Pasuth Thothaveesansuk is a Ph.D. candidate within the Department of History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The department is housed within the College of Arts and Sciences. He has been awarded the James L. Peacock III Summer Research Fellowship as he works to complete his dissertation on liberal internationalism in East and Southeast Asia during the 20th century. Prior to attending UNC-Chapel Hill, he lived in Bangkok, Thailand, for 18 years then attended the University of Virginia, where he studied history and German studies. He received a master’s degree in history from Carolina in 2021.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.Support graduate students like Pasuth
Tell us about your research.
My dissertation looks at the history of liberal internationalism in East and Southeast Asia during the 20th century. I’m interested in this because it offers a lens into understanding the role Asian statesmen and diplomats played in the reorganization of the world after World War II. Much of my dissertation revolves around the establishment of the United Nations in 1945.
Through this international history project, I hope to incorporate viewpoints from all over the world. I plan to do research in archives all over the world that have holdings of original documents in many different languages. I plan to work in archives in the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, Switzerland, Taiwan, and potentially Singapore, India, and the Philippines. I’m trying to cast a wide net to make this a truly global story.
What made you want to study this topic?
I initially wrote a paper for a conference hosted by Leiden University in the Netherlands on the role the Republic of China had in the establishment of the United Nations. I thought there was a story to be told there because it’s something that other historians have not given much attention to. People think the postwar international order is something as straightforward as an Anglo-American imposition on the rest of the world, and I think that sells the story short. The story about China at the founding of the U.N. turned into a bigger question on how Chinese delegates tried to achieve a vision of the world that fits within what we may call a liberal international viewpoint.
What first brought you to the U.S., then later to Carolina?
I grew up in Bangkok. That’s where I was born and where my family still lives. I went to international school growing up, and I hoped to go to college overseas after that. UVA was where I ended up. I applied directly to graduate school at Carolina after my undergraduate studies. Carolina’s history program was a good fit for me intellectually; I was excited about the global focus of the history faculty here.
How have you been involved in Diversity and Student Success since you came to Carolina?
I’ve attended quite a few events under the Global Grads initiative because I’m an international student myself. It’s been a great opportunity to meet other international graduate students and get to know other people.
What are you focusing on this summer?
I’m mostly focusing on international travel this summer. I’ve already done some of that. In the beginning of the summer, I did research in Berlin, Germany, then I did a few days of research in London. I’ll be doing research in New York before going to Geneva and then Berlin again. That’s what I have planned out through September. Research travel is the main reason why I applied for the fellowship and why it’s so helpful in making progress on my dissertation. Unsurprisingly, the kind of project I’m working on is very expensive and time consuming since I’m traveling to three different continents. There are a lot more digital archives nowadays, but most archives remain physical places you need to travel to. I am happy to have also been awarded an off-campus dissertation research fellowship for the academic year, so I will have 12 months of uninterrupted research time. It will be tiring but a great opportunity, and I’m really looking forward to the experience.
What would you like to do after you graduate? What do you hope comes of your research?
In an ideal world, I hope to finish my dissertation in May of 2025 after spending this year researching and next year writing. I’d like to get an academic job teaching at a university after I get my Ph.D. and hope to have the opportunity to turn my dissertation into a university press book. I want to show that there was a tradition of liberal internationalism in Asia in the 20th century. This is something that feels personal to me as someone who grew up in Southeast Asia and follows international politics very closely. You hear about the supposedly inevitable superpower rivalry between the U.S. and China all the time. I want to show that there was also a moment where there were Asian leaders who had liberal and internationalist visions. It’s not just that Western observers are missing the point, but that Asian actors themselves are missing their own story or what their predecessors tried to do.
What does this funding mean to you?
Funding opportunities for humanities graduate dissertations are dwindling. Many major sources of funding have dried up, which is why I think it’s great that The Graduate School still has the opportunity for students to be able to do these kinds of projects. History as a discipline is moving toward more global projects engaging with archives beyond the North Atlantic, which is much more expensive than if research was only taking place in the U.S. The funding means a lot in supporting graduate students doing what I believe is at the cutting edge of historical scholarship.
What does it mean to have generous donors who support your research?
I’m happy that Carolina is lucky to have such amazing donors who are willing to support graduate education. When a history book is published, it often has just one author listed. There’s this idea that it’s a one-person business, which is the truth in that it’s one person typing up the work, but in reality, it takes a village. Even though it will be my name on the dissertation when it’s finished, it will also be thanks to the support of the different fellowships I have cobbled together to make this work possible, as well as my adviser and all the wonderful faculty at Carolina. I think the generosity of the donors at Carolina is a critical part of the academic community at UNC-Chapel Hill, which is what makes it such a great place to get a Ph.D.
— Payton Wilkins