Owen Harries: A brilliant thinker and born editor. Image via The Lowry Institute
Artillery Row

A tribute to Owen Harries

In memoriam

Owen Harries was walking down the Strand in 1955 when he saw an advertisement that changed his life. His life at the time did not seem to need much changing. Having served two years “national service” in the RAF, he had recently graduated from Oxford, where his teachers included Sir Isaiah Berlin, and made a happy marriage with a new wife.

But though his personal prospects were good, he found the atmosphere of post-war Britain stultifying and unadventurous. He thought life should offer more. And at the end of the Strand there was a large advertisement outside the Australian High Commission that showed a couple entering a sunny landscape and offered emigration to Australia for the bargain price of just 10 Pounds.  He and Dorothy Harries signed on and arrived in New South Wales a few months later as “Ten Pound Poms.”

Within a short time Harries was climbing the ladder of academic achievement at the University of Sydney and the University of New South Wales. His combination of sharp mind, judicious temperament, hard work, crisp logic in writing or speaking, and adamantine anti-communist principle brought him to the attention of conservative opinion and Liberal party leaders. He became one of the “Cold War” intellectuals around Quadrant magazine—Australia’s own Encounter—and a reliably effective representative of the conservative and anti-communist side in national debates.

At a time when Australia was moving leftwards under the impact of the Vietnam War, he was the foreign policy intellectual who could make the strongest case for Australian intervention in the war on America’s side. It made him that rare thing—a foreign policy celebrity. Though Owen was to be sharply critical of US foreign policy in the post-Cold War world—he strongly opposed the Iraq War and the “Bush doctrine,” for instance—he never retreated from his conviction that communism was an oppressive evil and the Vietnam War a necessary resistance to it. 

When Malcolm Fraser became Prime Minister in 1975, he invited Owen to serve as an advisor on foreign policy in his Liberal-County coalition government. As director of policy planning in the Department of Foreign Affairs and as speechwriter for Fraser and foreign minister Andrew Peacocok, he laid the groundwork for Australia’s foreign policy and in particular its continued alliance with the United States in the post-Vietnam world.

Harries set a course for Australia in the world that has been profitably maintained until the recent disenchantment with China

It’s fair to say that Harries set a course for Australia in the world that has been profitably maintained until the recent disenchantment with China. Harries never forgot the debt he owed to Fraser, who lost power in 1983, for his generous patronage. He repaid it by being a great public servant.

But what could he do for an encore? In fact, Owen went on to have almost as many encores as Dame Nellie Melba.

One afternoon in the early 1980s, I walked into my office at the Heritage Foundation to find Robert Conquest who introduced me to his companion, saying “This is Owen Harries. He should be a Fellow here.” Not long afterwards he was a Heritage Fellow, and one with a mission. Having served as Australian Ambassador to UNESCO in Paris in 1982 as his last diplomatic task, he had emerged with the firm opinion that it was a corrupt, wasteful, anti-Western agency that should either be reformed or abandoned. Such ambitions, though often reasonable, are almost never achieved. But Owen waged a sustained intellectual campaign in both Washington and London (where his debate with UNESCO’s former assistant director-general Richard Hoggart degenerated into almost complete agreement) that resulted in both the Reagan and Thatcher administrations pulling out of the discredited agency—and as Harries urged, starting the momentum to reform it.

That scalp made Harries a celebrity in Washington too, especially among neoconservatives who were happy to see a UN agency taken down a peg. So it was natural that when Irving Kristol set out to establish a foreign policy magazine that would foster serious debate on international affairs, he should ask Harries to serve as co-editor alongside Robert Tucker, a long-time academic devotee of the “realist” tradition in foreign affairs. Most commentators expected that anti-ideological Tucker would be the Yin to Harries’ neoconservative Yang on The National Interest, and that together they would produce enlightening clashes of opinion and strategies among first-class minds. And as long as the Cold War lasted, that happened. And when the Cold War ended and ushered in a completely new set of foreign policy issues, the clash of serious opinion on such issues, far from abating, intensified with such contributors as Samuel Huntington, Francis Fukuyama, Henry Kissinger, Conrad Black, Charles Krauthammer Eliot Cohen, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Fareed Zakaria, Josef Joffe, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and many others of equal or near distinction debating furiously on everything from the expansion of NATO to the end of history.

For more than a decade The National Interest was the most important international relations journal in the world. Readers actually got impatient for its monthly appearance. When had that last happened to a foreign policy journal? The reason for this, however, was not because Harries and Tucker represented conflicting traditions in foreign policy. As Tom Switzer—Owen’s frequent collaborator and close friend in later years—has pointed out, the end of the Cold War produced its own change in Owen’s thinking. Not that he repented one iota of his anti-communism but that he thought it was simply less relevant to a world in which Soviet communism had suffered a historic reverse. In Owen’s own words, quoted by Switzer:

If we spend 40 or 50 years saying the Cold War was a tremendously important event, a critical life-and-death struggle, then for Christ’s sake, the end of the Cold War must also be important,” he told the Sydney Morning Herald in 1997. “You can’t say ‘Well, it’s finished but that doesn’t mean much; the world goes on pretty well as it is.’ When life-and-death struggles end, it is supposed to make a very large difference, and I think it has.

Harries and Tucker were therefore on the same realist wavelength after 1989, and the intellectual liveliness of The National Interest arose not from their clashes but from their personal qualities of originality and imagination. Though Harries never spoke of Tucker with anything other than great respect, I and most external critics would mainly credit Harries with the astounding flair with which the magazine was edited.  He was in my view a born editor, full of strong editorial ideas, a brilliant talent-spotter of writers and junior editors (Jacob Heilbrunn, Gideon Rose, Adam Garfinkle, Scott McConnell, Michael Lind), a first-rate critical eye when evaluating prose or argument, a mischief-maker who enjoyed creating controversies (especially among highly distinguished people), and an intellectual with a touch of the tabloid in his make-up. And I think he realised all these things about himself when once he sat in the editorial chair and started having the time of his life.

Owen’s slow turn towards foreign policy realism after the end of the Cold War reflected his conservative concern that America was forgetting the natural limits to the power even of a superpower

Owen’s slow turn towards foreign policy realism after the end of the Cold War reflected his conservative concern that America was forgetting the natural limits to the power even of a superpower. He found himself understanding why Burke had dreaded his country being too much feared, and this sense was reflected in his “discovery” of contributors like James Kurth who brought a tough skeptical, sometimes religious, criticism to the pursuit of national power.

His odyssey continued after he left TNI and returned to live happily in Sydney, spend more time with his family, to cultivate his garden and his friendships which were extensive and deep and not confined to political life. His last great service to controversy was his delivery of the Boyer Lectures—Australia’s equivalent of the Reith Lectures—which caused a sensation in Liberal and conservative circles and a breach with his old political patrons. For he sharply attacked both President George W. Bush’s “doctrine” of preventive war and its first implementation in Iraq which they supported. It was an amusing sign of the respect in which he was generally held that it was not Owen but the Liberal leaders who desperately tried to heal the breach. I don’t think he changed his mind about Iraq or preventive war or the risks of our being too powerful, but those dangers have now been superseded by greater ones. And all quarrels end at the grave.

Both as a Cold War anti-communist and a post-Cold War skeptical realist, Owen was chary of talking in moralistic terms. But he was a moralist all the same. His speeches and writings are marked throughout by what Pascal called “the first principle of morality—thinking clearly.” He judged political and diplomatic decisions not by whether they advanced noble ideals but by whether they made life better for most people without imposing undue burdens on some. One of the reasons why he was a quiet but serious Australian patriot is that as he once told me, he believed the British working class had built as decent a society as we can hope for in this world on Australia’s distant shore. He was happy to have his place in the sun there.

Was it raining on that day in London’s Strand in 1955? If not, it should have been.

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