- Global 1970s
Held in October, the "Global 1970s" conference was co-chaired by Niall Ferguson, Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History, Department of History, and Professor of Business Administration, Harvard Business School; Charles Maier, Leverett Saltonstall Professor of History, Department of History; Erez Manela, Dunwalke Associate Professor of American History, Department of History; and Daniel Sargent. Recognizing that the decade of the 1970s is an important new frontier for archivebased international history, the conference was organized to think through its larger implications. The conference papers will be published by Harvard University Press under the name Shock of the Global.
A heyday for bad hair, bell-bottoms, and pet rocks, the 1970s are a decade often reduced to pastiche, commemorated in disco’s greatest hits and "That Seventies Show." But the seventies, for all their endearing quirks, are fondly remembered by few. For North Americans and West Europeans, the decade was an “age of limits” that marked the end of the postwar economic miracle and the coming-to-terms with stagflation and recession. Infamous for Watergate, gas lines, and Jimmy Carter’s cardigans, the seventies, for many who lived through them, were years best forgotten.
Yet the decade of the 1970s was also a time of upheaval and transformation for the world. It brought the end of the Bretton Woods monetary order and the advent of new kinds of interdependence among nation-states, including deepening trade relations and floating exchange rates. While growth rates faltered, the seventies saw the expansion of multinational businesses and offshore capital markets—processes that some would now describe as the beginning of a new era of “globalization.” Developing nations challenged the prerogatives of the affluent First World, in oil shocks orchestrated by Middle Eastern exporters of hydrocarbons and in proposals for a New International Economic Order that animated the UN General Assembly. At the same time, the seventies witnessed unprecedented cooperation between the cold war superpowers— the United States and the Soviet Union—at least until the era of détente that flourished under Henry Kissinger’s guidance collapsed in the face of intensifying East-West rivalries in the developing world. And, from the late sixties, human rights and humanitarian interventions became prominent themes in international law and politics, while, in the United States at least, the seventies brought new rights and freedoms for groups—including women and gay and lesbian Americans—which the achievements of the civil rights era had largely bypassed.
Looking back, the seventies stand out as not only an interlude of bad fashion but also a point of departure for contemporary history: a time when the rigidities of a cold war world dissolved and present-day realities began to constitute themselves. This hypothesis was the rationale for the "Global 1970s" conference that Niall Ferguson, Charles Maier, Erez Manela, and I convened in Cambridge on October 10–11, 2008 with the generous support of the Weatherhead Center and the indispensable help of Adelaide Shalhope. The WCFIA’s sponsorship was highly appropriate, for CFIA affiliates such as Robert Bowie, Raymond Vernon, Karl Kaiser, Robert Keohane, and Joseph S. Nye dominated contemporary scholarly analysis of the decade’s distinctive challenges. Having supported the most significant and original work done on the seventies’ new international patterns at the time, the Weatherhead Center found itself, forty years later, supporting what we hope will become a major reevaluation of the period as international history.
In pursuit of new perspectives, the "Global 1970s" conference brought together the work of scholars from the United States, Western Europe, and Australia. The twenty papers that were presented at the conference will comprise a volume, Shock of the Global: The International History of the 1970s, to be published by Harvard University Press in 2009–2010. Their subjects range broadly: from the crises of monetary order at the decade’s beginning, to the fluid politics of sexuality, to the failures of secular socialism in the Islamic world.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, "crisis" turned out to be a dominant—and contested—theme of the discussions. With a number of papers dealing with aspects of U.S. foreign relations, the crisis of American power and influence in the 1970s—a crisis that may have been overshadowed by a rapid change of fortunes in the 1980s—attracted particular attention. But the conference highlighted a range of complimentary themes, including China’s transition from Maoist isolation in the late 1960s to engagement with the global economy by the late 1970s, the collaborative efforts of governments and international organizations to control the transnational pestilences of disease and environmental degradation, and the struggles waged by territorial jurisdictions (i.e., nation-states) to regulate multinational business enterprises and global economic cycles.
By striving to relate historical case studies in creative ways, the conference highlighted both similarities and differences between national and regional experiences. While it achieved no consensus as to whether the seventies marked the beginning of a new global age or, as Lawrence Summers proposed, the end of a postwar era, the papers presented confirmed that the seventies were, in many respects, a deeply tumultuous and transformative decade. Collectively, the assembled perspectives hinted at an international history of the 1970s that will be richer and more complex than allowed by the traditional framework of cold war détente, with its monochromatic, geopolitical focus. While the conference offered a glimpse at this new interpretative paradigm, we hope that the forthcoming conference volume will provide a more substantial blueprint.
The highlight of the "Global 1970s" conference, however, was a dinner conversation with Zbigniew Brzezinski, former National Security Adviser to President Carter (1977–1981). While many of the conference papers suggested how we might move beyond the cold war as a historical framework, Dr. Brzezinski, formerly a research associate of the Center for International Affairs, injected a note of caution. Although he found the thesis of a transformative 1970s very plausible, Dr. Brzezinski warned the conference participants not to forget how deeply cold war concerns shaped the thoughts and actions of policymakers at the time.
In his responses to participants’ questions and in his recollections of his government service, Dr. Brzezinski reminded us that (the Carter administration’s concern for human rights and the challenges of economic interdependence notwithstanding) it was the cold war that preoccupied the makers of American foreign policy during the 1970s. Without rejecting the validity of the "transformative seventies" as an analytical framework, Dr. Brzezinski reiterated that the interpretations we impose upon the past are necessarily projections of our own perspectives and concerns. To relate the economic, sociological, and structural upheavals that have become clearer with the passage of time to the experiences of those who lived and led through the 1970s will be the real challenge for historians in the future and the standard for us to meet as we revise our papers for publication.
Daniel Sargent is an assistant professor of history at the University of California at Berkeley. A Harvard Ph.D., he was a Weatherhead Center Graduate Student Associate in 2003–2004, a fellow at the Olin Institute for Strategic Studies in 2005–2006, and the Sidney R. Knafel Fellow in 2006–2007. He joined the UC Berkeley faculty this fall after a year at Yale University. He organized the “Global 1970s” conference with Niall Ferguson, Charles Maier, and Erez Manela, all of whom are members of the Department of History at Harvard University and Faculty Associates at the Weatherhead Center.