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Coral Bell's legacy: great writing

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10 October 2012 09:28

Coral Bell had the gentle manners of Miss Marple and a mind as sharp as Henry Kissinger's.

Indeed, Kissinger was a fan of the grand dame who got the modern Oz equivalent of a gong in the 2005 honours for her 'service to scholarship and to teaching as a leading commentator and contributor to foreign and defence policy debate internationally and in Australia'.

Coral's work and spirit is marvellously captured in the tribute to her long and rich life by Robert O'NeillMinh Bui Jones does a fine job of evoking the calm confidence Coral projected in her magisterial musings on the Hobbesian world of international relations: '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.' Exactly right.

These brought to mind the tribute penned by former British Chancellor of the Exchequer Denis Healey, in his 1989 memoir, on Australia's production of academic experts on defence: 'From the middle '50s Australia has contributed far more to international understanding of defence problems than any country of similar size. The reputation of people like Hedley Bull, Coral Bell and Larry Martin has been high for two decades on both sides of the Atlantic, and there is now a new generation of comparable stature, such as Des Ball and Andrew Mack. The climate of the Antipodes seems conducive to producing good defence intellectuals and air marshals, as well as great sopranos.'

For those who never had the good fortune to hear Coral 'sing' in a seminar room or at a lectern, she has left you a treat: her legacy is in her writings. Her pen was always elegant and lucid, the very model of what good prose should be. Add to those qualities, Coral's ability to regularly deliver a bolt of Bell lightning: that moment when a writer floors you with a perfectly weighted phrase or a thought that illuminates a whole landscape.

Robert O'Neill offered a couple of examples: Coral's perception that the Korean War was really conducted primarily through negotiation, with a little military pressure applied at key times and in clever ways, rather than the other way around; and her characteristic mot that the NATO alliance is 'always in disarray' (in her book Negotiation From Strength she spoke of the need for NATO to have an 'official myth').

Anyone who wants to understand what drives Australian military doctrine and darkens defence dreams could get much from one Bell sentence on the six months of profound anxiety Canberra lived through from December 1941 (Pearl Harbour) to May 1942 (Battle of the Coral Sea): ‘consciously or unconsciously, that patch of history has to my mind haunted Australian strategic enquiry ever since.’ 

One of the best places to plunge into the Coral corpus is her book Dependent Ally. At just over 200 pages, this easily wins the weight-for-words handicap race as the finest study of Australian foreign policy in dealing with its two great and powerful friends.

Over the 200 years from 1788, Coral wrote, 'dependent' was the right adjective for Australia's role as an ally, both psychologically and strategically, yet those relationships with Britain and the US were 'complex affairs, full of ambivalence'. It was characteristic that she looked beyond the pejoratives implicit in dependence to describe the many advantages Australia won from 'a persistent national addiction to a usually comfortable dependence, a conscious and even sometimes Machiavellian adoption by policy makers of the easiest and least costly way out of assumed strategic dilemmas'.

The trouble with doing quotable quotes from Coral Bell is that she scattered gems through everything she penned. Reaching into the pile of Bell books on my shelf, I pulled out a piece she wrote for Quadrant in March 1996, on The Cold War in Retrospect; a random flick produced this judgement on the benefits the West got from that long confrontation: 'The Cold War actually rather suited the market economies. Their besetting sin is a tendency to run below optimum levels. Cold War costs injected a considerable element of "military Keynesianism" into the relevant economies, so that the '50s and '60s, when such costs were at their highest, appear in retrospect a period of prolonged economic boom, fondly remembered by some elderly persons in this current period of high unemployment (Europe and Australia) or low real wages (the US) as a golden age.'

The piece went on to argue that there might have been no Cold War if Joseph Stalin had died before Franklin Roosevelt, or if Stalin had not been such a psychotic monster. Characteristically, Coral illustrates this with a letter from Josip Tito to Stalin, which had just emerged from the Soviet archives. Her summary was that Tito warned: 'If you do not stop sending thugs to murder me I will send one to you — and there will be no need for more.'

A quick way to dive into the riches of Coral is to download her Lowy paper, The End of the Vasco da Gama Era. Michael Fullilove describes this as still one of the best Lowy papers. It is more than a good read, it has proved influential and her discussion of the need for an Asian Concert of Powers is an argument that will run and run.

Hugh White pointed to Coral's paper as one of the works he found most useful in writing Power Shift on Australia's future caught between Washington and Beijing; an example of the Coral Bell legacy at work: a body of deep thinking and elegant writing that other analysts will build on.

Photo Lowy Institute.

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