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Richardson, James (Jim) (1933–2021)

by Jim George

Jim Richardson, formerly Professor of Political Science (1975–85) and later Professor of International Relations (1986–98) at The Australian National University (ANU) passed away in a Hamburg hospital on 10 May. 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 (Cambridge University Press, 1994) 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, Lynne Rienner, 2001) 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. He was an undergraduate student at the University of Sydney between 1951 and 1954, before being awarded a scholarship to Magdalen College, Oxford, (1956–58) to read Philosophy, Politics and Economics. In 1958, he took up a two-year studentship at Nuffield College, Oxford (1958–60) to pursue a developing interest in international politics and then, between 1961 and 1963, a research fellowship at Harvard University’s Center for International Affairs, to help focus his thinking on the (Cold War) issues that increasingly preoccupied him—of a nuclear-armed world and its implications for international security; of the notion and efficacy of nuclear deterrence; of the prospects for arms control; and of the broader implications of a US-led strategic studies template as the intellectual keystone of the burgeoning international relations (IR) discipline. This period culminated in his first major book, Germany and the Atlantic Alliance: The Interaction of Strategy and Politics (Harvard University Press, 1966).

By the time of the publication of this book, Jim had left Harvard for a research fellowship at Balliol College, Oxford (1963–65) where his analytical focus had shifted somewhat to questions of crisis diplomacy or, more precisely, how to prevent Cold War crises spiralling out of control. The Cuban crisis (1962) 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, and it was not received by the US-dominated discipline in quite the way Jim had hoped for. The timing problem was not just due to the breadth and complexity of the book, 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 alumni, Hedley Bull. In 1967 he decided to return to Australia, to a Lectureship in International Relations at the University of Sydney. Progress was slow on the Crisis Diplomacy book in this period, and it remained so after 1975 when Jim moved to the ANU, where he was appointed head of the Department of Political Science in the Faculty of Arts (1975–85).

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. The anxieties over the Crisis Diplomacy book remained, however, and only began to be assuaged when in 1986 Jim took up a professorial position in the Department of International Relations in the Research School of Pacific Studies (RSPacS) at the ANU (1986–98).

It was now possible to concentrate more fully on his large-scale historical analysis of crisis diplomacy, and finally to complete it in 1991. The book was well received in the UK and in Australia, but not in the US, where its (non-positivist) methodology was criticised, as was its lack of quantitative data. It was published, without such a critique, by Cambridge University Press. During the period in RSPacS at the ANU, 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 geo-strategic 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 20th 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 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 (at best) partially formulated 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 that actually grew and became more profound after he and Ursula left 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.

His health was, however, becoming more problematic as he worked on the two projects most important to him: 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. 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 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. When it was published in book form in 2017 Jim was exhausted, but he was as happy as I’d known him to have paid tribute to his wife and to her intellect, which he felt was underappreciated during her life.

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.

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Citation details

Jim George, 'Richardson, James (Jim) (1933–2021)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/richardson-james-jim-32878/text40951, accessed 4 February 2023.

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