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Professor James L. Richardson (1933–2021)

Published 01 Jun 2021

Jim Richardson, formerly Professor of Political Science (1975–1985) and later Professor of International Relations (1986–1998) at the Australian National University (ANU) passed away in a Hamburg hospital 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 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.

In the last decade of his life, since the death of his wife, Ursula Vollerthun, in 2011, Jim was dedicated to what he considered his most important writing project, the development of Ursula’s PhD thesis into a book published by Cambridge University Press, a task he completed in 2016 as his health, and particularly his eyesight (he was deemed legally blind during this period) 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.

It has been my great good fortune to have seen something of this dimension to Jim’s character over the years, albeit in the main at a distance via our conversations and correspondence since his ANU years and in two brief visits to his home in Hamburg.

I first met him in 1986 when I arrived at the ANU. Me with a head full of half-baked ideas about how international relations could/should be critically transformed, Jim with his tolerant, generous nature willing to listen, question, and inquire as to the coherence and/or significance of this enterprise. Over the years we continued to talk, about this and many other things, and we developed a genuine, if initially rather unlikely, friendship which actually grew and became more profound after he and Ursula left the ANU and Australia for Germany in 1999.

From this time on, we connected by phone, about once a month, and we would send written work to each other by mail (Jim resisted “modern” technology until very recently when he became vaguely internet literate). I gained a great deal from these exchanges. Jim remained as unfailingly generous with his time as he was during his ANU years and, generally, as sharp and incisive with his feedback as he had always been.

After Ursula passed away and as his health became more problematic, Jim began to concentrate on two projects, the most important, the tribute to Ursula’s scholarship that he wanted to expose to a much wider intellectual community, and a secondary project, to write a memoir, mainly of his life as an International Relations scholar from the 1950s to the 1980s with special reference to his time at the ANU during the 1970s and 1980s. On this latter issue, he was unsure whether anyone would be interested in publishing it, but felt he had perspectives and experiences to share that might be of value in the twenty-first century. I encouraged him on this and hopefully others did too.

He eventually wrote a truncated version of the work he originally envisaged which was, in many respects, fascinating and entirely relevant to contemporary global affairs, not least the renewed concerns about great power jousting with nuclear weapons. His memories of the passionate debates at Oxford during the early years of the Cold War were particularly enlightening in this regard, as was the discussion of his work alongside Hedley Bull, for the Wilson Government in the UK during the 1960s. I’m not sure how widely he spoke of these things but I suspect his inherent modesty would have prevented any large-scale articulation of them.

His major and final work of note was his tribute to Ursula, which became The Idea of International Society: Erasmus, Vitoria, Gentili and Grotius (Cambridge University Press, 2017). He was struggling during much of the time he spent on this project. His eyes were failing him, and in our conversations it became clear that the physical and mental stress of the project was taking a heavy toll on him. Ursula’s work is erudite, complex, and very dense in parts. And Jim had the added pedagogical problem of maintaining the integrity of her thesis while significantly reframing it to meet the publisher’s requirements. But he kept at it, working late into the night and with fading vision. It was published in book form in 2017 and while Jim was exhausted, he was as happy as I’ve known him to have paid tribute to his wife and to her intellect which he felt was underappreciated during her life.

When I heard of Jim’s death, I was unsure of how best to say something of why I feel grateful and privileged to have known him, as a mentor and a friend. It would have been entirely appropriate to have said what others have said and will continue to say as the news spreads, that he was a gem of a human being and a brilliant scholar. In a purportedly post-truth world, this is unequivocally the truth. My rather personalised reminiscences here are my own testament to this truth.

Jim George, Canberra, 20 May, 2021.