What do you do as Lecturer in International History at the University of Strathclyde?
There are a number of different aspects to my work. As a lecturer, I teach various classes at undergraduate and postgraduate level. These include the Cold War, European Integration, and Modern Europe in the Twentieth Century. Teaching history to incredibly bright and enthusiastic students is great fun, as no lecture or seminar is ever the same. Students are eager to engage with historical debates and to acquire the historical knowledge that gives them a better understanding of current affairs. As a researcher, I gather material for books and articles at diplomatic archival repositories in London, Paris and Washington. In order to bring researchers together and present history to a wider audience, I also organise seminars and conferences. To commemorate the seventieth anniversary of VE Day this year, I am co-organising a number of events, including a conference in Glasgow and a colloquium on Britain, France and the Second World War at the British Embassy in Paris.
Your specialisation topic is British and French foreign policy since the Second World War. Why this choice?
I have always had a strong interest in international relations and how countries project their power on the international stage. I also have an interest in foreign languages, having spent time living and studying in Latin America, France and Germany. It is fascinating to look at these two Western European neighbours, with their colonial legacy and their wartime cooperation, but also their rivalry and their different world views, which had an effect on the Cold War and European integration.
You are also Treasurer of the British International History Group (BIHG). What is the BIHG, and what do you do there?
The British International History Group, founded in 1987, is an academic organisation that brings together all those interested in teaching and researching International History in the UK and worldwide. The BIHG represents the interests of international historians, and our committee acts as a link to other institutions, such as the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and The National Archives (TNA). The BIHG Annual Conference takes place every September, and delegates attend from all over the world. As part of the Executive, I am involved in organising the conference where we have papers on topics such as inter-state diplomatic relations, decolonisation, intelligence, propaganda and international organisations. I am pleased to say that, to support PhD students, we waive the conference fee if their papers are selected, and we award a Thesis Prize each year. Through various means, including social media and the BIHG newsletter, we keep our members informed about matters that may impact our discipline and related events and publications.
Tell us about your book, The Paris Embassy: British Ambassadors and Anglo-French Relations, 1944–79.
This collection of essays is a contribution to the broader history of Franco-British relations. Through studies of the successive British ambassadors to France, it shows how they gave direction and character to their mission. It examines whether individual ambassadors were able to establish a ‘special’ relationship with the French government and, of course, considers how relations were affected by the wider question of European integration. Some of the difficult points in Franco-British relations covered in the book include the launch of the Coal and Steel Community in 1950 and Britain’s decision not to participate, the Suez Crisis, and President de Gaulle’s decision to veto British membership of the European Economic Community. The Paris Embassy contributes to the viewpoint that, while the centrality of ambassadors to international relations became much reduced as the century went on, ambassadors remained a vital factor in communications among states.
Tell us about leading a witness seminar on the British Embassy in Paris at the FCO.
It was a privilege to have the Paris Embassy book launch at the Foreign Office and to have the opportunity to present my research to fellow international historians, Foreign Office alumni, diplomats and ambassadors. The book was the basis for a witness seminar, ‘The History, Role and Functions of the British Embassy in Paris’. Following presentations on the history of the Paris Embassy, four diplomats who served at Paris gave their testimonies. It was fascinating to hear from Sir Christopher Mallaby, Ambassador, 1993–1996; Lord Jay of Ewelme, Ambassador, 1996–2001; Sir John Holmes, Ambassador, 2001–2007; and Sir David Manning, First Secretary, 1984–1988. The significance of history and the importance of gathering and utilising oral history interviews were identified in a report of the Foreign Affairs Committee, The Role of the FCO in UK Government (published 29 April 2011). In evidence, the then Foreign Secretary, William Hague, stated, ‘History is vitally important in knowledge and practice of foreign policy.’
As a historian, how do you think foreign policy and diplomatic relations could change if more women were involved?
I think the dynamic of foreign policy making would change if more women were involved in the decision-making process. My work on ambassadors and the foreign-policy-making elite points to particular cultures and world views. Today’s foreign-policy-making elite may have a more varied background than their predecessors, but still the representation of women is limited. I think you need to have a critical mass of women around the table in order to bring wide-ranging solutions. We still have some way to go until the appointment of women to high office ceases to be noteworthy.
You also work with the FCO and TNA on matter relating to declassification and digitisation of records. What does this work entail?
Representatives from the FCO Historians and TNA sit on the Committee of the British International History Group. The BIHG was involved in the discussions surrounding the move from the thirty-year rule to the twenty-year rule. It is now the case that official documents are declassified and transferred to The National Archives after twenty years, unless they are particularly sensitive. Historians can consult documents at TNA, but – in order to ensure wider access – the BIHG makes suggestions regarding the digitisation of certain files.
Academia has a reputation for being quite a difficult field for women. What’s your take on it?
A recent report by the Royal Historical Society stated that an ‘invisible bias’ still exists in academia, and emphasised that gender equality policies still have some way to go to secure a more equal balance. The percentage of women in History who are promoted to the position of professor is still low. When women take a career break – for family reasons, for example – there is also likely to be a break in publications, and this can delay promotion. Everyone’s experience is different, of course, and in my experience there are some very supportive colleagues and Heads of Department who are extremely understanding.
What was your first job, and what did you learn doing it that you still use nowadays?
During the summer following my first year at university, I went to Paris to work in a translating firm. It was great experience not only for improving my French, but also for learning about the administrative and managerial aspects of an office environment. I learnt the importance of good, clear communication at all levels, how to work as part of a team and, last but not least, how to proofread. For my research I read documents and books in different languages, so I am still translating texts and translating cultures.
What are the most and least rewarding aspects of your career so far?
There are many rewarding aspects to my career. One of the most rewarding is meeting and teaching so many students who are interested and eager to learn. They engage with the literature and the primary documents; they improve their analytical and presentation skills, and then may go on to have careers in the civil service, journalism, research, think tanks or academia. However, the flip side of having so many students is the amount of marking. I enjoy researching at the archives and participating in conferences. It is great to catch up with fellow international historians, meet new ones from all over the world and hear what everyone is researching.
What are the key skills that make you good at what you do? How did you gain them?
As a lecturer, it is vital that I communicate my subject effectively and motivate my students. This improves with experience, by trying different teaching methods and working out which ones are best suited to different situations. As an international historian, my language skills are essential and enable me to access a wider range of resources. I speak French, Spanish and German. Organisational skills are also key. Whether I am organising my research schedule, a class of 200 students or a conference of 100 delegates, I need to prioritise and plan effectively. This has improved over time, but there is still room for improvement.
What is the toughest lesson you have learnt?
To persevere no matter how difficult a situation might be.
What has been your biggest challenge, and how did you tackle it?
On reflection, the period when I was doing my PhD felt like one of the biggest challenges, but I also saw it as a great opportunity; I had a scholarship, and it was exactly what I was interested in. Although it was at first a little daunting, it’s been an invaluable experience to attend conferences and receive feedback on my research. This has enabled me to make new contacts and establish relationships that are still strong today.
What achievements are you most proud of?
I am delighted that the Paris Embassy book has had a reach beyond academia. As well as the witness seminar at the FCO, I was invited to present the book to the current British Ambassador to France, Sir Peter Ricketts. It was interesting to discuss how the role of an ambassador has evolved over the years, and how British foreign policy priorities have changed.
Why the interest in foreign policy?
Foreign policy decisions can have huge implications for the international community and society as a whole. A country’s decision to go to war can affect society at every level and cause humanitarian crises. Countries that adopt a hostile foreign policy can be the subject of sanctions and embargoes that again impact the rest of society. I would agree with the view that, foreign policy makers should ‘think strategically, reflect historically’.
Do you have a role model, and if so, who and why?
I don’t have a specific role model, but I have learnt a great deal from some exceptional historians who produce outstanding scholarship yet remain humble. Outside academia, there are individuals I admire for their work in promoting women’s rights in challenging and dangerous circumstances.
Dr Rogelia Pastor-Castro | Lecturer in International History | University of Strathclyde, Glasgow
"In evidence, the then Foreign Secretary, William Hague, stated, ‘History is vitally important in knowledge and practice of foreign policy.’"
‘The History, Role and Functions of the British Embassy in Paris’ event at FCO
"The Paris Embassy contributes to the viewpoint that, while the centrality of ambassadors to international relations became much reduced as the century went on, ambassadors remained a vital factor in communications among states."
The Paris Embassy book launch and witness seminar at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office
"For my research I read documents and books in different languages, so I am still translating texts and translating cultures."
‘The History, Role and Functions of the British Embassy in Paris’ event at FCO
"I think you need to have a critical mass of women around the table in order to bring wide-ranging solutions."
Presentation of the Paris Embassy to British Ambassador to France, Sir Peter Ricketts
"It was interesting to discuss how the role of an ambassador has evolved over the years, and how British foreign policy priorities have changed."
"A recent report by the Royal Historical Society stated that an ‘invisible bias’ still exists in academia, and emphasised that gender equality policies still have some way to go to secure a more equal balance."
Inspiring girls and young women to choose a career in foreign policy
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