Before the books

Picture of Des Ball
14 December 2012


With this year marking 25 years of Des Ball’s special professorship at ANU, ROBERT O’NEILL reflects on the early days of a remarkable career.

Des Ball came to the ANU Strategic and Defence Studies Centre in 1974 as a young lecturer and recent doctoral graduate. He had huge potential, as a 10-minute conversation with his supervisor, Hedley Bull, and a read of his thesis would show. He had not yet made his mark on the wider national and international fields of scholarship, so that was the immediate goal for himself and the Centre.

By the time of his appointment, he had acquired expertise in several relevant fields: the global nuclear strategies of the United States and the Soviet Union; the ways in which the ANZUS alliance worked; and the defence of Australia after the collapse of the posture of ‘forward defence’ following the American withdrawal from Vietnam.

Des takes off
When Des came on board he threw his expertise and energies behind the Centre’s first major conference on The Strategic Nuclear Balance, producing a formidable paper on US policies and force structure which had much to teach all of us. Des continued to work on the stability of the central balance and the wisdom or otherwise of existing policies, with the longer term aim of turning his thesis into a book. He also expanded his publication activity via well-placed journal articles, attracting invitations to work with other scholars abroad, especially by taking part in their conferences and publications. By 1977 he was recognised for moving at the leading edge of research on these questions.

At the same time he was active in studying more purely Australian issues. How much did our defence cooperation with the US infringe Australian national interests as opposed to serving those of our major ally? There was much food for debate on the least transparent aspects of alliance cooperation, especially those relating to the Pine Gap and Nurrungar facilities. The US had been granted access by secret agreements whose content and implications were understood by only a handful of people in Canberra. These were of course, sensitive topics, and how they were handled was to prove a real test of national maturity and ability to tolerate open debate on security issues. Des played a major role in testing the limits and establishing new tolerances in relations between the Australian Department of Defence, academia and the media.

These two parallel channels of activity were not enough for Des and he quickly became involved in the national debate on how to defend Australia militarily in the post-Vietnam War era. Many Australians had thoughts on this topic and the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre became a focal point for politicians, public servants, service officers, journalists and academics as they traded thoughts on these issues.The Centre was joined in 1975-76 by Colonel Jol Langtry and Ross Babbage, a doctoral student in International Relations, and senior journalist Peter Hastings. We all meshed together closely in working on this topic. Des played a leading role in the team, especially in relation to air defence, defence technology and defence industry. In 1976 he edited the conference volume The Role of Tactical Airpower in the Defence of Australia. His name was regularly before the public in the media and through his wide range of personal connections.
In 1980 Des published his first major book, Politics and Force Levels, on the US nuclear strategy debate, together with another volume on the US facilities in Australia, A Suitable Piece of Real Estate. Both books received high praise and made a major impact. In 1981 he published a widely read Adelphi Paper for the International Institute for Strategic Studies, ‘Can Nuclear War Be Controlled?’ In his first seven years with the Centre, Des had achieved one of the best launches that any young scholar could wish for.

The Centre takes off
Des’ take off helped the Centre to transform itself into a more powerful and enduring entity. One of my major concerns of the 1970s as Head of the Centre was how to make it possible for Des to continue his work here. His research fellowship was due to terminate in 1979 so we had to persuade the University to create a tenured fellowship for him. This was a formidable challenge. University finances were then under more pressure than they had been for several years, and it was University policy that centres could not have tenured posts. There were no spare posts in the Department of International Relations, so it was up to me to use my wits and diplomacy to persuade the University to scrap its policy on Centres and give us the money to keep Des in employment. This took me about two years to achieve.

I was greatly helped by Des through the quality and impact of his works, especially the stream that appeared in 1980-81. By 1980 Des had his fellowship and the Centre had an outstanding scholar to help build and extend its reputation over the next 32 years. As this workshop, and the book at its focal point, Insurgent Intellectual, make clear, Des went on to realise all the promise that he had shown in the early 1970s, and the Centre took off at the same time with Des as one of its several powerful engines.

From a tiny organisation of one academic and two support staff when I took it over in 1970, it had grown by 1980 to a team of four academics, three support staff, two to three visiting fellows and a handful of doctoral students including David Horner and Ron Huisken. Jol gave us a new income stream by developing the publications and conference programs. The media gave us a high national, and sometimes international, profile. It was all sustained on the quality of the research and publications that Des and our colleagues unfailingly produced.

So here we are in 2012 with an academic staff of 17 or more and one of the best reputations nationally and internationally in the business! For much of that success we have Des to thank.

Professor Robert O’Neill was the head of the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre from 1971-1982. This piece forms part of a workshop, Books and Bombs,which sees leading strategic and defence studies thinkers deliver talkscommemorating the 25th anniversary of Professor Des Ball’s special professorship at ANU.

A newly-released collection of essays in honour of Des Ball, Insurgent Intellectual, is available from the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies

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