The accidental academic
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The legacy of Coral Bell – one of Australia’s keenest minds on world politics – lives on to inspire a whole new generation of scholars, writes Sheryn Lee.
Tomorrow, the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific will honour the life and legacy of Coral Mary Bell AO by renaming the School of International, Political and Strategic Studies as the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs.
Bell, who passed away in September 2012, was one of the world’s foremost academic experts on international relations, crisis management and alliance diplomacy.
Her academic life was unintentional, yet her impact long-lasting. Bell began her career in the Australian Diplomatic Service, as a Diplomat Cadet at the Department of External Affairs, Canberra, in 1945.
In her unpublished memoir, A Preoccupation with Armageddon, she highlights how formative this six-year period was on her subsequent work:
“I was then a very juvenile diplomat [diplomatic cadets they used to call us] recruited in the formidable Dr Evatt's drive to build up Australia's impact on the world. And the Pacific War had just become history.
“Perhaps that moment is the reason why so much of my life has revolved round wars and crises; why I have had such a preoccupation with the possibility of Armageddon. Especially how to avoid it.”
Even before then, Bell had experience with world war and its technologies. She was part of a small University of Sydney team of degaussers, a process used to defend ships from magnetic mines. She had vivid memories of Japan’s submarines entering Sydney harbor in May 1942, and of a Japanese shell fired in anger whistling overhead.
Tragically, during the war her ‘first love’ was killed during a landing in Papua New Guinea. In a moment of undisguised grief, she recounted to journalist Geoffrey Barker: “They told me he was shot in the head and died instantly without suffering. I hope that is true”.
These experiences meant that Bell kept her practitioner’s understanding and keen eye for policy relevance throughout her academic work. Becoming disdainful of diplomatic life – particularly as a woman more likely to be assigned menial responsibilities and spend more time on the cocktail circuit – she opted for a more “reflective life” as a scholar of international relations and power politics.
Having won a place for graduate study at the London School of Economics (LSE), she was heavily influenced by Martin Wight’s vision of international politics – that politics is best explained in terms of ideas and institutions.
She later developed this into her own approach, one more reflective of her personal and practical experience, described by Ian Hall as “[combining] the study of contemporary history and the institutions of international society … the informal ones that had arisen over time, like war or diplomacy, for managing the relations of political communities”.
Based on this, Bell’s work could be described as ‘optimistic realism’ – she maintained that power remained the central concept in the functioning of the international system but remained positive about cooperation, due to the belief in the scope of political and diplomatic choice.
Bell’s distinct view and her sharp mind later led her to assist Arnold Joseph Toynbee at Chatham House in the preparation of the Survey of International Affairs 1954, a Lectureship in International Relations at the University of Manchester (1956-1960), a Senior Lecturer in Government at the University of Sydney (1961-1965), a Readership in International Relations at the LSE (1965-1972), a Professor in International Relations at the University of Sussex (1972-1977), and then as a Senior Fellow in the Department of International Relations (1977-1988) until her formal retirement.
She continued to be involved in academic life for the next two decades as a Visiting Fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre.
Henry Kissinger became a fan of her work and in his book, Does America Need a Foreign Policy?, wrote, “The Australian scholar Coral Bell has brilliantly described America’s challenge: to recognise its own pre-eminence but to conduct its policy as if it were still living in a world of many centres of power”.
Denis Healey, a founder of the International Institute of Strategic Studies, with Bell in mind observed that, “from the middle 50s Australia has contributed more to international understanding of defence problems than any country of similar size”.
In his 2003 Boyer Lecture, Professor Owen Harries spoke of her “ability to cope with and enjoy flexibility” and said of her work, “there is nothing simplistic or crude about her analysis”.
Yet Bell’s influence and legacy extends further than that of academia and policy-making. She had many close friends, attesting to her generosity and engaging personality.
She was also an instrumental mentor, as Brendan Taylor notes, that much of her impact was ‘second-order’ through “the people she worked with, taught and mentored” and in particular, “her education of a significant number of emerging scholars”. She also pioneered a path for many women into the field of international politics ever since her appointment as one of Australia’s first female diplomats.
Bell’s ongoing influence on Australia’s foreign and defence policy and her impact on the lives of emerging thinkers remains exceptional. It is only fitting that coming generations of students and scholars will now pass through the corridors of the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs.
Sheryn Lee completed her Master of Arts in Strategic Studies at the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, where she is now undertaking her PhD through the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre.
This piece is based on extracts from ‘Power and International Relations: Essays in Honour of Coral Bell’, edited by Desmond Ball and Sheryn Lee, available for free download from ANU Press.