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Reading Room: Essays in Honour of Coral Bell

12 Feb 2017
Reviewed by Cam Hawker

For Desmond Ball, the completion of Power and International Relations: Essays in Honour of Coral Bell was a labour of love. Indeed, it was one of his final projects; working on it enhanced and probably extended his life as his illness progressed. Together with Sheryn Lee, Ball brought together a range of colleagues, students and friends to create a volume that pays tribute to a most extraordinary woman and a stellar career.

Australia has produced comparatively few international relations experts of global significance. Hedley Bull was one, as was Ball. Coral Bell undoubtedly sits alongside them but what sets her apart is not just the obvious point—that she was a woman in a field dominated by men—but that she was a woman with a uniquely practical way of looking at international relations. What I mean by this is that Bell’s early experience as a foreign service officer with Australia’s nascent Department of External Affairs equipped her with a practitioner’s view of diplomacy. This meant that she brought a rare perspective to her scholarly work on crisis management and alliance diplomacy.

In 13 chapters across three parts, the volume explores Bell as a person and scholar before going on to assess her contribution to our understanding of international relations and the practice of power politics. What emerges is an ‘optimistic realist’ whose work was in her own words, a “meditation on history” and who, though she favoured policy critique over theoretical approaches, invariably possessed an informed and sophisticated theoretical framework. What also emerges is something of the private Bell, a “warm personality with dry wit” who leaves an important legacy as a mentor to several generations of scholars and policymakers, particularly women.

Some chapters cover the same biographical ground, charting Bell’s upbringing in pre-war Australia, her early and very sensitive wartime work for the navy and her short-lived diplomatic career, followed by a much more fulfilled one as an academic. However, each writer brings his or her own perspective. A detail that may be new to some readers is Ball’s revelation that an External Affairs colleague sounded Bell out on leaking a classified document to the Soviet Union and that her failure to play along likely frustrated what might have been a far more advanced career with the department.

Their loss, however, was scholarship’s gain and was ultimately more agreeable to a woman seeking a more “reflective kind of life”. Several chapters, including Geoffrey Barker’s and Meredith Thatcher’s, give an account of Bell basking in a golden age of academia enjoying the “antique pleasures of university life and the conversation of the senior common room” during her time in the UK. The reader can be forgiven for feeling a little wistful for an era of such academic collegiality and contemplation.

Bell was the author of eight major books including the seminal works Negotiation from Strength: A Study in the Politics of Power (1962) and Dependant Ally: A Study in Australian Foreign Policy (1984). Both are discussed here at length. In his chapter, Michael Wesley gives an elegant analysis of Negotiation from Strength, a work that discussed the competing tensions of democratic decision making and alliance management against an authoritarian foe. Though obviously written in a Cold War context, the book remains highly relevant. Wesley ably explores themes of the psychology of decision making including the role of agency discussed in Negotiation from Strength, which Coral later expanded on in Dependant Ally. A book which Brendan Taylor perceptively notes stands out in Australian alliance literature for Bell’s contention that the prime minister invariably acts as the chief decision maker in Australia’s management of its key alliances and that the respective “personality and assumptions” of each office holder has led to a range of approaches to the management of these relationships.

It is impossible to read Bell’s work without regretting that she is no longer here to offer her insights on the many and great challenges that we face today. However, her later work, particularly The End of The Vasco da Gama Era and Living with Giants, offers an assessment on the changing shape of the regional and world order as Bell saw it in the middle of the first decade of the 21st century. Her observations on the declining relative power of the United States and the ramifications of this for Australia are prescient. As Hugh White notes, Bell’s work on the concept of a concert of powers was informed by a deep knowledge of history and her early mentors such as Martin Wight. According to White, Bell’s support for the concept, indeed her entire body of work, was based on the premise of avoiding Armageddon. A premise that for someone who made her way in the world in the shadow of the atomic bomb, was far from abstract.

Essays in Honour of Coral Bell can be read alongside similar works dedicated to Desmond Ball, Hedley Bull, Paul Dibb and Bob O’Neil with whom Bell takes her place as part of a rich Strategic and Defence Studies Centre (ANU) ensemble spanning many decades. Her legacy now lives on at the ANU’s Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, which like its namesake, recognises the importance of policy relevant work in international relations. Bell remains the most readable expert of her generation. This book is well worth reading in its own right but also as a vehicle to introduce a new generation of scholars and policymakers to a body of work which they will find enduringly relevant and engaging.

Desmond Ball and Sheryn Lee (ed.), Power and International Relations: Essays in Honour of Coral Bell, ANU Press, November 2014. 

The Australian Institute of International Affairs recognised both Coral Bell and Desmond Ball as Fellows for their contributions to Australia’s international affairs.

Cam Hawker is a PhD candidate and Government Relations Adviser at UNSW Canberra at ADFA where he is undertaking research on the role of Australian Prime Ministers in the management of the ANZUS alliance. Cam is a presidential associate of the AIIA.