On 24-26 October 2018 the New Diplomatic History network held its third conference – NDH3 – at the RIAS, following its earlier events in Leiden (2013) and Copenhagen (2016).
NDH3 was entitled "Bridging Divides," referring to the aim to bring together historians of the early modern and modern periods to compare, contrast and explore their questions, approaches, and research agendas for the study of diplomacy. Nineteen panels of papers were spread out over the three days, each one organized around a particular theme to mix perspectives on diplomacy through the ages. It was an experiment, but it worked. The sharing of ideas in this way proved to be one of the main successes of the event, stimulating participants to reflect on their positions and debate alternative views.
The conference was framed around two keynote lectures and two plenary roundtables.
Professor John Watkins (University of Minnesota) closed off the first day with a tour de force lecture entitled "Apocalyptic Diplomacy," which questioned the orthodox assumption of diplomacy being a rational activity between nation-states. Linking the influence of faith on England’s relations with the Dutch Republic during the 1650s, to the decision of President Trump to recognize Jerusalem as the Israeli capital in late 2017, Watkins sketched in detail how religious conviction has directly impacted on diplomatic relations using examples spanning over four centuries. His lecture is freely available through the online radio station TXT Radio.
On the second day, Professor Naoko Shimazu (Yale-NUS College, Singapore) provided the perfect follow-up with a detailed study of the Bandung conference in Indonesia in 1955. A gathering of some of the prominent leaders of the post-colonial world (Nehru, Zhou Enlai, Kwame Nkrumah, Nasser, with Sukarno as host), Bandung sent a message that global politics were no longer going to be decided in the imperial and superpower capitals of the world. In her lecture, Shimazu focused her fine-grained talk on Bandung as a unique diplomatic site, involving both formal and informal occasions for dialogue, cross-cultural communication, and displays of power and prestige. Significantly, while women are absent from the list of leaders and diplomats who attended, they are ever-present in photographs taken of the event, as hostesses, artists, and, in the case of Indira Gandhi, prominent daughters of statesmen. In doing so, Shimazu illustrated perfectly the multiple layers of behavior, exchange, and meaning, each one sending significant messages to other participants, that are present at these kinds of occasions.
The second plenary, which closed off the conference, was chaired by Costas Constantinou (University of Cyprus) and included the screening of his documentary "The Blessed Envoy," a study of how Archbishop Makarios represented Cyprus on travels abroad during the 1960s. Makarios was able to make full use of his status and prestige as head of the Greek Orthodox church to portray himself as statesman and spiritual leader around the newly independent nations of Asia and Africa. Constantinou’s film showed how Makarios was able to act as a Western-style diplomat, a religious figure, and a representative of the post-colonial world all in one, in doing so giving himself a unique identity to engage with other nations.
The conference fully demonstrated the diversity of the NDH research community, but also the extent to which this community recognizes New Diplomatic History as a common field of enquiry. The papers ranged over the themes of music and the arts, literature and language, gifts, various kinds of mediation, and the role of non-state actors in the diplomatic realm. Several papers focused on the prominent place of business within diplomacy, both as economic actors and as diplomatic players making use of economic assets. NDH3 therefore achieved its goals. The participants brought together views on diplomacy from beyond a Western perspective, they explored the place of non-state actors and individuals, and it broke open the early modern / modern divide in terms of historical periodisations. The benefits of mixing historical approaches, and the theoretical and practical debates that this triggered, were clear to everyone present.