W(h)ither the Bilateral Study?: what of the History of U.S. Foreign Policy can tell us about the Emergent Multilateral World

Back during the Cold War, bilateral studies were common. Indeed the proliferation of bilateral studies seemed to be almost a natural process—it was thought that we humans were seemingly biologically hard-wired to separate things in to this/that, either/or,  good/evil, etc.

Recently, however, the genre of “United States and …[insert country name here] “ studies seem to have been superseded by international or transnational studies.  Such studies have focused on the asymmetrical power relations between the United States (hegemon) and a particular country that was in its sights.  In 2006, the AHR published a “Conversation” on the importance of transnational history.  The participants made good cases for the significance, richness, and importance of transnational history.  (CA Bagley, Sven Bekert, Matthew Connelly, Isabel Hofmeyr, Wendy Kozol, Patricia Seed, “AHR Conversation on Transnational History,” AHR 111 (Dec 2006): 1441-1464.)

The recent completion of the University of Georgia Press’s “The United States and the Americas” Series, in which the Press published one monograph on the relationship between the United States and each individual nation in the Western Hemisphere, perhaps signals the end of such a type of project–a collection of bilateral studies.  Most certainly, the series can only be described as magisterial—a remarkable contribution to the field of U.S. Diplomatic history.  Alan McPherson’s recent, perceptive review of the series in a recently DH review discussed both its importance and innovative nature.  (Alan McPherson, “Forget the Maine! The Legacy of the ‘United States and the Americas’ Series,” DH, 55 (September 2011): 709-228.)  In particular, the studies, even though they were bilateral, in many cases de-centered the history of U.S. foreign policy—focusing how the Latin American nations resisted and contested U.S. power. A number of he monographs introduced new trends, themes, and ideas in the study of inter-American history.  However, it is unlikely that such a series would be embarked upon in today’s academia—which is, as noted above, much more focused on globalization studies, transnationalism, and international history.

As diplomatic historians (or historians of US foreign relations) strive to write a more international history, they have been investigating the intersection of social movements, international organizations, technological developments, and cultural trends (among other things) on a particular country or region.  One could argue that the “United States and…” model of scholarship is a relic of the Cold War—or “The American Century.” Indeed, as the United States sought to extend its vast power after World War II, not surprisingly historians were drawn to the archives of the most powerful nation in the world. By understanding U.S. motives, and how it attempted to shape individual countries, the contours of the Cold War would be laid bare. And, later on, historians flocked to the Latin American archives to examine how the various Latin American nations responded to increasing U.S. power in the hemisphere.

It has become a truism that the boundaries of the nation-state are softening, and that multi-national economic, cultural, and social forces, as well as international organizations are exerting more influence over our lives.  Yet, a counter argument is beginning to emerge. The punditocracy has noted that as the European Union falters, the importance of individual countries (Germany, especially) is thus highlighted. Some (principally Republican Party) members of the U.S. House of Representatives want to de-fund U.S. participation in the Organization of American States.  Perhaps those who want the United States to withdraw from the OAS are calculating that with a breakup of the organization, the United States could act in its pre-OAS, hegemonic (read: big stick) fashion? The seemingly-inexorable rise of China in recent years has focused attention on that particular nation-state, and how it will change the power calculus in Asia, and United States relations with that particular region.

And now…returning to where I started, the history of inter-American relations. Indeed, applying the “US and…” model to inter-American relations shows that the genre has some importance today. As the power of the United States diminishes, it will be more difficult for the United States to hammer out trade deals with individual countries (Colombia, Peru) that is clearly beneficial to it.  As US power declines, individuals and groups in the United States will be hurt economically. A common response will be that well-organized lobbying groups in Washington DC will fight ever-harder to scuttle trade agreements that will threaten the economic livelihood of their constituents. Indeed, recently the political battle to get trade deals between the United States and individual Latin American nations has been intense. So, perhaps future historical bilateral studies can put these sharply-divisive trade battles in historical perspective?

As the United States declines in power relative to the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, Indian, China) nations, a more multilateral world will emerge. Perhaps it will be a throwback to the early 20th century when a declining Britain and France met a rising Japan, Germany and United States on the world stage. Perhaps new historical attention will be placed on the history of foreign relations in the early 20th century .  And perhaps the nature of the bilateral study will change. Instead of charting how a powerful United States tried to impose its will on smaller nations in the context of the bi-lateral Cold War struggle– and how those smaller “put upon” nations contested US power–bilateral studies will investigate new terrain.  Instead, bilateral studies will (perhaps) become be studies of how “middle-level powers” interacted with each other.  Some such “middling powers” merely tried to hold their own; or some actively tried to raise their international profile—and pushed aside those who got in their way. Instead of producing “U.S .and…”monographs, in which the United States is the asymmetrically powerful nation, historians who choose to examine the history of bilateral relationships could cast their gaze back to the “pre-American Century” early 20th century.  If they did so, they would be examining what is was like for roughly –equal nations to interact in hammering out agreements and clashing over interests—perhaps what we will observe in the coming years in the international system.

After all, as the old Texas saying goes, sometimes you’re the windshield; and sometimes  you’re the bug.  You don’t know for sure what you’ll be in any given situation….But, in either instance, it is a bilateral relationship.