Global problems need cross-border solutions
In conversation with Pál Nyíri
Professor of Global History and Anthropology Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam
Parallel to the wave of globalisation in the nineties, a similar movement emerged among historians to systematically interpret cross-border trends. What if you look at historical questions not within the framework of the nation, but across borders?
It was the cradle of the field of Global History, which looks at history from different perspectives. Not because diversity is an end in itself, according to Pál Nyíri, but because you consider which means and conceptual frameworks are best suited to answer a question.
"No nation stands alone. That's why I'm in favor of the global approach."
Cohesion between nations
Nyíri was shaped by the interdisciplinary Asian Studies approach in the US. Through the joint fields of anthropology, history, political science and economics, he learned a great deal about China and Southeast Asia in a global context. He also pursues this interdisciplinary approach with Global History. His first encounter with this approach was thirty years ago. "In a way", Nyíri says, "the nineties were the Golden Age of globalisation." However, we are only now seeing trends at European universities. Why is that?
"In an ideal world, different narratives could coexist."
"We need time to implement those ideas at academic institutions. This has to do with the structure of research and education. We were quite used to learning history within national frameworks. But no nation stands alone. That's why I'm in favor of the global approach." Even if countries build up barriers again, the cohesion between nations remains. To illustrate, he mentions the fact that until the war in Ukraine, the Netherlands was the third largest trading partner in the world of Russia, and for China the second largest trading partner in Europe. "That has been decisive for Dutch history and is still important – even though the relationships have now changed."
Illustration: a poster of the Chinese-built Tazara railroad in Africa from the 1970s.
How does Nyíri view the war in Ukraine as a historian? "Until last year, few people had thought about Ukraine's national history. A national history never stands alone; it is constructed at some point. The historian juxtaposes stories. Ukraine is a striking example that shows that you cannot cover experiences of people and identity in large narratives." In Ukraine, we now see two historical narratives, he explains. "One says, 'Ukraine is Russia.' And the other says, 'No, that was colonialism; we need to decolonise ourselves and build our own history.' Behind it is a much more complicated picture. However, we cannot freely discuss that complexity in a situation where people are dying." He formulates cautiously. "The role of the historian is to raise his finger and say, Wait a minute, but... We want to be careful with all stories and cultures. Whose heritage is Ukraine? In an ideal world, different narratives could coexist." He finds in worrying that the Ukrainian government asked the people to destroy Russian books. "I think of the Second World War, when almost all of Europe was occupied by Germany. Back then, no one said you couldn't listen to Beethoven, or read Thomas Mann. No government should manage different cultures."
"Whoever controls history also controls the future", Nyíri quotes George Orwell as saying. "If we leave the management of history to people who only want to hear the national narratives, then that is very dangerous. Just look at China, where the government wants to limit the narrative. I know several scientists there who find that very troubling and try to work around it." The global approach has become a scientific label worldwide, including in China. A Chinese scientist with whom Nyíri often works was often sought out by the police. Nyíri ensured that she could be in the Netherlands for a year as a visiting researcher and then live elsewhere. "People who want to preserve their scientific integrity have a hard time in China. That is why I think it is especially important that if scientists find a particular approach to history to be the most correct or the most productive, they should continue to do so, even if no one wants to listen. We must then maintain our independence."
"I think we can still see the good sides of globalisation, but at this moment there is much more attention on the negative effects."
Don’t give up
Now that the global approach has finally permeated into the field of science, there are also critical voices about globalisation. Nyíri recognises that. "I think we can still see the good sides of globalisation, but at this moment there is much more attention on the negative effects." The question arises: should we and can we change globalisation? Nyíri: "It would probably be possible to abolish it altogether, but the price would be enormous. And even if you look at globalisation critically, you don't want to go back. Global problems need cross-border solutions." In conclusion, he comes back to: "Even when mutual relations deteriorate, global interdependence between countries on this globe will not disappear."
Pál Nyíri is originally an anthropologist, but he also studied chemistry, Asian Studies and sociology and obtained his PhD in history. It is therefore not surprising that Professor Pál Nyíri likes to look at issues from an interdisciplinary perspective. He holds the chair of Global History in Anthropological Perspective.
One third of his time is spent working for Social Sciences and the rest for the Faculty of Humanities.