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.