Entangling the Pacific & Atlantic Worlds: Past & Present

This article is part of the TRAFO series Emerging Topics. Insights from ‘Behind the Scenes’. Today, we put the spotlight on the symposium Entangling the Pacific & Atlantic Worlds: Past & Present” that took place March 25-27th 2019 at the GHI-Washington’s Pacific Regional Office at UC Berkeley / GHI West in Berkeley. We have been talking to one of the conveners, Sarah Beringer, about the symposium.

The location of your symposium is quite relevant with regard to its topic. Could you tell us a bit about what makes the Californian Bay Area an important junction between the Atlantic and the Pacific?

When the Hamburg-based ZEIT-Stiftung Ebelin und Gerd Bucerius approached us with the idea of cooperating in organizing a symposium honoring the 100th birthday of former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, we immediately thought of Berkeley – placed at the heart of the Bay Area – as an ideal location for such an event. Helmut Schmidt is widely considered a bridge builder between people, nation-states, and cultures, particularly in regard to his open-arms approach toward China, whose growing economic and political influence he identified before most other Western statesman did. Following Schmidt’s bilateral-discourse approach, we wanted the symposium to focus on the entanglements between East and West, Atlantic and Pacific, a central issue of our time, which some – particularly in the US – have dubbed the Pacific century.

The Bay Area in Northern California is the ideal place to hold such a symposium not only because of its geographical location on the Pacific Coast of the United States, which we consider to be the junction between the Atlantic and Pacific sphere. The region’s cultural heritage stems from a unique melting pot of influences. Europeans, Asians, Latin Americans, immigrants from all these places have impacted past and present developments in the Bay Area. You can tell how vivid and present the different cultural influences are, for example, when you walk through San Francisco. One minute you find yourself in an alley in Chinatown that very much reminds you of a little back street in Hong Kong; the next minute you are looking at a mural obviously influenced by Central American art.

Berkeley, of course, is more academic. But you get similar impressions. The faculty consists of some of the best scholars from all around the world who come here to teach and conduct their research in this liberal and thriving research environment, something that is not a given in many countries, even Western ones. You can also tell that Pacific and Atlantic spheres influence this academic institution equally by the prominence of Berkeley’s regional studies centers, two of which also partnered with us in organizing the symposium: The Institute of European Studies and the Institute of East Asian Studies, which count among the leading research centers for their respective geographical focus not only in the United States, but also on a global scale. This orientation also attracts one of the most diverse student bodies I have ever seen.

Your symposium had an obvious transregional approach. Which aspects did you focus on?

We wanted to focus on the widely discussed shift from an international order centered on the Atlantic to one in which the Pacific claims its weight. Since the GHI Washington is an institute for historical research, and since clashes and confluences of different kinds have been present for centuries in the shared histories of these two world regions, we aimed particularly at analyzing the unfolding situation within its historical background. This aim was not only reflected by the different topics and time frames covered in the symposium, but also by our participants, who hailed from academia, politics and government, as well as the media and represented Asia, Europe, North America and Latin America, as well as Oceania.

The event kicked off with a keynote by Matt Matsuda (Rutgers University) that surveyed the multifaceted history of Atlantic-Pacific interconnections, stretching from ancient voyaging and archipelagic cultures to imperial and military struggles, as well as economic and environmental challenges, which all shaped a changing world over the centuries. On the other hand, we also discussed present topics such as “The World Economy in a Shifting International Order” and “The Global Reach of Security Politics in the Pacific Region” with participating experts from as far away as Australia and Vietnam. While the round table “The Future of Transatlantic Relations in the Pacific Century” with Peer Steinbrück and Kareen Donfried (President of the German Marshall Fund) was set up as a typical transatlantic panel on current political debates, the round table on “The Power of Interpretation: Transformations of China Expertise in the West” covered academic and journalistic perceptions of changing professional and public knowledge in Atlantic-Pacific relations.

In addition to my Washington- and Berkeley-based GHI colleagues, the Max Weber Stiftung – Foundation German Humanities Institutes Abroad (MWS) was represented by Franz Waldenberger, the director of the German Institute for Japanese Studies in Tokyo (DIJ Tokyo), who participated in a panel on “The Japan and China Shocks: Atlantic Debates on Emerging Pacific Competitors.” The DIJ in Tokyo is one of our partners in the recently established MWS research network on “Streams of Knowledge: Processes of Entanglement and Disentanglement in the Trans-Pacific,” in which my co-convener Sören Urbansky and I are participating with our own research projects. It was important for us to strengthen this cooperation by having other network participants attend the event. The symposium and the MWS Pacific network, however, are not the only undertakings with a trans-Pacific or trans-oceanic focus at the GHI’s Pacific Regional Office at Berkeley. For example, we will be hosting a Transregional Academy on the “Histories of Migrant Knowledges in and across the Trans-Pacific: Agencies, Scales, Translations” in late May.

Given that the symposium was thought to commemorate the former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, what role did the Cold War and Schmidt as an actor in it play?

Schmidt’s spirit was present not only due to the fact that some of his closest allies attended the symposium. We also organized a fireside discussion in Schmidt’s honor, during which moderator Christoph von Marschall (Der Tagesspiegel) addressed questions ranging from Schmidt’s influence on the rapprochement between China and the West to the question of whether Schmidt might have been wrong about China’s disinterest in engaging in military exchanges. In addition to Schmidt’s former companions – Theo Sommer (Die ZEIT), Helmut Lahnstein (former German Minister of Finance), Ronny Chan (Hang Lung Properties) – historian Christina Spohr (Johns Hopkins SAIS) attended the panel and added academic perspectives to the discussion.

Of course, the Cold War and the preceding conflicts featured prominently at the symposium. Many of the key antagonisms of the twentieth century took place in the Pacific and continue to define the region to the present day. The participants of the fireside discussion touched upon their vivid personal memories of a time when the United States struggled with the Soviet Union and China for supremacy over fragile postcolonial governments in the region. The panel “Imperialism, Decolonization, and the Cold War in the Pacific Theater” addressed this era from an academic point of view: Sally Paine (U.S. Naval College) and David Wolff (Hokkaido University) spoke about the broader question of post-World War II rivalries and conflicts over a new geostrategic and economic order in the Pacific. Wen-Hsin Yeh (UC Berkeley) gave a presentation on how the aborigines of the island of Taiwan coped with those developments. The term “Cold War,” however, was also used in the context of current developments, particularly debates on security politics in the Pacific.

Which outcomes of your symposium do you find most astonishing?

While organizing the event, my co-conveners and I wondered whether our participants, with their vastly different professional and geographic backgrounds, would all be able to relate to the wide array of questions we were asking. But to our surprise, there was a constant flow of exchanges between historians and economists, politicians and anthropologists, media representatives and members of the broader public attending the symposium. The coffee breaks prompted extensive further exchanges and, on the second day, we had already decided that the moderators should skip their own round of questions in order to fully take advantage of the expertise and curiosity among our participants and within the audience.

Yet, not everything discussed at the symposium was uncontroversial – certain statements were even unacceptable. I would thus mostly agree with Christoph von Marschall’s comment that summarized the event in Der Tagesspiegel newspaper a few weeks ago. As Europeans we have a unique position but also historical responsibility, which – at least this is my take away from the conference – we seem to have mostly forgotten. Germany, in particular, with its business-centered approach to international relations should pay closer attention to actual developments in the Pacific and listen more carefully to our partners in Oceania and East Asia who have different perceptions of and experiences with the shift of the global order. And of course, although this answer probably does not come as surprise, we need to look at history to understand these current developments.


About the Convener

Sarah Beringer is head of strategy & communications at the German Historical Institute Washington (GHI), including GHI West at Berkeley, and a postdoctoral fellow in the Max Weber Foundation’s transregional research network “Streams of Knowledge: Processes of Entanglement and Disentanglement in the Trans-Pacific”.


Citation: Sarah Beringer, Entangling the Pacific & Atlantic Worlds: Past & Present, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 23.04.2019, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/18422.


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