The Big Picture

Political historian Jeremi Suri has come up with a new way of looking at the links between the low and the mighty

Cheryl Carlin

Jeremi Suri looks locally and sees globally. And that lets him make novel connections between, say, the protest movements of the 1960s and superpower détente in the 1970s.

Traditional analyses of reduced tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union have examined the balance-of-power politicking between the two antagonists and their allies. But Suri's first book, Power and Protest: Global Revolution and the Rise of Détente (2003), argues that superpower diplomacy was also shaped by what was happening on the streets—not only in Berkeley and Prague but also in Paris, Berlin and Beijing. Domestic disorder, Suri writes, makes heads of state more inclined to seek stability abroad.

Similarly, he argues, global forces help shape protest movements: "Nuclear threats, stalemated politics and intense ideological propaganda created rising expectations and growing disillusionment among young citizens in nearly every society." In what he calls "the global disruption of 1968," the United States saw a cresting anti-Vietnam War tide and urban riots, while leaders around the world had to contend with rising waves of youthful discontent within their own borders.

"I firmly believe there's a deep connection between what happens at the highest levels of elite policymaking and the lowest levels of daily ordinary behavior," says Suri, 35, a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. "People at the top of the hierarchy—even in nondemocratic societies—are deeply concerned with social order and deeply concerned with building consensus for their policies." Previous historians "have missed that," he says, "because when they study local history, they tend to focus on local issues."

Some scholars have taken issue with both lines of his argument, but David M. Kennedy, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian at Stanford University who taught Suri as an undergraduate there, says that "his work aims to do nothing less than reconceptualize the study of international affairs in the era of globalization." Suri, he believes, is on his way "to recognition as the premier scholar of a wholly original—and unusually demanding—approach to the study of international affairs."

What Suri does best, Kennedy says, is articulate the political, cultural and institutional factors that influence a state's actions. Suri, who is fluent in German, French and Russian as well as English, made use of all four languages in his archival research for Power and Protest.

Suri's multinationalism comes naturally: his father emigrated from India to the United States as a college student in 1965 and became a citizen; his American-born mother has Russian-Polish Jewish roots. (Together, they run an interior design company in New York City.) Suri calls himself a HinJew: half-Hindu, half-Jewish. When he was growing up in New York, he says, politics and world events were staples of dinner-table conversation, and the study of history offered him a way to make sense of his own family as well as the world at large.

His studies have taken him from New York to Stanford to Ohio University, where he earned a master's degree, and to Yale, where he earned a doctorate. His historical inquiries, he says, tend to be driven by three major questions: Why do people do what they do? How do ideas influence behavior? And how do unintended consequences influence events?

He says he likes to think of himself as bridging the worlds of social history and political history, exploring the interaction of ideas, personalities and institutions. "I think power is actually about that bridge," he says. "The most effective wielders of power are people who are able in different ways to connect the social with the political."

Suri points to Henry Kissinger, the subject of Suri's latest book, Henry Kissinger and the American Century. "He is as elite as you can be now," Suri says. "But he cares deeply [about what ordinary people think], because, you understand, at some level his power is about image and persuasion." By the same token, Suri suggests, Kissinger's approach to international affairs is colored by his personal odyssey as a refugee from Hitler's Germany.

This interplay of experience and ideas "is true for people at all kinds of levels of society," Suri says. "We have ideas and assumptions that sometimes are so deeply embedded in the way we see the world that we don't even articulate them."

Heather Laroi reports on higher education for the Wisconsin State Journal newspaper, based in Madison.

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