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Workshop Report: Rewriting International History 

Workshop at EUI, 2-3 February 2023

Author: Myriam Piguet (Geneva) 

On Thursday 2nd, and Friday 3rd, of February 2023, the ERC-funded research program ‘Twentieth-Century International Economic Thinking, and the Complex History of Globalization (ECOINT)’ held an international workshop on international organizations (IOs) as actors, platforms, and spaces of international economic thinking. This workshop included two public lectures by Prof Sandrine Kott (Geneva) and Prof Madeleine Herren-Oesch (Basel). 


The workshop started with a public lecture by Prof. Sandrine Kott, launching the English edition of her book Organiser le monde: Une autre histoire de la guerre. On Friday morning, three ECOINT investigators, Dr. Elizabeth Banks, Dr. Johanna Gautier Morin, and Dr. Guilherme Sampaio, presented their work in progress. The workshop closed with a public lecture by Prof Madeleine Herren-Oesch entitled ‘Of Art and War: A 19th Century Global History of Silver Currency in East Asia’. Prof Patricia Clavin (Oxford) served as a discussant throughout the workshop. The workshop was chaired by Prof Glenda Sluga (EUI, PI ECOINT).  


The event sought to foster collaboration between the ECOINT project and the three invited professors. It encouraged discussions on the role of international organizations in the construction of international economic thought. The event aimed at placing IOs at the center of the narrative on international economic thinking, by considering them as spaces, actors and objects of research. This discussion stems from ECOINT’s broader agenda of integrating IOs into the study of the construction of the international economic order in the 29th century. 


The workshop began with Prof. Kott’s lecture. Her book Organiser le monde: Une autre histoire de la guerre aims at uncovering international organizations as platforms of the Cold War. It questions the unfolding of the Cold War through the lenses of IOs, arguing that the Cold War was a time of high internationalism. In her research, international organizations are thus products of the Cold War, producers of the Cold War, and deterrents of the Cold War. At the core of Prof. Kott’s narrative is the concept ‘inequality’. Using “IOs glasses” she identifies two main inequalities at work, in a world dominated by the West: (1) inequality between the East and the West and (2) inequality between the Global North and the Global South as well as within the Global South. 


In the first part of her presentation, Prof. Kott investigated the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) as not only a laboratory of the succeeding United Nations, but also as a place of coordination for economic relief in Eastern and Western Europe. She argues that the “UNRRA project was to reconstruct Eastern Europe to make it more equal compared to the west.” A project that spilled over to the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE). She continued by explaining that throughout the Cold War, IOs were places where a range of internationalisms took place, emphasizing the significance of the anti-fascist and social democrats’ networks. Both facilitated relationships between Eastern and Western actors within the walls of international organizations. Finally, she developed the framework of Vienna’s UN quarter as a bridge East and West. 


In the second part of her presentation, Prof. Kott connected the East with the Southern narrative of inequality. In the 1970s, the Global South attempted to ensure its economic and social development through the New International Economic Order (NIEO). Alike Eastern European countries in the 1950s, newly independent countries of the Global South used IOs as a platform to strengthen their demands for greater equality on the international level. Throughout her talk, Prof. Kott supported her argument through reference to concrete individuals who served as active ‘bridge makers’ between the various equilibriums of the Cold War. 


Prof Kott finished her lecture by arguing that the 1980s marked the end of the IOs as a platform to discuss, counter, and eventually suppress inequality, using the example of the United Nations Centre on Transnational Corporations and its failed attempt to draw up a code of conduct for international corporations. 


Questions from Prof Patricia Clavin, Prof. Madeleine Herren-Oesch, and the public, ensued. Prof.  Clavin emphasized the innovativeness of Prof. Kott’s book, which counters the traditional narrative of the Cold War as a moment of secularization with a story of collaboration between actors coming from different regional areas and meeting in the arenas of IOs. Prof. Herren-Oesch noted how Prof. Kott proposes a new historical framing of the Cold War, rather than a new history of it, and how she was able to grasp the chaos of the multilateral space. Both recognized Prof. Kott’s innovative way of approaching archives and the timeliness of the book, referring to the Russian-Ukrainian war. Prof.  Kott responded to the various questions of the public. Among other comments, she noted that influential individuals within IOs at that time, such as Gunnar Myrdal, understood national frameworks – the welfare state, national worker’s rights, and trade unions – as threats to the influence of IOs and thus to global social and economic development. 


On Friday 3rd in the morning, invited participants met for a closed workshop. Dr. Elizabeth Banks, Dr. Johanna Gauthier Morin, and Dr. Guilherme Sampaio presented their last work within the ECOINT project through three research reports. Prof. Clavin, Prof.  Herren-Oesh, and Prof.  Kott served as discussants. To give priority to the questions coming from the attendees, the presentations were kept short. Dr. Guilherme Sampaio was the first to present its report, entitled “The Spectrum of Keynes”-An Analysis of John Maynard Keynes’s Interactions with International Organisations (1919–1946). It proposes to rediscuss the relationships between Keynes, Keynesianism, and IOs. His research suggests that looking at IOs through Keynes allows to grasp the competitiveness at work between different UN agencies and other IOs in the multilateral ecosystem. The discussion highlighted the importance to clearly differentiate between Keynes and his thinking, on the one, and Keynesianism, on the other side. Keynesianism can encompass a different definition depending on the perception of the chosen historical actors – for instance, the diversity of social democratic influences or in the various actors of the dependency theory. 


Dr. Johanna Gautier Morin presented a study on the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (CEPAL), Freeing Markets and Democratizing Economics: Regional Development, Global Integration, and the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean. While noting the important historiography already written on the CEPAL in the non-English literature, her paper suggests various directions the research could take, such as the study of the role of Indigenous people in the CEPAL. She also stressed the importance of the CEPAL in the political equilibrium of the region, and its role as a platform for the development of international and regional economic thinking. The discussion around Gautier-Morin’s paper stretched far and beyond her presented paper to another of her ECOINT-projects on the role of IOs as South-South connectors by studying the role of Japanese bureaucrats in the CEPAL, and her aim to look at the CEPAL legacy outside Latin America. 


Dr. Elizabeth Banks was the last to present her project, The USSR and International Economic Thinking. This project focuses on the role of the USSR in international organizations in relation with the concept of economic and social planning. The attendees and the presenter both noted the lack of recent research on this topic, while acknowledging the amount of literature on the role of Eastern-European countries as bridge makers between the Soviets and IOs. All agreed with the traditional perception that the USSR was only involved with IOs in a limited way, especially their secretariats. Yet, it was stressed that it would be a significant advancement to the scholarship to study how this narrative was framed throughout the 20th century. 


Overall, the workshop allowed to share ideas and perspective on the framework of the ECOINT project, how international institutions engage in economic questions, and various tangents of approach to economic thinking through experimental piece of work. 


Finally, on Friday 3rd, late morning, Prof. Madeleine Herren-Oesch gave her public lecture on Of Art and War: A 19th Century Global History of Silver Currency in East Asia, presenting her latest research. Prof Herren-Oesch dived into her topic using the story of Buddhist bells preserved in museums in Switzerland. She told how she investigated the presence of these bells in Swiss museums through interdisciplinary collaboration with colleagues from Art History. Prof Herren-Oesch explained how she discovered that these bells were actually melted down and used to make canons. Later, the bells became art works preserved in Swiss museums. One of them was given back to Japan as colonial heritage during the times of the League of Nations. In 1991, to thank Switzerland, Japan provided a copy of the bell, which is today displayed in the garden of the Ariana Museum in Geneva. Starting for this example of cultural exchange, Prof. Herren-Oesch introduced the audience to the complexity of silver’s history in colonial contexts and discussed the relevance of studying objects as a way to approach international and global history. Placing materiality at the center, Prof. Herren-Oesch proposes innovative ways to deal with the “messiness” of global history. With the bells, she extends her story to the question of foreign resident in major cities of South and Eastern Asia – Shanghai, Vladivostok, Hong Kong, etc.– their networks, and their influence in the region, notably on local governments. She noted the existence of an Asia Directory which provides the list of people who can be included in the group of “foreign residents.” Showing a map of their localization built with this Directory, Prof. Herren-Oesch, who led the first high-scale database of the League of Nations, the LONSEA project, demonstrated the value of the Digital Humanities to study global and international history. In the ensuing discussion, Prof. Herren-Oesch justified her choice of the word messy as a word to capture the interaction between the different scales at work in the research of global history and the need to build bridges between the different scales: micro, regional and global. In contrast to the traditional approach to history, which uses a defined and established corpus of sources, Prof Herren-Oesch argues that the use of materiality and interdisciplinary allows to grasp the different scales and overcome methodological nationalism. 


The two-day-workshop generated new perspectives on how to write international history with a special focus on various methodological directions that could and should be taken to advance the scholarship in this field. 




PhD candidate, Global Studies Institute (GSI) - Université de Genève

Myriam Piguet

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