Excerpt of History of the CHIR, from Brunello Vigezzi's General Report
With a quarter of a century behind it, our Commission of the History of International Relations can now I feel rightly claim its own history – a complex history that it would be interesting to reconstruct.
Looking back at the formal setting up of the Commission in Milan (1981), re-reading the series of our Newsletters and taking a look at the archives of the Commission that have now been reorganised by our secretariat, I have been confirmed in my view – reinforced by following the traces of my own memory – that the Commission has its own real history which, as often happens, risks falling into oblivion. Which would be a shame!
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Our history, I believe, leads us quite naturally to ask some general questions.
What has been the role of our Commission over the course of the last 25 years?
In 1994, more than ten years ago, when Renè Girault gave up his position, he sent out a circular in which he put forward a proposal that some of you will perhaps remember.
The commission had been set up with the aim of “faire reconnaître la spécificité de nos recherches par l’ensemble des historiens”. Girault obviously wished to avoid creating a distance between the history of international relations and the broader field of the historical disciplines; and indeed the Commission has followed him in this. However, the ambit of our research – its methods, problems, periodisation and the connections between “particular” stories and “general” history – could have better motivated and defined and examined in more depth.
Girault saw the overall balance as satisfactory, and essentially the growth of the Commission had corresponded closely to the growth of the discipline (understood in its broadest sense).
“La Commission a aujourd’hui pleinement atteint sa majorité; comme on peut constater par la lecture de la Newsletter. Non seulement en Europe, premier lieu de nos rassemblements mais dans le vaste monde, les historiens des relations internationales sont maintenant connus et reconnus…”
Girault’s assessment was perhaps rather on the optimistic side. But one point seems to me to be important and beyond question. The commission has been an integral part of the discipline, and in its own very special way it has shared its experience and its fortunes.
Indeed, with its 20 conferences and relative publications and with its capacity to engage with subjects of great importance, the commission has made a generous and significant contribution. But, in my opinion, at the same time the Commission has faced the extraordinary difficulty of constructing and maintaining a world-wide organisation of the study of the “history” (and, one could say, the “theory”) of international relations.
One can – I think – find the meaning of our Commission’s history by moving in this direction. The subject is substantial – and would be a good one for a graduation thesis! But to stay within our own circle and to keep the subject within the limits I have set, I would just like to indicate some pointers that might then give rise to an immediate discussion.
Over the course of the years the Commission has acquired about 500 members from 40 different countries. On closer examination, however, extreme oscillations and discontinuities become evident. The members from some countries belong for a period, and then leave. Others have joined or re-joined. Some countries (I am thinking of Germany, Japan and Brazil) have perhaps been more continuous in their membership; but then, even in these cases, the “national” dimension is predominant. Does the Commission thus reflect the fact that the study of the history of international relations still retains a very clear “national” imprint? The “national” imprint, of course, can vary a lot (and it not necessarily tinged with nationalism) but the fact remains.
The subject could be addressed from another angle of vision. It is well not to forget that the choice of themes for our General Assembly from 1985 to now has been particularly significant. One need only look at the list: What is the History of International Relations?; Great and Small Powers in Modern and Contemporary Ages; Les Archives des organisations internationale. Le point de vue de l’historien et du archivist; International Relations in the Pacific Area from the 18th Century to the Present. Colonisation, Decolonisation and Cultural Encounters; Multiculturalism and The History of International Relations from the 18th Century up to the Present; Globalisation and Regionalisation and the History of International Relations; The Formation of the Images of the Peoples and the History of International Relations from the 18th Century up to the Present – and today our Assembly here in Sydney on the subject: What’s new in the History and Theory of International relations after 1989?
On these occasions, scholars from a variety of different countries discussed and worked together, but the initiatives failed to have the lasting consequences one might expect. Our conferences - all our conferences, together with the ensuing publications – have been intense meeting points (more than once with important scientific results). But the subsequent “circulation of ideas” within the Commission has been scant and episodic. Even internal communication about teaching, or ongoing research has always been arduous.
The attempts – this too needs to be considered – have been quite numerous, and also not without effect. In the mid-1990s, when the Newsletter was at the height of its effectiveness, members belonging to 100 Universities annually registered 250 courses on the history of international relations, 500 publications, 250 works in progress. Of course, the newsletter was not simply a bibliographical bulletin on the subject. “News” meant members’ studies and initiatives: they were a sign of the activity of the Commission. At the same time, particular survey, such as those collected under the title, “Other initiatives” started to catch on, albeit timidly, and expanded the pool of common experience. From this point of view the decision to discontinue the Newsletter and the move into the world of the Internet have forced us to start from scratch; we now have to invent new forms of communication which at the moment, it must be recognised, we have yet to find. I shall come back to this point later. But in the meantime, if we reconsider the history of the Commission, we would have to recognise that its whole activity, despite everything, reflects the limits that I have tried to point out. The inquiry could be continued. The responsibility of the members, the bureau and the Commission is beyond question and needs to be understood better. But I maintain that the problem is much broader.
The point is often made that the world is becoming ever more interdependent. Communication develops at vertiginous speed. But at the same time, separate worlds continue to exist. One could say that our Commission, in its own field, has experienced this directly (and continues to do so). On the other hand, the same phenomenon (or rather, a phenomenon of the same nature) can be found in our relations with CISH, the International Committee of Historical Sciences which organises the world congresses and to which we belong.
An internal Commission since 1982, our Commission became an affiliated Commission in 1997, with the same right to vote as the national committees. So, in May 2001 meeting in Milan, our Bureau decided to propose the subject of “the Organization of Peace and the History of International Relations from ancient times to the present day” as one of our Major Themes for the World Congress in Sydney. The result we have achieved (also with the collaboration of other commissions) has definitely been flattering, both because the theme has been adopted and because of the ample cooperation which was requested of us when setting up and organising the work. But again in this case I would argue that reservations are in place, for reasons closely connected to the argument I have put forward thus far. In Milan, in the event of our request being accepted, we felt that the great theme of peace might involve the members of our commission more directly. At the meeting of the Paris Bureau in April 2004 we took up the question again. But the initiative of CISH, the treatment of the theme of peace at the congress, despite everything, remained something separate from the internal life of our Commission. Our work in Sydney on peace will perhaps lead to a further look at the theme, or even produce a publication on the initiative of the Commission, but for the time being the “separate zones” continue to exist.
The question of our relations with CISH is of more general importance; but even from this point of view, the Commission has again experienced fractures and separations which regard the Commission itself and the whole CISH. There is little interconnection between the commissions, all the commissions. The commissions and the national committees proceed along different paths. World historiography, seen in this light, appears highly divided and fragmented. The occasions for working together do exist. We need only think of the overall programme for Sydney to see how many “missed opportunities” there have been, how many opportunities there are for the future.
At the assembly in Amsterdam (2002), our Commission committed itself to modify this state of affairs; but we need to insist. And precisely the history we have been through can help us to become aware of these questions with particular acuteness and to identify the most appropriate solutions for our time, for us and for the various members of CISH.