ANU honours accidental academic

5 February 2015

A rare woman in a male-dominated profession, she opened the path to the international politics field for many women, especially as one of Australia's first female diplomats.

The Australian National University (ANU) has honoured one of Australia’s greatest international relations thinkers, the late Coral Bell AO, by naming the former School of International, Political and Strategic Studies after her.

Foreign Minister the Hon Julie Bishop MP launched the new Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, in tribute to an academic who spent 30 years working on issues as important as the Cold War, power politics, diplomacy, and Australian and US defence and foreign policy.

Coral Bell was an accidental academic dedicated to avoiding Armageddon and a pioneer in a field long dominated by men. She was once approached to spy for the Soviet Union, and was a source of inspiration for Henry Kissinger.

ANU Vice-Chancellor Professor Ian Young AO said that Coral Bell, who died in 2012, embodied everything the school and its work stood for.“Coral Bell AO was one of the world’s foremost academic experts on international relations, and perhaps Australia’s most eminent and respected international security scholar,” Professor Young said.

“Academia wasn’t her first choice for a career. Coral originally worked for the Australian Diplomatic Service. But she ran afoul of a group in the Department of External Affairs who were spying for the Soviet Union. When asked to join them, she refused.

“A rare woman in a male-dominated profession, she opened the path to the international politics field for many women, especially as one of Australia’s first female diplomats.

“Her colleagues describe her as modest, with a healthy disdain for the theoretical, rather preferring to make contributions to and critiques of policy. It was this approach which helped her catch the eye of Henry Kissinger, who wrote to her a number of times applauding her analysis of US foreign policy.“Most of all, they remember Coral for her lifelong dedication to making sure the world avoided catastrophic nuclear war. She had a vision of international relations that was both human and humane. In the end she was a committed humanitarian.”

The Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs brings together the University’s focus on international relations, strategic studies, and politics and society in the Asia Pacific.

The School is home to well-known scholars, experts and commentators including Professor Desmond Ball and Professor Hugh White.School Director Professor Michael Wesley said the Coral Bell School aims to reinforce the reputation of the ANU as the world’s best centre for teaching and research on the politics, international relations, strategic dynamics and diplomacy of Asia and the Pacific.

“Coral Bell's scholarship typifies the University’s approach to teaching and research: focused on the big questions of our age, dedicated to careful research of the facts on the ground, beginning with the evidence, rather than abstract theories,” Professor Wesley said.

Professor Veronica Taylor, Dean of the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific where the Bell School is based, said the new school would continue the University’s strong work and international reputation on Asia and the Pacific.“The Coral Bell School really exemplifies the quality of the University’s work on Asia and the Pacific. Within the Bell School are some of our most enduring and celebrated centres of expertise on the region,” Professor Taylor said.

“The ANU College of Asia and the Pacific hosts the largest number of regional experts and specialist academic programs in the English-speaking world. Our Bell School will continue to be a vital channel for communicating that expertise to inform public policy and Australia’s intellectual engagement with the societies, cultures, economies and worlds of thought of Asia and the Pacific.”

In addition to the new school name, Coral Bell has been remembered by colleagues and peers with a new book of essays in her honour, Power and international relations. The book, launched Tuesday, is available for free download from ANU Press.