by small groups of advisors and is then transmitted to larger institutional networks. A certain amount of atomistic language is a narrative and explanatory necessity for historians. You can’t easily represent a decision in indeterminate or “fuzzy” language even if that’s how in the end a decision actually becomes a tangible event in human history.
Just to give one example in more recent experience, one of the interesting bits of information to come out of the Iraq War so far has to do with why US intelligence was so off about Hussein’s possession of weapons of mass destruction. People who want to argue that intelligence was purely concocted for political purposes are too simplistic, people who want to reduce it all to the will of Dick Cheney or a few neocons are too simplistic, people who want to make it a sincere mistake are too simplistic. Some of what strikes me as actually involved includes:
a. That very indirectly, almost “culturally” or ideologically, actors inside the Bush Administration made it known that they, even more than their predecessors, would not welcome intelligence which blatantly contradicted beliefs or assumptions that they were inclined to make. No one ever sends an order down that says, “Here’s the casus belli we need, please write it up! kthnx.” This kind of pressure gets exerted when someone like Cheney says in a conversation that includes key advisors and heads of executive departments that intelligence has been “too timid” in the past, or is too dominated by experts who are unwilling to act. The thing is, Cheney (or various neocons) could believe that statement as a reaction to some factual understanding of the history of US intelligence, could say it as a reflection of a much more intuitive kind of personal, emotional orientation towards leadership (think John Bolton here), and so on–and could not entirely know themselves why they say it, or how that statement is likely to be received or interpreted.
2) Another thing at play: how the movement of information through institutions is rather like a game of telephone, that there is a kind of drift and transformation which has less to do with intentionality and more to do with processes of translation, reparsing, repackaging and repurposing as information travels from office to office, up and down hierarchies. So at one level of action and knowledge, you can get a very granular, nuanced understanding of the extremely limited value of a source like “Curveball”, but a process rather like genetic drift starts to mutate that knowledge into something else by the time it reaches the layer where ultimate decisions are made.
3) On the other side of things, one reason that US intelligence might have thought Hussein had weapons of mass destruction is that Hussein may have thought he did. E.g., that autocratic leaders often are surrounded by disinformation. After the Gulf War, Hussein may simply have not known much about the actual capacity of his own state apparatus for anything besides punishing dissidents and preventing challenges to his own power, and there was every reason in the world for subordinates and advisors to tell him whatever he wanted to hear. But these kinds of fictions are complex, improvisational things: they hang in the air between people, rather than reside neatly inside any single person’s psychology.
I could add more, but it seems to me that this is what a social history of state or institutional action at the top of hierarchies might begin to look like. I wouldn’t want someone like Gaddis to take this sort of thinking on board so far that it messes up narrative and explanatory clarity, but I do think traditional political and diplomatic history sometimes mirrors a flaw of a lot of social science. Some social scientists confuse explanatory models for empirical reality; some political historians confuse explanatory narratives about decision-making for the messy processes that shape intentions and translate intentions into action and event.