Sunday, January 4, 2015

Michael Limberg On His First Day At AHA 2015

Michael Limberg is a graduate student at the University of Connecticut who is writing a dissertation on how U.S. philanthropists, missionaries, and diplomats worked to change and modernize a changing Near East in the decades following World War I.  We are thrilled to have him writing for The Way of Improvement Leads Home this weekend.  Here is his first dispatch, written earlier today.--JF

I’m currently ensconced on a Metronorth train traveling from New Haven to Grand Central Station.  From there it will be a brief brisk walk to the Hilton in Midtown Manhattan to register and attend my first panel.  As someone who usually drives to conferences and archives, I’m enjoying the chance to work while traveling. 

This is my second AHA; I presented a paper at AHA 2013 in New Orleans, but I’m not presenting anything this time around.  This will be a short trip, only two days out of the conference’s four-day run.  I’m attending this year to network, hear some papers of interest, get a glimpse into the job interview process, and possibly score a deal or two at the book exhibit.  I’m much more familiar with the annual conference for the Society of Historians for American Foreign Relations, my primary sub-field, so I look forward to the chance to hear some papers on religious history and global history.  No obvious spotting of other conference-bound historians on an early-morning train so far.

After getting slightly lost wandering through Manhattan, I found the hotel and raced through registration with barely enough time to make my 10:30 panel.  (No lanyards in sight) 

The panel (AHA 106, History, Economics, and the Wide-Ranging Impacts of the 1973 Oil Shock on U.S. Foreign Relations) was well-attended.  It was co-sponsored by the Historians of American Foreign Relations, my usual crowd.  The three papers had disparate foci on corporations, the rhetoric and structure of the international economic order, and traditional state-to-state economic and military aid.  As pointed out by the commentator, Amy Offner, they all shared a common purpose in challenging the popular and political narrative of the 1973 oil embargo as a crisis or challenge to U.S. power abroad.

BetsyBeasley’s paper argued that large “oil services” companies, including Halliburton, actually found the oil crisis a beneficial opportunity to increase profits and diversify by moving away from direct investments.  These companies actually posted record profits in 1973 and 1974.  They marketed their expertise and know-how to global producers, accelerating a shift in the work of U.S. oil companies begun in the 1950s and 1960s.  Beasley’s paper was the most interesting for me, raising questions about the gendered language of expertise and the marketing of free market and service economics. 

ChristopherDeitrich’s paper examined competing visions for the international economy put forward by global south/OPEC nations and by the United States at a 1974 United Nations special session.  He argued that Henry Kissinger as Secretary of State tried to counter proposals for a New International Economic Order focused on justice and equality for disenfranchised nations by framing free market capitalism as “common sense” economics.  Kissinger’s model used a similar-sounding rhetoric of equality but in fact sought to limit economic policy choices for developing or postcolonial nations.  I’m intrigued by the possibility of examining these competing economic and rhetorical models the next time I teach a US Foreign Relations course, since I had trouble this semester getting my students to historicize the neoliberal free market economic model that has been prevalent in policy during the last several decades.

David Wight focused on US aid policies toward Egypt in the wake of both the oil crisis and the 1973 Yom Kippur War.  He argued that the Treasury and State Department’s programs to send military and economic aid to Egypt failed in their short-term goals for economic and political liberalization.  Despite this failure, however, attempts to encourage corporate investments and military equipment sales in conjunction with Arab petrodollars contributed to the strengthening of US-Egyptian diplomatic ties during the late 1970s. 

As one of the presenters stated, these papers show examples of economics as “politics by other means”, highlighting the fuzzy lines between the two in many circumstances.  The papers showed some of the strengths of new work on political economy being done in foreign relations scholarship, particularly in incorporating elements of image analysis, pop culture sources, or gendered analysis.

From here I’m off to a contentious-looking panel titled “What is the Responsibilityof Historians Regarding the Palestine/Israel Conflict?” and a quick tour of the book exhibits, but I hope to check in again later tonight!