Diplomatic History and the Political Science Wars

David Paull Nickles, May 2011

Diplomatic History Now

Diplomatic history in the United States has faced a challenging academic environment in recent decades. During a period when most historians have found jobs scarce, the number of diplomatic historians has been in relative decline (from 7.0 percent of listed faculty in 1975 to 3.1 percent in 2005). Likewise, the percentage of departments with at least one diplomatic historian has diminished markedly (from 74.8 in 1975 to 45.9 percent in 2005). A 1999 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, discussing these trends, suggested that the broader profession saw diplomatic historians as boring, elitist, and, due to the end of the Cold War, irrelevant.1

When beset by such problems, scholars tend to emulate their more prosperous colleagues. This is exactly what diplomatic historians have done, embracing topics and techniques from social and cultural history, and assimilating recent research on race, class, gender, language, religion, the environment, and memory. Fortunately, their efforts have been reciprocated. Many historians outside diplomatic history—conscious of globalization, concerned about recent foreign policy events, and seeking a broader framework—have attempted to "internationalize" their research. Consequently, diplomatic historians and nondiplomatic historians are finding affinity in one another's work and publishing in one another's journals. The results are encouraging, both institutionally and intellectually. The online discussion list for international history, H-Diplo, is one of the most popular lists in the H-Net system. Likewise, the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations hosts well-attended conferences and publishes an innovative journal.2 But as diplomatic historians have successfully focused on becoming more mainstream within the historical profession, they have neglected a discipline with which they share many interests: political science.

The Methodenstreit in Political Science

The estrangement between diplomatic historians and political scientists who study international relations is unfortunate since both groups investigate many of the same subjects and might be expected to have fruitful exchanges. Blame lies with both sides. As historians moved toward a greater focus on culture and away from the easily quantifiable, political scientists did just the opposite. Within history departments, the decline of the quantitative "new social history" and "new economic history" since the 1970s illustrates a broader decline in cliometric approaches evidenced, for example, by the diminishing use of statistical analysis software among recent generations of historians.3 Meanwhile, political science has witnessed a flurry of positivist work since the 1950s, initially under the rubric of "large-n" studies and "behavioralism," which were efforts to quantify and predict political behavior by applying scientific methodologies. The results were mixed. At times numbers provided an invaluable precision to scholarship, but poor data collection and flawed sources often resulted in findings that looked impressive but were untrustworthy. When statistics derived from the past failed to produce a breakthrough, political scientists increasingly favored deductive over historical approaches. Rational choice theory came to epitomize the vogue for formalistic, abstract, highly mathematical models, a trend that exasperated many historians sympathetic to political science. Noting these developments a decade ago, Susan Pedersen, in David Cannadine's edited collection What is History Now (2002), worried that political scientists, by abandoning history, were stifling a potential source of intellectual renewal for historians.

Some scholars whose research ideal was shaped by quantification or rational choice theory dismissed the bulk of qualitative political science (and most work done by historians) as primitive storytelling and, because it didn't allow for the scientific accumulation of knowledge, useless. More helpfully, three leading political scientists, Gary King, Robert Keohane, and Sidney Verba, appalled by flaws in qualitative research, wrote Designing Social Inquiry (1994), commonly called "KKV," which advised researchers using nonstatistical approaches to adopt the same logic of scientific inference employed in quantitative research. KKV provoked controversy by suggesting that large-n quantitative research using databases was superior to small-n qualitative scholarship using case studies. Meanwhile rational choice theory seemed to be sweeping all before it; scholars who employed competing methodologies griped that its adherents tended to share similar definitions of excellent research—regardless of their subfields—and therefore created winning coalitions that dominated faculty hiring and publication decisions. Detractors contended that despite rational choice theory's methodological pyrotechnics, it had contributed little of significance to the actual study of politics.4

As in 1848, France played an important part in the ensuing rebellion. In June 2000, professors and students of economics in Paris launched a well-publicized critique of rational choice theory's influence on their discipline, which, they asserted, had become unconcerned with reality and excessively mathematical. This revolt spread to economics programs in other European countries. Crossing the Atlantic, the controversy resonated with U.S. political scientists. On October 15, 2000, an anonymous and untraceable e-mail from "Mr. Perestroika" complained about the lack of methodological, racial, and gender diversity in the American Political Science Association (APSA) and the field's leading journal, the American Political Science Review (APSR). This polemic quickly went viral and won ardent support. The rebels alleged that publication in the APSR had become essential to tenure at many schools despite its being unreadable, unrepresentative of the discipline, and biased against qualitative research. In November 2000, an open letter to APSA from 200 scholars asked why the discipline had become fixated upon questions of methodology at the expense of important questions related to politics.

The insurgents achieved rapid victories due to sympathy for their cause among many senior scholars. APSA elected a female president three years in a row, made greater efforts to mentor women and minorities, revised the APSR, founded a new journal, and allowed the insurgents to sponsor events at the annual conference. A new group established under the APSA umbrella, on "Qualitative and Multi-Method Research" (QMMR) created a summer institute and founded a newsletter. Rethinking Social Inquiry (2nd ed., 2010), an influential collection of essays edited by Henry Brady and David Collier, reexamined the relationship between quantitative and qualitative methods in response to the stimulating but narrow-minded strictures of KKV. This flourishing of pluralism is a hopeful development, despite jargon that sometimes sounds absurd to historians, who are unlikely to happily identify themselves as "process tracers" or adherents of QMMR. The focus of QMMR scholars on finding methodological justifications for qualitative research poses the danger that they will lose sight of substantive political problems, thereby repeating the mistakes of those against whom they rebelled. One hopes that the dialogue between quantitative and qualitative methods will improve both.

Areas of Convergence

Fortunately, political scientists do not spend all of their time writing about methodology, and some of their research is relevant to diplomatic history. In fact, many historians are familiar with efforts to apply political psychology to international relations by looking at misperception (Robert Jervis), attitudes toward risk (Rose McDermott), psychoanalysis (Alexander and Juliette George), and neuroscience (Stephen Rosen). Political psychology likewise has much to offer diplomatic historians interested in such topics as memory or (racial, gender, and class) identity.5

Just as psychology challenged the assumption that human beings are perfectly rational, the "American Political Development" (APD) school has provided an alternative to the ahistorical research that proliferates in the American politics wing of political science. APD, led by scholars such as Stephen Skowronek, Karen Orren, and Theda Skocpol, has reinvigorated the study of the American state. Although diplomatic history has benefited enormously from research on transnational topics—such as merchants, missionaries, diasporas, and consumption—that decenter the role of government officials, APD demonstrates the benefits of also retaining an interest in the history of government.

The debate over "neorealism," which preoccupied international relations scholars during the 1980s and 1990s, disheartened many historians. This theory, in the name of parsimony, looked only at the distribution of power among states and therefore largely failed to untangle historical riddles. More encouraging is the development of "neoclassical realism," which retains neorealism's concern with interstate power distribution but adds in state-level attributes (such as political culture and state/society relations), and psychological nuances. Described in Gideon Rose's review article in World Politics (October 1998), this approach may be of assistance to historians as they seek to explore domestic cultural and social history without neglecting the influence of the international system.

Another approach interested in the systemic level is the "English school," which examines the characteristics and development of international society. Established decades ago and associated with Martin Wight, Herbert Butterfield, Hedley Bull, and Adam Watson, it is now enjoying a resurgence due to the growing popularity of political science theories—especially "constructivism"—that avow the socially constructed character of international politics. The English School's interest in the history of international norms and institutions makes it well suited to foster creative work by historians, especially since it is flexible enough to incorporate transnational phenomena. Moreover, due to its broad historical sweep and the fact that most of its members are from the British Commonwealth or Europe, it counteracts the parochialism that has sometimes characterized both diplomatic history and political science in the United States.

In sum, there is much room for cross-pollination. Despite inevitable culture clashes, historians are wise to take up the task of engaging political scientists, who deserve credit for being explicit about their assumptions, enthusiastic about counting, and willing to address big questions. For their part, historians have much to offer, including their sensitivity toward contingency, sequence, and the contested nature of historical "facts."

David Paull Nickles is a historian at the U.S. Department of State and the author of Under the Wire: How the Telegraph Changed Diplomacy. He would like to thank Thomas Zeiler, Seth Center, Seung-young Kim, Tomila Lankina, Lynda Dodd, and Stephen Van Evera for their advice. The views expressed in this essay are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. government or the Department of State.


1. The statistics are from Robert B. Townsend, "What's in a Label? Changing Patterns of Faculty Specialization since 1975," Perspectives, January 2007; Jeff Sharlet, "Why Diplomatic Historians May Be the Victims of American Triumphalism," Chronicle of Higher Education, September 24, 1999.

2. Brenda Gayle Plummer, "The Changing Face of Diplomatic History: A Literature Review," The History Teacher, vol. 38:3 (May 2005); Thomas W. Zeiler, "The Diplomatic History Bandwagon: A State of the Field," Journal of American History, vol. 95, issue 4 (March 2009), 1054–56.

3. For information on the decline of economic and social history within history departments, see "What's In a Label?" Townsend provides evidence on the decline of sophisticated number crunching programs in "How Is New Media Reshaping the Work of Historians?" Perspectives on History, November 2010.

4. The most prominent critiques are Donald P. Green and Ian Shapiro, Pathologies of Rational Choice Theory (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994); Stephen M. Walt, "Rigor or Rigor Mortis? Rational Choice and Security Studies," International Security, vol. 23:4 (spring 1999), 5–48; Jonathan Cohn, "Irrational Exuberance," The New Republic, October 25, 1999, pp. 25–31. Duncan Snidal's more sympathetic essay on "Rational Choice and International Relations" is published in the Handbook of International Relations, Walter Carlsnaes et al., eds. (Los Angeles: Sage, 2002), 73–94.

5. For example, Rawi Abdelal et al., Measuring Identity: A Guide for Social Scientists (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

Diplomatic History Today: A Short Annotated Bibliography

The best source on the "Mr. Perestroika" debate is Perestroika: The Raucous Rebellion in Political Science, edited by Kristen Renwick Monroe (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005). An earlier, somewhat similar debate during the 1960s resulted in the publication of Contending Approaches to International Politics, edited by Klaus Knorr and James N. Rosenau (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969).

A number of scholars have applied political psychology to diplomatic history. Among the most prominent are Robert Jervis, Perception and Misperception in International Politics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976); Rose McDermott, Risk-Taking in International Politics (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998); Alexander L. George and Juliette L. George, Woodrow Wilson and Colonel House: A Personality Study (New York: John Day Company, 1956); Stephen Peter Rosen, War and Human Nature (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005). For an overview of this literature, see Richard Immerman's essay on "Psychology" in Explaining the History of American Foreign Relations, edited by Michael J. Hogan and Thomas G. Paterson (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2nd edition, 2004).

Important works within the American Political Development tradition include Karen Orren and Stephen Skowronek, The Search for American Political Development (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004); Stephen Skowronek, Building a New American State: The Expansion of National Administrative Capacities, 1877–1920 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982); Theda Skocpol, Protecting Soldiers and Mothers: The Political Origins of Social Policy in the United States (Cambridge, Mass. Harvard University Press, 1992). Brian Balogh discusses the influence of this literature in his article, "The State of the State among Historians," Social Science History, 27:3 (fall 2003).

The most influential statement of neoclassical realism is Gideon Rose's "Neoclassical Realism and Theories of Foreign Policy," World Politics, vol. 51 (October 1998). See also Neoclassical Realism, the State, and Foreign Policy, edited by Steven E. Lobell, Norrin M. Ripsman, and Jeffrey W. Taliaferro (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

The English School's earlier work tended to be more historical than the later scholarship, which is increasingly philosophical. Two classic works are Diplomatic Investigations: Essays in the Theory of International Politics, edited by Herbert Butterfield and Martin Wight (London: Allen & Unwin, 1966) and The Expansion of International Society, edited by Hedley Bull and Adam Watson (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984).

For a collection of essays on the relationship between diplomatic history and political science, see Bridges and Boundaries: Historians, Political Scientists, and the Study of International Relations, edited by Colin Elman and Miriam Fendius Elman (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 2001). Ole R. Holsti wrote an essay for historians on "Theories of International Relations" (in Explaining the History of American Foreign Relations, edited by Hogan and Paterson, op. cit.).