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Vale Professor James L. Richardson

03 Jun 2021
By Jim George
Australian National University Chifley Library,  photographed by Nick D, sourced from Wikimedia Commons,

Jim Richardson, professor of political science and international relations at the Australian National University, passed away on May 10. He was 87.

There is an enduring tradition at moments like these of saying only good, positive and respectful things about the deceased. But in Jim’s case there is no need to gild any lilies. He was a lovely man, a gentleman and a gentle scholarly man of the ‘old school’. He was also a world class scholar in the field of International Relations. His book on Crisis Diplomacy: The Great Powers since the Mid-Nineteenth Century  is a classic work, albeit rarely acknowledged as such and, in more recent times, his thoughtful and rigorous examinations of contemporary Liberalism (e.g. Contending Liberalisms in World Politics: Ideology and Power) remain works of the highest quality and of his abiding legacy to generations of students to come.

Jim was born in Childers, Queensland in 1933 and spent periods of his childhood in South Australia and in Sydney, NSW. His pursuit of an international affairs education took him to the University of Sydney, Oxford , and Harvard. Issues that increasingly preoccupied him included a nuclear-armed world and its implications for international security; the notion and efficacy of nuclear deterrence; the prospects for arms control; and the broader implications of a US led strategic studies template as the intellectual keystone of the burgeoning International Relations (IR) discipline. Exploration of these interests culminated in his first major book, Germany and the Atlantic Alliance: The Interaction of Strategy and Politics.

By the time of the publication of this book, Jim had left Harvard for a research fellowship at Balliol College, Oxford, where his analytical focus had shifted somewhat to questions of crisis diplomacy or, more precisely, how to prevent Cold War crises spiraling out of control. The Cuban crisis had prompted a spate of scholarly responses on this issue, primarily derived from the behaviouralist school of IR realism in the US. Jim sought to counter this approach via a broader historical and political frame of reference and a series of case studies of major international crises between the 1830s and 1962. The result was a superb piece of international relations scholarship, Crisis Diplomacy, and a series of journal articles and book chapters associated with it that distinguished him as a major analytical figure of the British/Australian IR tradition.

The book created tensions for him, nevertheless. It took a very long time in gestation, not just due to its breadth and complexity, but also to a series of professional diversions Jim took along the way to its completion. Between 1965 and 1966, for example, he took the opportunity to experience life at the policymaking coal face, working within the Arms Control and Disarmament Research Unit, established by the Labour government of Harold Wilson in the UK, and under the directorship of another ANU alumnus, Hedley Bull.  And in 1967 he decided to return to Australia, to a lectureship in International Relations at the University of Sydney. Progress was slow on Crisis Diplomacy in this period, and it remained so after 1975, when Jim moved to the ANU. Upon its completion in 1991, Crisis Diplomacy was well received in the UK and in Australia, but not in the US where its non-positivist methodology and lack of quantitative data were criticised.

Jim’s first role at ANU was as head of the Department of Political Science in the Faculty of Arts. Alongside a heavy administrative load in an expanding teaching department, he taught courses on Australian and US foreign policy, an honours seminar on Third World issues, and a broader course on Modern Political Analysis to introduce students to the rapidly developing critical literature of the post-Vietnam War era. In 1986, Jim took up a professorial position in the Department of International Relations in the Research School of Pacific Studies (RSPacS). While in RSPacS, Jim broadened the scope and range of his published works, particularly regarding questions of Australian security in the Asia-Pacific region. He also began to explore more explicitly theoretical issues following the end of the Cold War in 1990.

This was prompted by debates within IR circles following the collapse of the Soviet Union and in the wake of the intellectual and geostrategic order that the Cold War had paradoxically engendered. The central question now was, what comes next? Jim’s response was to argue for a serious reappraisal of the liberal-democratic tradition at the end of the twentieth century, as a way of reimagining international society and its democratic potentials while illustrating some of the dangers of a “triumphalist” liberalism and/or one grounded in a radical laissez-faire ideology. The book that emerged from this engagement with liberal theory and practice, Contending Liberalisms in World Politics, was an outstanding piece of scholarship that, like the earlier Crisis Diplomacy book, traversed a broad and complex historical and intellectual terrain. It has continued to educate and inform scholars and students in the age of neoliberal globalisation.

Jim retired from the ANU in 1998 and, with his wife, Ursula Vollerthun, left Australia for a new life in Germany. Sadly, Ursula passed away in 2011, and in the last decade of his life, Jim was dedicated to what he considered his most important writing project: the development of Ursula’s PhD thesis into a book, a task he completed in 2016 as his health, and particularly his eyesight, was rapidly deteriorating. This was a monumental achievement in the circumstances, and it illustrated that, his gentle nature and physical frailty aside, Jim was a man of great resilience and steely resolve and of great love for and commitment to his wife and to the intellectual principles they shared.

He was fading in recent times, and news of his passing was not unexpected, albeit still shocking, as these things are. In this sad context it is thus entirely appropriate to say what others have already said and will continue to say as the news spreads, that Jim Richardson was a gem of a human being and a brilliant scholar. In a purportedly post-truth world, this is unequivocally the truth.

Jim George taught International Relations at the ANU for 23 years before retiring in 2013. He is currently co-editing the 4th edition of Introduction to International Relations (Cambridge University Press) for publication 2022.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.