Coral Bell: the ‘accidental academic’ who wanted to stop armageddon

Originally published on theconversation.com

ANU Bell School

This piece is part of a new series in collaboration with the ABC’s Saturday Extra program. Each week, the show will have a “who am I” quiz for listeners about influential figures who helped shape the 20th century, and we will publish profiles for each one. You can read the other pieces in the series here.

When Australian international relations scholar Coral Bell died in 2012, former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger said “no other commentator” had been as perceptive on United States policies.

Three years later, the Australian National University named its school of Asia-Pacific affairs after Bell, with former foreign minister Julie Bishop describing her as

one of the great international relations scholars of Australia and the world […] highly respected by policy makers nationally and internationally.

Clearly she was a superstar in her field. But why, outside specialists, should Bell be remembered and celebrated?

An academic who thought about the real world

Bell has been called an “accidental academic”.

She began her career as as a diplomat in 1945, and was in the room when the ANZUS Treaty was signed. But her time in the Department of External Affairs ended after she refused to join a Soviet spy ring — as ANU colleague Desmond Ball sensationally revealed after her death.

However, this early experience of government and diplomacy set her up well for a life of scholarship. Former head of the ANU Bell School Michael Wesley thinks her diplomatic role had a lasting impact on her work, which

always showed the practitioner’s sensitivity to the often galling realities of policy-making.

She believed the behaviour of leaders and diplomats mattered in foreign affairs, leading her to be variously described as a “classical realist”, “optimistic realist” and “realist optimist”.

She focused on the big issues and the big picture

Bell’s work focused on power politics, the Cold War, diplomacy, defence and foreign policy. The titles of her extensive publications give a sense of the questions she wanted to answer: “politics of power”, “diplomacy of detente”, “conventions of crisis” and “living with giants”.

Bell worked at the height of the Cold War, and wanted to prevent further conflict.
Museum Checkpoint Charlie/ AP/AAP

She acknowledged it was difficult to show direct causal connection between academic analyses and the choices of decision makers — but saw herself as influencing the climate of opinion within which policy-makers operate, and in turn helping shape countries’ behaviour.

Because of her historical knowledge and focus on big trends — demographic, economic, technological and political – she had an uncanny knack of previewing debates and controversies. Her 2007 forecast that Western domination of global politics was drawing to a close has held up well.

She left an intellectual legacy

Bell also had an important influence on the growing discipline of international relations.

Concepts she created in the 1960s are still being used in the context of US-China rivalry. This includes the “shadow condiminium” — or temporary power-sharing arrangements between two dominant powers. Her work Dependent Ally also remains relevant to Australia-US relations, including its discussion of independence within an alliance.



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More broadly, she influenced later scholars with her focus on careful factual research, beginning with the evidence, rather than abstract theories. Griffith University’s Ian Hall describes this as an interpretive approach, which forefronts the beliefs of policy-actors and the thoughts shaping those beliefs.

Based on history, law and political philosophy rather than quantitative methods, this has arguably become a distinctive feature of Australian international affairs scholarship.

She was a woman in a profession dominated by men

Born in 1923, Bell’s gender was always going to be a factor. When she entered the foreign service she was paid less for the same work and faced the marriage bar. As she recalled:

In my day you were told that if you married you were deemed to have resigned from the diplomatic service. So I gave up the idea.

Bell chose the life of the mind and excelled at it, showing gender was not a bar to being a leading authority.

As security studies academic Sheryn Lee explains, Bell’s success made it easier for other women to forge careers in the field of international relations.

she was a woman who was a leading authority […] and who forged a path for others through her practice and scholarship.

An Australian in a field dominated by overseas scholars

Australian scholars with Bell’s international impact have been rare in international relations. Her intellectual contributions enhanced Australia’s standing in policy and academic communities in the US and United Kingdom.

As Minh Bui Jones memorably observedof Bell:

For the rest of the world, she brought an antipodean temperament and perspective to the great questions of our time; she was our George Kennan in thick glasses, blue floral dress, white sneakers and a string of pearls.

A significant portion of her career was spent advancing the study of Australian foreign and defence policy and she spoke up for bringing an Australian approach to questions of international security.

She focused on issues of human survival

Bell described herself as having a “preoccupation with armageddon”, especially how to avoid it. She saw her vocation as the “preservation of human life and human society”.

Coming to adulthood during the second world war, she knew what was at stake when great powers went to war. All her life, she remembered the pattern of the rug she was standing on when she heard an atomic bomb had destroyed Hiroshima.

In our time, the nuclear threat continues, along with existential threats of climate change, uncontrolled artificial intelligence and pandemics. In the face of such challenges, how countries interact becomes a question of survival of the species. That’s something worth dedicating a career to.

Bell lives on in her ideas and in the minds of those she has influenced. If you’d like to hear her voice, you can listen to her in 2008, speaking to Geraldine Doogue.

Melissa Conley Tyler was privileged to know Coral Bell in her later years when she was honoured by the Australian Institute of International Affairs.

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