Fletcher Features

Diplomatic History: The Search for Peace Among People

Dirks at Tufts

Lee Dirks’ (F57) most fond memory of his time at Fletcher is that of the late Professor Ruhl Jacob Bartlett, who taught diplomatic history at Fletcher until the 1970s. Professor Bartlett’s dedication to diplomatic history inspired Dirks, an accomplished journalist and one of the nation’s foremost experts on the media business, to take an exceptional and generous step to guarantee the study of the field at Fletcher for decades to come.

“For me, the study of diplomatic history is the search for peace among people. … That’s why it’s critical, and that’s why my wife and I decided to endow a chair devoted to its study and teaching,” said Dirks at the inaugural lecture of the Lee E. Dirks Professorship in Diplomatic History given by its chair holder, Prof. Alan Henrikson.

"You would be hard-pressed to find a better fit to chair this new position than Henrikson. He has spent a career studying the theory and practice of diplomacy, and as the inaugural chair holder, he contributes to emerging leaders’ understanding of the art of diplomacy on a daily basis."

“A common interpretation of American history is that it’s shaped by war,” explained Professor Henrikson during his lecture “The Diplomatic Factor in American History,” which explored the role of diplomacy in U.S. foreign policy since the country’s inception. “But where does that view leave the strong diplomatic tradition of the country?”

In practice, “it is difficult to place diplomats and diplomacy on the same level as war and the military,” and it is hard to show what part a diplomat really played in major decisions. In order to tease out the specific role of diplomacy in momentous events, “one needs to do research on the whole process,” Henrikson said.

“That is, one needs to study diplomatic history.”

Tufts University President Anthony Monaco opened the event by welcoming the crowd of faculty, students and alumni and thanking Dirks for his generous support of Tufts and Fletcher. Dean Stephen W. Bosworth of The Fletcher School then reflected on the importance of having this endowed chair for a graduate school of law and diplomacy, adding that the topic particularly resonated with him given his career in the Foreign Service.

Henrikson“Alan is a stalwart in the Fletcher faculty,” Bosworth remarked, referring to Professor Henrikson. “He’s left an indelible contribution, particularly through his influence on students and commitment to the School.”

Taking inspiration from a recent observation by Nicholas Burns, former under secretary of state for political affairs, Professor Henrikson framed the study of diplomatic impact with one single word: consequences. “The immediate results of diplomatic meetings are not always the most important part,” he argued. What’s important is how consequential the interactions are in the long run.

To illustrate this, he pointed to three seminal meetings in United States diplomatic history. The Yalta Conference of 1945, the Helsinki Accords of 1975 and the Gorbachev-Reagan Reykjavík meeting of 1986 were not necessarily successes diplomatically, but all turned out to be extremely consequential in the long term trajectory of history. 

After the introductory lecture, Professor Henrikson guided the audience through a visual presentation of specific diplomatic events and key actors in American diplomatic history, from Benjamin Franklin and the Treaty of Amity all the way to Bill Clinton and the Millennium Summit, passing through John Quincy Adams and Richard Nixon. He particularly focused on the Franklinian concept of compromise, which has become an American tradition throughout decades of diplomatic interactions.

“Franklin’s fatherly role and key diplomatic contributions have been eclipsed by General Washington’s.” But a closer look reveals that Franklin was as critical as the first president to the formation of the United States, Henrikson explained. Simply put, “diplomats make possible what would otherwise be impossible.”

A topic worthy of further study, some might say.

 --Elia Boggia, MALD Candidate '13