How Has the Pandemic Reshaped U.S. Foreign Relations Histories?

Anne L. Foster (Indiana State University) and Petra Goedde (Temple University)
Editors, Diplomatic History

Covid-19 has laid bare the tension between globalism and nationalism, the promise and limits of modern medicine, the persistence of inequality, legacies of imperialism and racism.  We have witnessed human beings adapt with remarkable resilience, but also the toll the took on families and individuals beyond the threat of death and disease: isolation, job loss, financial insecurity, uncertainty.

As university teachers and mothers, we scrambled in the spring of 2020 to adjust our living and teaching.  As foreign relations scholars and journal editors we were thinking about what all this meant for our work.  And so we invited a group of scholars to reflect on this question: What has living through this pandemic revealed or changed about your conception of your scholarship? 

We are happy to announce that the twenty-three short essays they wrote have just been published in the June 2021 issue of Diplomatic History, all of which are currently free to read and download online.

In those early days of the pandemic, it was difficult enough to live day-to-day for many people, but we hoped our contributors would seize the opportunity to use their skill as historians to reflect on the meaning of this moment.  Was the pandemic revealing fissures not previously seen?  Prompting questions not previously asked? 

We also hoped that these essays might provide a first draft of this historical moment from the perspective of scholars who think about movement across borders through time and space.  We did not fully anticipate how open and generous our contributors would be, with many essays integrating the personal, the academic and the political in powerful ways.

The essays represent a remarkable breadth of perspectives, but all touch on one or more common themes.  The five themes appear in opposites, but they are more complex than simple binaries, or chronological divisions of before, during and after pandemic.

1. Mobility and confinement

Mobility and confinement, or isolation, is a theme in most of the essays. Even before the transnational turn, scholars of foreign relations were more attuned than most other scholars to movement, the crossing of borders, and travel. The crashing halt of all travel in spring 2020 revealed in stark terms how much we had taken for granted our ability to move with few restraints, and how strongly we felt the loss of that freedom. Our casual reliance on travel to research and write foreign relations history prompted some essayists to question its future, with those based in Europe, surprisingly, feeling more isolated than those based in Asia. Others noted how this current disruption has prompted them to reexamine the historical figures they study, seeing the travel circuits differently, and paying more attention to those who traveled and those who stayed, willingly or unwillingly.

2. Globalization and nationalism

The relationship of the global and the nation, of globalization and nationalism, is a familiar subject for historians of foreign relations. Although nearly all contributors touch on this topic in some way, few take it as their main focus, perhaps because the pandemic merely revealed or enhanced tensions between the national and the global. Those who do highlight this topic differ in their assessment of the effect of the pandemic. The essays as a set demonstrate the persistence of tension between the nation and globalization, and that the pandemic has sharpened the fault lines in these tensions. Trade protectionism thrives in the United States and Britain while international coalitions develop vaccines. People use technology to connect more than ever and refugees continue to flee across borders, while borders slam shut to prevent people and viruses from crossing. Art and ideas often can circulate without regard to borders, but borders also can limit some while facilitating other relationships among artists and intellectuals. The essays pay little attention to the effects of pandemic disruptions on global supply chains, despite the lingering shortages of ordinary consumer goods, although one essay does issue a call for such work to be done for both the 1918 and 2020 pandemics.

3. Geopolitics and Power

A varied group of the essays addresses questions about U.S. standing in the world. Some look at traditional geopolitics, addressing questions of superpower competition, while others interrogate the ideological underpinning of the U.S. political system and the ways it is ill-equipped to handle this kind of challenge. Some essays barely mention the United States; the authors look through pandemic lenses to see how actors from other countries are now ordering, and have historically ordered, the world to suit their own needs, paying scant attention to existing U.S.-made structures. Lively debates exist already about whether the United States is in decline, and these essays may contribute to that discussion, but their purpose is weightier, of interest beyond the present moment. They ask what the nature of U.S. power is, and what wielding it means for both Americans and the rest of the world.

4. Health and Policy

The intersections of health, disease, death, and care with the exercise of power prompted essays that demonstrate the myriad ways health and foreign relations are intertwined. These essays sit at the intersection of affect and analysis, resonating intellectually and emotionally. Some contributors focused on how the state has shaped bodies and health, how the state promotes particular models of care, and how those models of care are inequitable and resisted. Others explore how we feel about health, disease, and death and how those feelings shape what we expect and allow from the state. These authors also help us think through the corporeality of the politics of covid-19. They offer ways to bridge the gap between the intimate and the state, the personal and the polity.

5. The Pandemic and Racial Injustice

Some essays address the relationship of the pandemic to Black Lives Matter and the massive protests against racial injustice in the summer of 2020. The original invitations were sent out just before the murder of George Floyd and did not anticipate the ways this issue would intersect with what we had asked people to write about. Those who wrote about Black Lives Matter saw the pandemic as revealing preexisting inequities and racism deeply embedded in the United States. That the BLM movement sparked similar protests around the world also reveals that racial inequities in policing, health, and wealth are not confined to the United States. Many societies are ready for racial reckoning.

We conclude by noting a final theme informing many of the essays: the question of whether the pandemic has revealed what already existed or whether it has caused ruptures in an existing social structure. This initial effort will likely get some of those assessments wrong, but historians will continue to explore where entrenched continuities and initiatives toward change.

This blog post has been adapted from the editors’ introduction to the June 2021 issue of Diplomatic History.