W(h)ither the Foreign Relations of the United States?

W(h)ither the Foreign Relations of the United States?

frusNo, I don’t mean Obama’s foreign policy.  The Foreign Relations of the United States is the official documentary historical record of major U.S. foreign policy decisions and significant diplomatic activity; and these days it’s in trouble.

The tip of the iceberg is the fracas described here and here between the Historian of the Department of State Marc Susser and the Advisory Committee on Historical Diplomatic Documentation (known as the HAC, as in historical advisory committee), composed of diplomatic historians, a political scientist, an archivist, and myself as the designate of the American Society of International Law.  I’ve been on the committee for less than a year.  Congress chartered the committee with section 198 of Pub. L. 102-138 in 1991, mostly to keep an eye on declassification issues.

I’ll refrain here from commenting on the dispute other than to say that the FRUS (pronounced “froos” among those who produce and use it) is well behind its statutory 30-year timeline — that is, that volumes appear no later than 30 years after the events recorded — and junior historians have been leaving the office in droves.  Longtime FRUS general editor Ted Keefer was shabbily treated by Susser upon his retirement.  Far beyond the usual hands-off reality of most federal advisory committees, with University of Texas historian Roger Louis at the helm the HAC has vigilantly monitored a deteriorating situation.  The reports may make the situation look grim, but the controversy has now attracted attention on the 7th Floor, and I’m sanguine that there will be a happy resolution.

That’s for the short term, but how about the long?  The FRUS is a monumental series, capturing the majesterial span of U.S. foreign relations.  It evokes the days when foreign policy was a gentlemen’s domain, for better and worse.  The narratives are strong, often compelling; one draws the personalities and the feels the history unfold in a way that no secondary account can replicate.  I relied on the FRUS in writing my undergraduate on France’s postwar German policy, and I still get a little thrill cracking those burgundy bindings (don’t tell my wife!).

What place does the FRUS have in today’s world?  I wonder.  There are two major challenges going forward.  First is the decline of centralized policymaking.  It used to be that foreign relations was conducted by the President and the State Department, with assists from the War and Treasury Departments.  The circle was small.  Now everyone’s in on the action, including, of course, many nonstate actors.  As the number of players multiplies, it’s a lot harder to sustain a coherent or accurate narrative from the documents.

Second is what will be the crushing weight of late-twentieth-century archives.  The National Archives now has more than 10 billion pages of unique documents; in the last three years alone, the archives has increased by two million cubic feet.  Once historians arrive at the e-mail era (in full force with the Clinton Administration) the paper weight will be compounded by an electronic one.  I just don’t see how a couple of dozen official historians, even of the extremely capable sort that State attracts, will be able extract any definitive histories from this mountain of material.

At the least, the series will almost certainly migrate online (recent volumes are already there, some exclusively, as “e-volumes”; earlier volumes have been scanned in by the University of Wisconsin, here).  The historian’s office has a nifty new website in the works.  But online or in print the model may eventually become obsolete.  Britain’s equivalent has been discontinued.  One possibility: make raw material available electronically upon declassification, and let the world do the history, micro and macro.  History gets democratized, or atomized, along with everything else.

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steve charnovitz
steve charnovitz

Response…Over the past 30 years, the number of entities with whom the United States has foreign relations has increased.  One wonders how official US historians would be able to keep up. Like Prof. Spiro, I too enjoyed cracking the burgundy bindings in the years when I had the time to do so.