By now, I’m sure we’re all familiar about the whole Wikileaks episode. It’s getting pretty crazy, and it’s not even over yet. I mean, it’s super, intriguingly, way-out-there, how’s this going to go down-crazy. It’ll be interesting to see how this pans out with reports coming in that the US is looking to get a hold of Assange for criminal prosecution. I’m not looking to comment on whether this is good or bad in any general sense, but I am interested in how this might change diplomatic history.
Diplomatic history, for those not in the know, was once the king of the historical castle. It’s bricks, to use the metaphor Peter Novick cites of 19th and early 20th century historians, were the cornerstones upon which scholarship rested. Along with its elder brother “political history”—that is, “great men” history—it helped dictate what history was and wasn’t. Sadly, this area now finds itself next to other areas that have emerged over the years—women’s history, African American history, Atlantic world history, and so forth. As far as I can tell (as one not really directly invested in the area), it still seems to pack a punch, a certain respect, as “real” history.
But, as all history does, it relies, to some degree, on documents—on sources of the (mostly) written variety. Now, some amongst the political history and diplomatic history field, it seems to me, have been hesitant to engage in theory and thus rely on documents, on “real” “hard” evidence, more than other areas (areas that have been more welcoming to various ideas outside the discipline). Enter the would-be juggernaut Wikileaks. Could it spell the end of diplomatic history?
The internet has really changed the game in terms of the power of such ventures. It’s made it immensely easier for documents to be publicized and released and leaked. For example, there are apparently over 1300 “mirror sites” posting the material Wikileaks has released since the Wikileaks website was downed or attacked or whatever initially.
But, to answer my question, yes and no. It’ll change it certainly (this is running on the assumption that Wikileaks, or things like it, will continue). Part of contemporary diplomatic history relies on the fact that most governmental info (the really good stuff at least) is classified and thus released X number of years after events—thus you get about a 30 year cycle of revisionism in a topic such as the Cold War as more and more material becomes available. But, what if all the good stuff is already released? Then, my friend, you have a bit of a problem.
Overall, diplomatic history will not cease to exist. History relies on perspective, a view from far enough into the future so as to be able to gauge the significance of events (this is one crucial aspect that differentiates it from almost all other disciplines that deal with these matters). Journalism (which we have less and less of nowadays anyhow) is not the equivalent of history so diplomatic historians will still have work to do—then the question becomes, how popular or useful will it remain if people think they know it all already?