Robert Allen Skotheim Chair of History
Ten years ago, what was cutting edge? At the end of 1999, what do you remember thinking, hoping, would happen in your field?
The last 10 years have witnessed a dramatic change in my field of study, United States foreign policy. During the 1980s and 1990s, the so-called cultural turn in diplomatic history, characterized by employing interdisciplinary approaches to discursive analysis, and the interrelationships between the constructions of power and the symbolic codes employed to persuade or create “truth,” was the cutting-edge research. The events of Sept. 11, 2001, and the two subsequent and ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, have brought about a return to more traditional areas of concern by diplomatic historians, focusing on questions of international power, ideology, empire, imperialism, and, of course, U.S. foreign policy toward the Middle East. This has, in turn, led scholars back to reexamining old questions, such as American expansion in the late 19th century, U.S. occupation policies after World War II, the issues of modernization theory and nation building during the Cold War, and in particular in Vietnam, and the intellectual and ideological roots of neo-conservatism after the Vietnam War. This also has led to a greater concern with continuity and precedent over the uniqueness of particular events.
This “reversal” has been in line with my own research that focuses on the intersection of ideology, individuals, and policymaking, and examines the making and continuities in American foreign policy over long periods. The two books I am currently working on, an examination of the social roots of American nationalism and its impact of foreign policy, and a biography of former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft, seek to understand the ideological antecedents and long-term development of the concept of American exceptionalism and the roots of neo-conservatism in post-World War II internationalism respectively.
– David Schmitz
What is emerging out of the above is the “new international history” that emphasizes multinational, multiarchive approaches to questions concerning American involvement in a particular area of the world or key events such as the origins of the Cold War. With the opening of more archives around the world, particularly in the former Soviet bloc, it is now possible to examine many events from the vantage point of all participants. This will not displace the other work being done but will add a new dimension to our understanding of American foreign policy and its role in the world.
Your dream department or research project?
I will stick to what I think is actually possible and desirable. Since the mid-1990s, the Department of History has been at the forefront of globalizing the curriculum by adding positions in the history of Africa, the ancient Mediterranean, the Islamic World/Middle East, and Latin America to our previous offerings in East Asian, European, and United States history. I would add another specialist in each area to provide for greater depth and breadth. In addition, there would be more college funds that faculty could compete for to support summer research and sabbaticals at full pay. Finally, I would establish a “Whitman in Washington” program that would bring select faculty and students to the nation’s capital for classes, research, and internships.
The Robert Allen Skotheim Chair of History was established in 1994 in honor of Whitman’s 10th president by a gift from Dr. Elizabeth Main Welty, longtime college trustee, and a bequest from the estate of Dr. Robert F.Welty ’35.