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Striding with giants

05 October 2012

ROBERT O’NEILL honours Coral Bell AO 1923-2012; a balanced, independent, realist-minded scholar of world politics.

The death of Coral Bell on 26 September 2012 has removed from our field one of Australia’s most able specialists in international affairs. This is a loss that will be felt both nationally and internationally, not least because she remained intellectually active right until her death at the age of 89.

I first came to know Coral in the early 1970s, when she was based at the University of Sussex. Thereafter, through our membership of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, we had more regular contact, enabling me to see how highly regarded she was in Western Europe and North America. She became well known for her work on great power negotiation – one of the dominant themes of the Cold War – and crisis management. Her first book, Negotiation from Strength, was a wonderfully powerful and illuminating analysis of US policy in the late 1940s and 1950s, and had much to teach any new scholar on the nature of the Cold War in the nuclear era.

Coral had come to adulthood during the Second World War, and she knew from her own experience just how much was at stake when great powers went to war with each other with modern weapons. The consequences of war were, of course, even more horrifying to think about when the opposing sides could use nuclear weapons on each other.

Fascinated by the size of the challenges posed, Coral opted for a career in diplomacy in 1944. In 1951 she decided to tackle these issues as an independent scholar rather than as a servant of the Australian government – whose needs for analysis were on the more modest side in the late 1940s. Coral knew how small the group of Australian scholars engaged in this field was, and she had a low opinion of several of them, so she decided to work in a wider arena, namely London, where she won a place at the Royal Institute of International Affairs (RIIA), working with Arnold Toynbee. He tested her capacities then entrusted her with major projects such as preparation of the Survey of World Affairs of 1954.

Her results earned her the reputation to compete successfully for a lectureship in International Relations at Manchester in 1956, where she also put her ideas on how the US was managing the Cold War into the doctoral thesis that formed the basis of her first book. It was perceptive of her to see that the Korean War was really conducted primarily through negotiation, with a little military pressure applied at key times and in clever ways, rather than the other way around.

Coral returned to teach at the University of Sydney from 1961 to 1965, and then was beckoned back to London, to a readership at the London School of Economics, a senior post at one of the most prominent centres for the study of international relations in the world at that time. She did well and enjoyed the experience. She added to her reputation through her work for the IISS and the RIIA (Chatham House). She became a professor at Sussex in 1972. She returned to work in Australia from 1977 to 1988 in the Department of International Relations at ANU. She had become frustrated both by administration and by the ideological opposition in many British universities to rational analysis in our field that held sway in the Vietnam War era. During Coral’s first five years at ANU, when I was the Head of the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, she was a wise and supportive counsel.

One set of insights for which I shall always be grateful to her was her characterisation of the NATO alliance: “always in disarray”. And this has been truer over many years than most observers realise or will admit to. NATO was good for one thing only: supporting the Germans against any Soviet conventional attack through Central or Northern Europe. For the rest it was a mass of complaints against the United States, and of reluctance to make any commitment outside the “NATO area”. For Australia there were positive and negative lessons from this experience. For myself, as Director and then Chairman of the IISS, the wisdom of Coral’s words was readily apparent through the 1980s and 90s. I never forgot her characterisation.

Coral was primarily concerned with studying and analysing the American leadership of the alliance, and this had brought her into a position of opposition to the war in Vietnam. She always regarded the American cause as likely to fail, and saw the contributions of other allies as not worth their financial and human cost. Although Coral was regarded as a “conservative realist”, and even used the term about herself, she had her own very independent and well founded view of US policies and capabilities. Hence, like Owen Harries, another “conservative realist”, she was a strong critic of George W. Bush’s foreign and military policies. She could see how counterproductive Bush’s illegal invasion of Iraq would be, and became increasingly clear in her own mind that the US had lost “sole super-power” status and was moving towards a world order in which power would be shared by several major states. Right until the last, Coral remained committed to this complex view of the world. She was certainly not a conservative in the American sense of the term.

Her analytical legacy is this view of a world where US power and influence have slipped, and those of China, Europe, Russia, and India are rising to form a condominium. For myself this is too neat and understates the likely influence of subnational groups by the score or the hundred, some armed with weapons of mass destruction, and composed of many young people willing to give their lives to kill Westerners. But Coral would respond to me that these subnational groups lacked the power of state governments and could be ground down and eliminated individually. It was a merry discourse we had in her apartment in Canberra a year ago. Whatever our differences, Coral was a splendid scholar and all of us who had the privilege of working with her owe her a great debt for her devotion to principles, her intelligence, her immense and accurate knowledge of international events and the warmth of her nature.

Dr Coral Bell was a visiting fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre in the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific. She was laid to rest in Canberra on Friday 5 October. Her recent publications includeLiving with Giants: Finding Australia's place in a more complex world and A World Out of Balance: American Power and International Politics in the Twenty-First Century.Dr Bell was awarded an Order of Australian in 2005.

Professor Robert O’Neill AO is honorary professor at Sydney University’s US Studies Centre and former head of the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at ANU.

Watch a video of Dr Coral Bell discussing China’s rise and geopolitics in the 21st Century at global politics and security blog Pnyx.


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