G. Balbi u.a. (Hrsg.): History of the International Telecommunication Union

History of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). Transnational Techno-Diplomacy from the Telegraph to the Internet

Balbi, Gabriele; Fickers, Andreas
Innovation and Diplomacy in Modern Europe 1
Anzahl Seiten
VI, 353 S.
€ 77,95
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Jan-Henrik Meyer, Max-Planck-Institut für Rechtsgeschichte und Rechtstheorie, Frankfurt am Main

The current COVID-19 crisis has drastically demonstrated and reinforced our modern societies’ increasing reliance on telecommunication. Web-based video conferencing has emerged as the standard tool of doing business in the times of the pandemic. A number of different software tools are on the market, competing fiercely, in what looks like a winner-takes-all market. All of these tools rely on the infrastructure of the internet and on our computers being equipped with cameras and microphones. We usually do not think much about such standards and infrastructures and take them for granted. While some of these conditions simply result from market forces and technical advances, standardised global telecommunications infrastructures are the outcome of complex processes of norm-setting. In their book “History of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). Transnational Techno-Diplomacy from the Telegraph to the Internet”, Gabriele Balbi and Andreas Fickers trace the history of such processes of “techno-diplomacy” since the mid-19th century. As they show in their publication, since the days of the first telegraphs, a “multitude of actors (technical, economic, and political)” (p. 1) has engaged in the negotiation of shared rules and standards. Actors have taken strategic action, pursuing economic and political interests of private companies or governments. Effective negotiators had to combine “a high degree of both technical knowledge and diplomatic skills.” (p. 1) Balbi, Fickers and the contributors to this edited volume demonstrate that through our telecommunication infrastructure, we are standing on the shoulders of a long and variegated history of political decisions. While they involved technical experts, decisions were by no means predetermined by any inherent logic of technology’s evolution.

“Techno-diplomacy” in the realm of telecommunications largely played out in “the world’s first international organization” (IO) (p. 2), the International Telegraph Union, which was established in 1865 and renamed into International Telecommunication Union (ITU) in 1932. The editors aim to present the first scholarly history of this IOs. Chronologically, contributions cover the entire history from the mid-1850s until the present. Balbi and Fickers distinguish three periods according to the dominant actor(s). Initially a Eurocentric IO, the ITU was dominated by colonial powers and empires from its inception until 1947. In the post-war period, the United States dominated the ITU until approximately the mid-2000s, even though membership greatly expanded during the Cold War due to decolonisation. The latest period not only saw the rise of the internet, in which the ITU functioned much less as a standard setter than regarding earlier technologies. Relations were as well much more comprehensively multilateral, however with growing Chinese influence (p. 5).

The book’s chapters are held together by a number of guiding concepts. Not unconventionally for an analysis of International Organisations, Balbi and Fickers differentiate between two main roles and a somewhat supplementary one.1 IOs such as the ITU functioned as an “arena”, a place for bashing out agreements. At the same time, the ITU as an institution, represented by its leaders and its secretariat based in neutral Switzerland, was also an “actor” with its own visions and institutional self-interests. Furthermore, Balbi and Fickers highlight that IOs such as the ITU, functioned as “antennae” picking up signals from the local to the international levels or from circles so far underrepresented, like the interests of developing countries. The first two conceptual distinctions served to structure the entire book, whereas the third one points to cross-cutting issues. A first part assembles six chapters focusing on the role of the ITU as a “Global Actor in the History of Telecommunications”, while the second one comprises seven chapters considering the “ITU as an Arena of Techno-Diplomatic Negotiations for Emerging Technologies”. Within each part, the chapters are chronologically ordered from the 1850s until the 2000s.

The first three chapters of the book give evidence of the ITU’s role in the age of European empires until World War II. Marsha Siefert’s chapter emphasises the coinciding interests of the Russian empire and its ambitions for self-modernisation, when playing host to the 1875 St. Petersburg conference. At this conference, important decisions were taken regarding institutional affairs with an agreement on voting rights and in substance by lowering tariffs for extra-European communication. However, enforcing such regulations proved very difficult, as Andrea Giuntini demonstrates in his chapter on ITU policies regarding privately owned telegraph lines to the African colonies before 1900. Despite these weaknesses, ITU proved remarkably resilient in the face of attempts to set up alternative organisations, such as the “Universal Electrical Communication Union” in the 1920s, as Richard R. John argues. Christiane Berth’s chapter illustrates the ITU’s antenna for the global trend of decolonisation, as it engaged in technical cooperation in the Global South. Gianluigi Negro and Dwayne Winseck zoom in on challenges the ITU is facing since the 1990s with the rise of China and the new modes of communication via the internet.

The chapters in the second half of the book explore the practices of techno-diplomacy within the ITU as an arena. Simone Fari discusses the origins and developments until the 1875 St. Petersburg conference, while Maria Rikitianskaia considers the impacts of World War I. Christian Henrich-Franke and Léonard Laborie discuss the disruption brought about by the new telephone technology, and its regulation via the Comité consultatif International for Fernschreiben, a competing organisation in the interwar years. Heidi Tworek’s chapter covers the difficulties of multilateral techno-diplomacy within the ITU in the 1930s. Anne-Katrin Weber, Roxane Gray, Marie Sandoz and Adrian Stecher analyse in their beautifully illustrated chapter, how Switzerland compensated for its diminishing role within the ITU by hosting grandiose telecommunications exhibitions in the 1960s and 1970s. By contrast, Nina Wormbs and Lisa Ruth Rand explain how the ITU attempted to regulate the global commons of space for geostationary satellites during the same period. Finally, Valérie Schafer offers a more long-term perspective than Winseck on the challenges posed by the rise of computer networks and the internet since the 1960s.

Balbi’s and Fickers´ excellently written introduction is as concise as it is precise. However, the book would have greatly benefitted from a comprehensive conclusion. This would have allowed putting together the loose ends that the very disparate chapters leave open. Such a chapter would have strengthened the analytical depth and the cohesion of this first history of the ITU, through assessing continuity and change in techno-diplomacy, trends, patterns and potential path dependencies, and impacts on present-day communication and data processing structures, and spelled out the specific contributions to the different areas of research listed in the introduction.

All in all, Balbi’s and Fickers’ book not only offers new international perspectives on the global history of “techno-diplomacy” – an area of historiography at the intersection of the history of diplomacy and of technology that has so far opened up interesting new transnational prospects primarily on Europe.2 It also helps closing a surprising gap in the burgeoning field of the history of international organisations. Finally, it presents a highly instructive example that the history of communication technology goes much further back in time and is much more political than we tend to assume.

1 A similar distinction was used for instance by the author of this review, too: Wolfram Kaiser / Jan-Henrik Meyer (eds.), International Organizations and Environmental Protection. Conservation and Globalization in the Twentieth Century, New York 2017.
2 See the “Making Europe” book series of the “Tensions of Europe” network, including e.g.: Per Högselius / Arne Kaijser / Erik van der Vleuten, Europe’s Infrastructure Transition. Economy, War, Nature, Basingstoke 2016; Andreas Fickers / Pascal Griset, Communicating Europe. Technologies, Information, Events, Basingstoke 2019.