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The New Internationalism

Global history has become a vigorous field in recent years, examining all parts of the empires of Europe and Asia and moving beyond the confines of ‘top-down’ diplomatic history, as Peter Mandler explains.

Picture of the Coast of Yokohama by Hiroshige II, 1860‘International history’ used to mean the history of relations between nations – a fancy synonym for ‘diplomatic history’. But it should be no surprise in our increasingly globalised world that historians have been reaching for a new kind of ‘internationalism’, one that tracks the movement and communication of people across, above and beyond nations – really it should be called ‘supranational history’. Because this kind of history looks beyond the nation state it is not so interested in politics and diplomacy but more in the things ordinary people do in disregard of or in spite of the state – trade, travel, migration – or even against the state – like appeal for universal rights.

Pre-modern historians find it surprisingly easy to do this new kind of international history because, though long-distance communication was more difficult in their period, states were weaker. Even empires found it hard to control movements across boundaries. Stephen F. Dale’s survey of The Muslim Empires of the Ottomans, Safavids, and Mughals (Cambridge University Press, 2010) shows how easily ideas, styles and goods moved across these three enormous empires, stretching from the gates of Vienna to the Bay of Bengal, bound by a common religion and by the prestige of Persian culture. As Dale shows, just as important and significant well beyond the boundaries of these empires was the westward movement of cottons from India and silks from Iran to slake seemingly insatiable Ottoman and European appetites. In fact it is only now that historians are beginning to draw together European, Ottoman, Indian, Chinese and Japanese sources, as in the work of Kenneth Pomeranz, that we can see how important pre-modern global trade was. Lightweight goods such as spices, sugar, tobacco, opium, coffee and tea, silks and cottons moved very long distances in the Early Modern period. An influential book by C.A. Bayly, The Birth of the Modern World, 1780-1914 (Blackwell, 2004), argues that this Early Modern traffic laid global foundations for the economic and political revolutions that created the modern world, which are thus better seen as global events than as originating in ‘the West’. When Britain and France were experiencing their industrial and political revolutions Japan and China were experiencing something remarkably similar and not unconnected.

Even before the Industrial Revolution made possible cheap long-distance travel by train and steamship masses of people were on the move. James Belich’s brilliant Replenishing the Earth: The Settler Revolution and the Rise of the Anglo-World, 1783-1939 (Oxford University Press, 2009) tells the neglected story of the English-speaking diaspora – in the  19th century 25 million people left the British Isles for distant lands, most of them for good. As Belich points out, there were simultaneous but smaller movements of Spanish, Dutch, German, Russian and Chinese people, but his book aims to explain why the British emigration was so much more explosive and also to show how the resulting ties between Europe, the Americas, Africa and the Pacific islands dramatically accelerated the pace of globalisation.

One of the most illuminating features of Belich’s argument is his de-emphasis on politics and institutions – as the centrality of the independent and polyglot US shows, the ‘Anglo-World’ was not all about empire – and his closer attention to the ideology and material interests of the emigrants themselves. However, as the new international history pushes into the 19th century, it has to grapple with the fact that in the modern period the nation state did matter. Emigrants might temporarily escape its clutches, but most people did not.

Historians seeking a ‘cosmopolitan’ sphere in the modern period have had to zero in on ideas and idealists struggling against the hegemony of the nation state. Lynn Hunt’s Inventing Human Rights: A History (W.W. Norton, 2007) grants that after the burst of idealism surrounding the American and French Revolutions the rise of nationalism consigned ‘human rights’ to marginality for over a century. Gary J. Bass’s Freedom’s Battle: The Origins of Humanitarian Intervention (Knopf, 2008) argues that a genuine humanitarianism lay behind British campaigns on behalf of Christians in the crumbling Ottoman Empire in the late 19th century, yet the result was the creation of new nation states, Christian or Muslim but rarely both. As his title indicates, Erez Manela’s The Wilsonian Moment: Self-Determination and the International Origins of Anticolonial Nationalism (Oxford University Press, 2007) shows that the principal legacy of a new burst of internationalism after the First World War was to extend the idea of nationalism to other crumbling empires, the British, French and Dutch.

The rise of supranational organisations in the 20th century – the League of Nations, the United Nations, a slew of ‘non-governmental organisations’ – has given the new international history its most fertile breeding ground, for example in the work of Akira Iriye. But two recent books have insisted that the nation state has continued to rule up to the present day. Mark Mazower’s No Enchanted Palace: The End of Empire and the Ideological Origins of the United Nations (Princeton University Press, 2009) portrays the United Nations as first a vehicle for great power re-assertion and then the ultimate triumph of nationality everywhere in the world. ‘Human rights’, Samuel Moyn points out in The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History (Harvard University Press, 2010), were proclaimed by the UN in its Universal Declaration of 1948 and then left to the tender mercies of nation states, which made their own rules. It has only been since the 1970s, he argues, when all other political utopias went into decline, that human rights emerged as a lukewarm utopia suitable for a disenchanted world – internationalism ‘lite’.

No doubt Mazower and Moyn are right to warn against sentimentality. But their insistence on the continuing power of the nation state in recent history should not cause us to neglect those things that people do above, beyond and without the state. If the League of Nations was politically inept, still it mobilised millions of people around the world to believe in it, march for it, petition it, as work by Helen McCarthy and Susan Pedersen has shown. Today millions travel across borders, create virtual communities and speak ‘Globish’; they buy new clothes made halfway around the world and then send them back as used to clothe the people who made them; and they certainly catch a cold when Wall Street sneezes. A new international history of the 21st century will have to contend with these powerful forces that nation states are finding difficult to control.

Peter Mandler is Professor of Modern Culture at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge

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