Arrivé in Omaha, Arthur Paul, and International History

After some creative re-routing around Hurricane Irene – which has appeared to left most friends on the East Coast unscathed – I was able to leave Berlin this Sunday for Omaha, Nebraska, where I’m spending a few days to work through the Arthur Paul Afghanistan Collection at Criss Library at the University of Nebraska, Omaha (not to be confused with the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, of Cornhusker fame). After arriving on Sunday and orienting myself around the forest of strip malls that will be my habitat for the near future, today was the first day checking out some of the items from the collection and forming an initial judgment about what looks interesting. It’s a big collection originating in the holdings of Arthur Paul, a US economic advisor who worked for the Royal Government of Afghanistan in the 1960s, but developed a passion for the country that led him to find materials from all around the world. Unlikely Omaha had great connections with Kabul University through the 1970s, and even after the war of the 1980s, they obtained dozens of hours of interviews with refugees, mujahideen, aid workers, and so on. True, in an age of digitizing books (I walk by a Borders Books going through a liquidation sale on my way to the campus every day) it can be a little frustrating that not everything is online. But at the same time, this fact often reflects less the lack of effort on the part of IHEs (Nebraska has digitized quite a bit of their English-language holdings)

My surroundings for the next few days - the University of Nebraska, Omaha

True, not all of the work is sexy. I spent almost all of today, for example, making copies of microform rolls of Arthur Paul’s diaries; fortunately for historians or people interested in Afghanistan or the history of foreign aid, he scrupulously kept near-daily journals throughout the 1960s and until, if I remember correctly, 1977, while working in Afghanistan. But the topics that Paul goes into in his writings help me articulate better the answer to a question a friend raised in a recent epistolary correspondence: what would “international” or “global” history look like? In her view, these terms sounded more like something out of a PC 5th-grade social studies classroom. Did the same PC guilt complex that fueled self-identity studies lead to a similar trend in history? Did teachers and professors felt compelled to de-emphasize American history, or war and politics, in favor of a aspartame, less-filling curriculum that emphasized “world cultures”? Another question was whether there might be any difference between diplomatic history (the history of the relationship between states) and what I was referring to as international history.

Paul’s path to Afghanistan, which I’m just beginning to trace out, highlights some of the personalities, groups of professionals, institutions, books, and ideas that scholars and writers might use to create what I think could be a fantastic, cosmopolitan international history – global, with a lot of content, and, while respectful of the work of scholars in diplomatic history, more creative in the range of topics and geographies it investigates to explore recent history. Paul was a specialist in economics working at Princeton University in the late 1950s when Gardner Patterson, then the Dean of the Woodrow Wilson School, asked him if he would be interested in serving as a consultant in Afghanistan for a few years. Patterson, who not only headed a major institution that would facilitate international links but would go on to be deputy director at GATT, the predecesor institution to the WTO, had heard about the opportunity through Robert C. Blum, an American specialist on Asian affairs who taught at Yale prior to World War I, an alumnus of the OSS, and, after the war, President of The Asia Foundation. Paul accepted – I have thousands of pages of reading ahead – but the real point here is that international relations as in the policies that would be recommended and adopted by Afghanistan and other developing countries in the postwar period can’t be understood only in the context of state-to-state relations. While NGOs hadn’t exploded as much as they have in the last twenty years, and while the East-West Cold War conflict imposed a certain structure on events, policy thinkers and actors came through a world of academia, intelligence, and foundations. (These worlds were often one and the same: The Asia Foundation was initially founded via CIA funding and with the support of California businessmen who opposed Communism in Northeast Asia.) Of course, this description only covers Anglophone, American institutions: if you want to get a more in-depth picture of how policy development and advising worked in, say, Afghanistan, you’re going to want to learn more about the world of Soviet aid, too.

The point, however, is that just this outline of the threads that led someone like Paul to Afghanistan hint at what an “international” as opposed to diplomatic history might look like: greater attention to universities, foundations, businesses, and quasi-governmental organizations that made history, as opposed to a focus just on official papers. Greater attention to how policy programs developed in Washington, Moscow, or Beijing were received in Kabul, Hanoi, or Managua can also complicate (in a good way) our understanding of how Cold War rivalries worked. Works like David Ekbladh’s The Great American Mission represent just such a step in the right direction. More ambitiously, a focus on the lives of many of the institutions we live with today – the IMF, the ECSC, national aid organizations like USAID or the Bundesministerium für wirtschaftliche Zusammenarbeit und Entwicklung – might tell us more about where these institutions are coming from, what they can and cannot do, and some more perspective in determining what post-crisis institutions might look like. Would such a focus help practitioners directly? Probably not, but a wave of international history-focused scholarship combining a global focus with linguistic and archival cosmopolitanism would, I reckon, tell us a lot more about how the Cold War or international system worked / works than much of what I see come out of international relations or political science departments these days. Accounts of how other countries historically have conducted aid or development work, or a historical account of the political economy of aid organizations like the Asian Development Bank (which Japan helped found in part to have greater institutional leverage in a bank than it did in the World Bank), would probably not only make interesting history simply richer than mere diplomatic history; it might also have something to say to people working on policy in DC as they seek to understand the mistakes that past great powers took with aid, and the institutional lives and cultures of places like the ADB, the World Bank, or, more recently, the Eurasian Development Bank.


Coming next: a history of windsurfing in front of prominent international institutions, like Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School

All in a day’s work. Over the next several days, there’s simply loads and loads to copy: lots of books in Dari published in Peshawar by the refugees, accounts of imprisonment and torture in Kabul’s prisons, and dozens and dozens of hours of oral interviews. I’ll likely be sequestered in the library this weekend, but since it’s Labor Day next week, I hope to explore Downtown Omaha and the environs. My current strip mall habitat features everything necessary for basic human life in 21st-century America – Panera, Chipotle, bookstores (being dismantled before your eyes) – but after a week of making photocopies in a basement and relaxation at the Econo Lodge, I may be desirous for a change of pace.


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