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Hedley Norman Bull (1932–1985)

by J. D. B. Miller

The death occurred on 18 May of Professor Hedley Bull, FBA, FASSA, who was Professor of International Relations in the Research School of Pacific Studies from 1967 to 1977. He died at his home in Oxford, where he was a Fellow of Balliol College and Montague Burton Professor of International Relations.

Hedley Norman Bull was born in Sydney and educated at Fort Street High School and the University of Sydney, where he took Honours in History and Philosophy. A Woolley Travelling Scholarship to Oxford enabled him to complete a B.Phil.

In 1955 he was appointed Assistant Lecturer in International Relations at the London School of Economics. Seven years later he was appointed a Reader, having achieved considerable acclaim for his book The Control of the Arms Race (1961). From 1965 to 1967 he was Director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Research Unit in the Foreign Office.

In 1967 he took up a second chair in the Department of International Relations here, being alternate head of department with myself. This was the first case of alternate headship in this university. He showed himself to be a splendid teacher of postgraduate students, earning the admiration and respect of those whose work he supervised.

He was elected a Fellow of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia, and served as Research Chairman of the Australian Institute of International Affairs.

In 1977 he was appointed to the Oxford chair after the death of Professor Alastair Buchan, his friend for many years and the founder of the Institute for Strategic Studies (now the International Institute for Strategic Studies), of which Professor Bull was a Councillor from 1967 onwards.

There were difficulties in expanding International Relations as a subject at Oxford, but Hedley Bull tackled these with spirit. The present is a lean time for universities in Britain, as in Australia. Nevertheless, his persuasiveness and dedication meant that advances were made in a number of directions; in particular, he became a centre of attraction for postgraduate students. He continued to give time to them throughout his last long illness.

Hedley Bull was an international figure in the pursuit of his subject. He had been a welcome visitor at Princeton, Harvard and Columbia Universities in the United States, and at Jawaharlal Nehru University in India. He had also been a Fellow of All Souls at Oxford. His work was highly influential throughout the academic world: it is fair to say that, within the international relations fraternity, his is the name which has stood for Australia.

The respect in which he is held is based on the clarity and profundity of his writings, their direct relevance to practical situations, and the strong impression which he made as a person upon all who met him. His two books, The Control of the Arms Race (already mentioned) and The Anarchical Society (written at this University) are his most finished productions, incorporating a wealth of scholarship and a range of opinions and prescriptions which have attracted widespread notice; he also wrote a great many articles, edited the surviving works of his L.S.E. mentor, Martin Wight, and inspired a number of conferences, symposia and other meetings of minds.

He delighted in controversy, and was forth-right in criticism; but he was always fair, always prepared to argue, and always ready to concede to someone who had found a chink in his armour. Specialists in the discipline found that his deep and wide-ranging acquaintance with philosophy and history often meant that he knew their sources better than they did, or was able to cite opposing views and contrary instances which were beyond their ken. His range of reference was disconcerting; but he usually produced his remarks with diffidence, being concerned to contribute to discussion rather than to impress.

One should perhaps not be too personal in an obituary like this; but, because I was close to him, I should record a few points about him.

He was big, slightly stooped, spoke slowly but with complete grammatical control, composed every utterance — spoken and written — with care, and had the philosopher's habit of constantly asking questions. He smoked a pipe, which he was able to utilise for the academic's customary gestures. He liked wearing bow ties and velvet jackets, found personal contact rewarding in every intellectual context, and was inclined to make deliberately provocative statements in the hope that they would incite people to discuss the issue with more feeling. He was helpful to people in trouble, especially students.

As a colleague he was irreproachable. He had a strong sense of humour and a whimsical approach to the oddities of university life. He and I found that it was easy to agree on policy so long as we talked about things.

The two fields of enquiry in which he made his name — strategic studies and problems of world order — were joined in recent years by the question of what part could and should be played by Third World countries in an international system which had been shaped by European great powers and was now dominated by superpower rivalry.

He was fascinated by the attraction and repulsion which the system had generated in the Third World, and by the problem of international justice in the operations of the world economy. His questing mind continued to find new topics and connections to the very last. It is a tragedy that he is no longer here to shed light on the intricacies — and, even more, the major problems — of the relations between states.

He leaves a widow, Mary, a scholar in her own right, and three children.

On Wednesday, 29 May, a commemoration of Hedley Bull was held in the Research School of Pacific Studies in the presence of the Acting Vice-Chancellor and with the Director of the School, Professor R. G. Ward, as chairman. Brief personal statements were made by Dr Des Ball, Dr Paul Keal, Professor J. L. Richardson, and myself. There was a response from Mr Colin Bull, A.M., Hedley's brother, who, with his sister Judith and their spouses, attended from Sydney.

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J. D. B. Miller, 'Bull, Hedley Norman (1932–1985)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 24 July 2024.

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