Flying the flag in faraway places or the history of foreign policy

Listening to a radio interview with Ambassador Peter Taksøe Jensen on his recently published report on Danish foreign policy (see English summary) reminded me that diplomatic history is one of the foundation stones of history.

Today, when we study history from many different perspectives, all of which enrich the discipline, enabling us to see the manifold expressions of humanity over the ages, we almost forget that the activities of statesmen, generals and diplomats and the paper they generated in the pursuit of relations between states was the bread and butter of professional historians. Not least, in the work of Leopold Ranke (1795-1886), who was highly influential in turning history into a professional discipline.

In recent decades, foreign policy has perhaps been more the purvey of political scientists studying international relations. Here, the realist and idealist ways of doing foreign policy provide a useful tool of analysis. Yet the fundamental division between the realist vs. idealist form of foreign policy, dealing with things as they are or how they ought to be, is not always so clear cut.

Historian Felix Gilbert (1905-1991), who began his working life in the German foreign ministry’s archives in 1923-1925, and who was a student of Ranke’s disciple Friedrich Meinecke, many years later in the USA made a study of the Enlightenment’s influence on the Founding Fathers’ foreign policy. In his To the Farewell Address (1961), he demonstrates how their foreign policy doctrine was just as much based on realism as idealism. *

Henry Kissinger, who wrote his doctoral thesis in 1954 on diplomatic history, describes in World Order (2014) how the history of US foreign policy is a balance between the two poles. He explains how most US foreign policy from its outset to today is a mixture. Whether policy is pragmatic or idealistic is not always so clear cut and depends on whose perspective we’re considering.

Kant’s essay Perpetual Peace: a philosophical Sketch (1795) may perhaps be said to be the most ideal of idealistic thoughts on how nations ought to act. Yet, can it not be argued that this idealism was based on the most pragmatic of reasons?

Ricoeur having the experience of two bloody world wars behind him, starts from a different time and place: “to live well, with and for others, in just institutions” (Reflections on the Just, p. 233), a prescription that can just as well apply to states as to individuals. His idealism is based on the practical wisdom that, in the last analysis, it is the most amount of unjustness or unfairness we’re willing to tolerate for ourselves in order to live in the world that is of the essence.

Thus, feelings of injustice or unfairness in receiving populations need to be addressed at the same time as helping human beings fleeing death and destruction in their own lands, as the President of the World Bank Jim Yong Kim agrees in a recent interview.

Peter Taksøe Jensen, in speaking of the cornerstone of Danish foreign policy today, says in the interview that his report is based on the assumption that Denmark would maintain its freedom and welfare, continuing the values that Danish society was built on. The report reflects both aspects: the pragmatic and the ideal, and only future generations of historians in decades or centuries hence, can evaluate which of the two aspects weighed more heavily in Danish foreign policy in the coming times…

* Gordon A. Craig, “Insight and Energy: Reflections on the Work of Felix Gilbert” 17-28, p. 25, in Hartmut Lehmann (ed.), Felix Gilbert as Scholar and Teacher. Occasional Paper No. 6, 1992, German Historical Institute, Washington.


On a present absence

(see also blog post: On an impact of WWI)

Hayden White, in his 2007 review of Paul Ricoeur’s Memory, History Forgetting observed: “I am not sure whether it is significant for his philosophical development that he was orphaned as a child was technically considered a ward of the French state, and was raised by grandparents …” (Reprinted in H. White, The Fiction of Narrative, 318-39, 2010, p. 338).

Ricoeur, in the set of interviews he gave over the course of 1994-95 to Francois Azouvi and Marc de Launay begins his reply to the question about his childhood, by stating: “Le fait décisif de mon enfance est d’avoir été un pupille de la nation” (The decisive factor of my childhood, was having been a ward of state La Critique et la conviction, 1995, p. 11).

Here he describes a photo of his father, taken in early 1915 when he had come home on leave from the Front, when the young Paul would have been barely 2 years old, sitting on his father’s knees with his 16 months older sister Alice (1911-1934). He explains how the photo hasn’t moved, but how he himself had got older to a point where he was forced to accept the paradox that he now had a father who was younger than himself.

Ricoeur alludes to a similar experience described in Camus’ unfinished posthumous semi-autobiographical novel, Le Premier Homme, which had just been published in April 1994.  Here, the protagonist stands in front of the grave of his father whom he does not remember, when he suddenly spies the dates on the gravestone, and realizes that he at forty is now older than his father who died in his twenties, and reflects with pity and sorrow on the unjust fate of his younger father, le père cadet (p. 31).

Although Camus, too, was a ward of state like Ricoeur, he unlike the orphaned Ricoeur had a mother, a partially deaf and largely silent woman whom the young Camus adored and whose silent suffering he observed over the years.

Silence was what Ricoeur experienced about the mother he never knew. He once explained he had never met anyone who had known his mother or who could describe her to him.*   In La critique et la conviction, he admits to his two interlocutors that the absence of his mother, and her family, and a mother figure in his life, as being highly traumatic (p. 13). He confesses that his only experience of the maternal is what he has learned from seeing his children with his wife. “Le mot <<maman>> a été un mot prononcé pas mes enfants, mais jamais par moi” (p. 13 -The word mother is one used by my children, but never by me).

Given some of Ricouer’s philosophical enquiries into memory, forgetting, and the passing of generations, as well as his emphasis on recounting stories, narrativity, and his search for who we are, our identity, a tentative answer to Hayden White may be that traces of Ricoeur’s traumatic beginnings lie at the very heart of his life’s work.

**Jean-Francois Duval’s interview with Ricoeur in 1997, Paul Ricoeur <<Ce que je suis est foncièrement douteux>> republished in Philosophie magazine 67 mars 2013.