The Emotions as an Approach to the History of Foreign/International Relations

AHA Session 319
Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations 4
Sunday, January 8, 2017: 11:00 AM-12:30 PM
Centennial Ballroom F (Hyatt Regency Denver, Third Floor)
Susan J. Matt, Weber State University
The Politics of Humiliation in the Age of Imperialism
Ute Frevert, Max Planck Institute for Human Development
George F. Kennan and the Trauma of the Soviet Purge Trials
Frank C. Costigliola, University of Connecticut at Storrs
Susan J. Matt, Weber State University

Session Abstract

The last two decades have witnessed a growing discussion among humanist scholars about how emotional thinking and feeling have figured in the formation of beliefs, decisions, and actions. Inspired in part by advances in neuroscience, humanistic focus on the emotions stems also from a heightened interest in culturally inflected expressions of the body and the interior self. Unlike the rigidly Freudian “psychohistory” of the 1950s-70s, the emergent “emotional turn” remains unabashedly eclectic in its theoretical bases. The surge of attention among historians is reflected in such compilations as Matt and Stearns (eds.), Doing Emotions History (2014); Tileaga and Byford (eds.), Psychology and History (2014); Biess and Gross (eds.), Science and Emotions after 1945 (2014), and in the “AHR Conversation: The Historical Study of Emotions” (2012). While such work has been discussed at recent AHA annual meetings, the topic of emotions still suffers a low visibility. Indeed, among the approximately 90 terms listed in the 2016 AHA program topic index, there appears neither “emotion” nor “emotional” – nor the related terms “affect,” “self,” and “sensibility.” Our proposed panel would give emotions history a higher profile by bringing together leading practitioners from Germany, Australia, and the United States.

            The panel’s specific focus, how doing emotions history can enhance our understanding of foreign/international relations, fits the AHA theme of “Linking Levels of Experience.” An assumption long held by both diplomats and historians of diplomacy is that foreign/international relations have been so vital that of course they have taken place wholly on the supposedly rational level of supposedly objective national interest. Nevertheless, the foreign/international relations of states, as well as the transnational relations of individuals and non-state actors, have often been high stakes, cross-cultural ventures that were indeed emotional. Emotional perceptions have predisposed decision makers to propose or oppose particular policies, make friends or enemies, and pursue peace or war. Emotions history enables scholars to delve at a deeper level into the thoughts, motivations, and behavior of historical actors.

            On our panel, Ute Frevert, a director at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, will discuss the ramifications of European disputes with the Chinese imperial court over the emotionally evocative kowtow ceremony. Frank Costigliola of the University of Connecticut will examine how the U.S. diplomat George F. Kennan struggled to channel his emotions in the 1930s amidst the trauma of Stalin’s deadly purge of figures whom Kennan knew and admired. Barbara Keys of the University of Melbourne will investigate the early 1970s friendship between Henry Kissinger and Zhou Enlai as a case study of how the dynamics of affection and trust can prove as significant as national interest in shaping international relations. Our proposed chair and commentator is Susan Matt of Weber State University, who has written widely on emotions history.

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