Coral Bell — Australia’s most distinguished analyst of contemporary international politics — died last weekend. As a friend and colleague working in the same field, and as an editor who had the pleasure of publishing many of her articles, I admired her and her work enormously. Fortunately for me, a few years ago I had the opportunity of saying so in her presence, at a dinner organised in her honour by the Lowy Institute.
In a short tribute, I singled out three of her many qualities.
First, she always tackled the great central questions of international politics. Not for her the splashing about in the shallow end of the pool. Her preoccupation had been with such major topics as the central balance, the management of crises and of great alliances, the temptations and dangers of hegemony. Questions of that order. And as Henry Kissinger, among others, has acknowledged, she comfortably held her own with the best on these topics.
I think it is worth making this point because some practitioners of the subject here tend to restrict themselves unnecessarily to second order questions, or to local and regional ones where they feel they have a comparative advantage.
My advice to them: follow Coral’s example. Jump into the deep end, compete with the best and find out how good you are.
My second point is that Coral represented what is best in the realist tradition of international relations thinking. A lot of nonsense has been spoken about realism in the past few years, by its opponents, certainly, but also in some cases by those who claim to be speaking in its name.
My friend Professor Robert Tucker once suggested that realism was best thought of, not as a position, but as a disposition — not, that is, as an elaborate intellectual construction but as a frame of mind dedicated to seeing things as they are, rather than as we would like them to be, or for that matter as they used to be. Coral’s realism was of this kind: non-doctrinaire, non-dogmatic, based on historical knowledge that was wide and deep, while recognising the pre-eminent roles played by power, self-interest and suspicion in international politics.
The third of Coral’s qualities that I wish to mention is that she wrote beautifully. No jargon. No clichés. A strong, clear, prose that reminded one that grammar — mundane things like parsing and analysis — was once taught in Australian schools. Her writing was enlivened by the occasional striking phrase or witticism, but it never strove for special effects.
One example of her wit has stayed with me over the years, and as it contains a useful reminder to all policy makers, I’ll share it with you:
‘Always remember that if you decide to cut the Gordian knot you are going to be left with a lot of loose ends.’
Yes indeed. She will be missed.
Owen Harries, founding editor of the National Interest in Washington, DC (1985-2001), is a visiting fellow at the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney.