Today’s world yesterday

3 February 2015

As one of Australia’s pre-eminent international relations and security scholars, Coral Bell not only shaped Australian defence and foreign policy; she foresaw the challenges and dangers of today’s world decades in advance. Brendan Taylor writes.  

News that Foreign Minister Julie Bishop will launch a new 'Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs' at The Australian National University may initially raise a few eyebrows.

While the late Professor Bell's stature as a preeminent scholar in the fields of international relations and strategic studies is beyond question, her best known works dealt primarily with security dramas and dilemmas which played out far from Australia and its region.

As she wrote of her late colleague Professor TB Millar in a volume of essays honouring his life and work, Coral too was “never given to provincialism: [she] was very much a citizen of the larger Western world, deeply fascinated by the problems of the East-West balance during the Cold War years”.

Yet a closer inspection of Coral's impressive body of writings reveals a scholar who contributed far more to the study of Australian foreign and defence policy than perhaps even she intended or realised.

To be sure, Coral throughout her career never shied away from referring to her antipodean origins and of offering a distinctly Australian perspective on international politics.

In her classic 1968 Adelphi paper on the Asian balance of power, for instance, she stated from the outset that “It will be an Australian view in the sense that the author, as an Australian, must be conscious that her own country's efforts to provide for its future security should include some assessment of the prospects for such a balance.

“Perhaps there is a certain appropriateness to an Australian examination of this question, since Australians are the only group of Westerners who must remain fully and inescapably vulnerable to the diplomatic stresses arising in Asia, on whose periphery they live or die.”

In so doing, Coral undeniably provided a service to Australian foreign and defence policy by simply putting this country on the map. None other than Henry Kissinger, for instance, cites her favourably in his own work as 'the Australian scholar Coral Bell.'

Yet Coral's contributions to Australian foreign and defence policy extend far beyond the fact that she associated closely with her country of birth.

Amidst Coral's impressive corpus of work, much more is written on Australia than is often acknowledged. Foremost amongst her writings in this area is the 1980s book Dependent Ally, which the respected commentator Graeme Dobell has described as “the finest study of Australian foreign policy in dealing with its two great and powerful friends.”

Beyond Dependent Ally, Coral's most substantial scholarly contributions to Australian foreign and defence policy came later in her career. These included the 2005 Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) study, Living with Giants, which in characteristically Coralesque fashion peered into the future to discern what demographic shifts in the emerging landscape of international politics might mean for Australia.

This Canberra-centred approach was evident again when, two years later, Coral published The End of the Vasco da Gama Era under the auspices on the Lowy Institute for International Policy. In this study she interrogated four powerful historical factors shaping the landscape of international politics - the end of the 500 years of Western ascendency over Asia, the end of the so-called 'unipolar moment' of US preponderance, the changing distribution of power between and within states, and environmental change - analysing their particular relevance to Australia.

Beyond these already substantial contributions, perhaps Coral's greatest legacy to Australian scholars and practitioners lies in the ideas she left behind.

Coral was certainly a great believer in the power of analysis to filter its way indirectly into the thoughts and actions of others. As she once observed “it is of course always difficult to show direct causal connection between the choices of decision-makers and the analyses published by outsiders, but such analyses do help create the climate of opinion within which both the policymakers and the decision makers live, work, and have their being.”

Demonstrating the continued relevance and applicability of Coral's work to a contemporary strategic challenge, Robert Ayson and Desmond Ball have recently called upon policymakers in Beijing and Tokyo to think about Sino-Japanese relations as an “adverse partnership.” This was an idea developed by Coral during the 1960s, referring to the development of a “consciousness between the dominant powers, that they have solid common interests as well as sharp conflicting interests.”

This concept of an 'adverse partnership' is just one nugget from a plethora of beautifully-written works still waiting to be mined by a new generation of scholars, pundits and policymakers.

Those delving into this body of work are likely to reap rich dividends.  As the Director of the new Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, Professor Michael Wesley, has recently written: “Coral was also a thinker who had the uncanny knack of previewing debates and controversies decades before others were to use them to make their names.”  

Associate Professor Brendan Taylor is Head of the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre in the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, ANU College of Asia and the Pacific.

The Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs is launched Wednesday by Foreign Minister the Hon Julie Bishop MP. A book of essays in honour of Coral Bell, ‘Power and international relations’, is available for free download from ANU Press.

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