11/07/2020

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Remembering Owen Harries

John O'Sullivan
A born editor and humanitarian democrat, he aimed to use foreign policy to improve people’s lives.

Owen Harries, a proud Welsh Australian, was laid to rest yesterday in the brilliant sunshine of Macquarie Park in Sydney, where he had emigrated from what he felt was a tired and lackluster Britain in the 1950s, to become in succession a much-admired university teacher, an adviser who crafted an enduring foreign-policy strategy for successive Australian governments, his new country’s ambassador to UNESCO in Paris, a Heritage Foundation senior fellow who guided the United States and Britain out of a United Nations agency he had found to be corrupt and anti-Western, a founding editor of The National Interest magazine, and overall an extraordinarily influential observer and critic of international affairs in the early post–Cold War years.

It’s a remarkable immigrant success story in its variety and distinction. And it was reflected yesterday in the funeral tributes to Owen, read by his daughters Grace and Rowena, from leading figures in politics, diplomacy, and scholarship from all over the world. Here is a small sample of them:

Francis Fukuyama, the chairman of the editorial board of The American Interest: “Without Owen, I would not be where I am today.”

Andrew Clarke, senior writer, Australian Financial Review, in a tribute that also explains Fukuyama’s remark: “Owen Harries, the man who midwifed the post–Cold War era by publishing The End of History essay months before the November 1989 collapse of the Berlin Wall, is one of the few Australians to have commanded significant influence over global affairs.”

Jacob Heilbrunn, the editor of The National Interest: “He allied an unfailingly felicitous prose style with a relentlessly inquiring mind to identify, long before anyone else, the two big trends that would reshape global politics in the 21st century.”

Kishore Mahbubani, leading Singaporean intellectual and diplomat: “He was a remarkable person who launched my publishing career by publishing my essay ‘The West and the Rest.’ It was he who chose the title.”

Paul Kelly, editor-at-large of The Australian: “Owen was both a wise man and a man of principle. His mind was geared to the big picture and the battle of ideas and his potent weapon was the pen. He understood the techniques needed to influence power. He talked and wrote with reason, logic, and eloquence and was fused with intellectual integrity.”

And Conrad Black: “He must have had a fault, but I never detected it. It is very sad to think I shall not be seeing him again.”

Tom Switzer, the head of Sydney’s Centre for Independent Studies, who was a friend and collaborator of Owen’s — Tom would say “pupil” — on many of his later articles, gave a graceful eulogy about the man in full, in which he revealed that a major collection of Owen’s essays is being prepared for publication. Altogether, the funeral was as much a celebration of Owen’s life — and of his marriage of almost 70 years to Dorothy — as it was a farewell.

I was myself a beneficiary of Owen’s friendship and advice from when we met in the Heritage Foundation in 1982. Robert Conquest brought him into my office — Owen had just left UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) — with the words “This is Owen Harries. He should be a fellow here.” Not long afterward, courtesy of Ed Feulner, its president, he was. It was from Heritage that he conducted his briskly successful campaign to persuade the Reagan administration and the Thatcher government to leave UNESCO and return only after it had credibly reformed. We cooperated on that campaign both in Washington and London, and when I returned to the U.S. after a spell in Fleet Street, I discovered to my delight that in 1985 he had joined Irving Kristol (as publisher) and Robert Tucker (as co-editor) in founding The National Interest.

As must be clear from my opening paragraph above, Owen was one of those rare people who succeed in almost everything they do — and deservedly so, because he put his heart, soul, and mind into whatever he attempted. I give more details of his life and career in my own tribute to him in London’s new center-right opinion journal The Critic. Of all his achievements, however, I am disposed to think that his editorship of The National Interest was the most significant, because it was a global achievement. He edited TNI with astounding flair and he influenced a worldwide audience. From my Criticpiece:

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 realized all these things about himself when once he sat in the editorial chair and started having the time of his life.

And the result was:

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?

I was also a particular beneficiary of Owen’s editorship, since he asked me to write for The National Interest, suggested (or urged) topics on me, and made editing criticisms that improved my writing and reputation. In one respect, however, he was a disappointment to me.

When I became editor of National Review in 1988, I would have had him writing ten times a year if I could have persuaded him. But Owen was a busy man — his TNI dinners became unmissable events for the foreign-policy establishment — an editor with high and rigorous editorial standards, and a very conscientious writer who did not always find writing easy. He told me that writing the Boyer Lectures for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation — in which he sharply attacked the Bush doctrine, the Iraq War, and the Australian conservative establishment that supported both — had been a hard slog for him. Since he doubtless foresaw the breach it would cause with his old allies and patrons, there were perhaps reasons for that other than writer’s block. It’s also the case, however, that easy reading almost always requires hard writing.

The upshot was, however, that he got more articles out of me than I got out of him. What I and NR got, however, was the pure essence of strategic analysis expressed in the clearest possible English prose. In an article written and published a month before the Berlin Wall fell, Owen Harries wrote for NR an article on whether the Cold War was ending. There he examined what might happen if it did. Among the possibilities was this one:

There is a strong probability that the Soviet Union will lose ground and decline in the international pecking order over the next decades. But at the same time it will remain in possession of an enormously powerful military machine. In these circumstances is it likely that the Soviet regime will decide not to exploit its one comparative advantage and accept decline gradually?

We know the answer to that question. All we need do is add the prefix “post-“ to the phrase “Soviet regime” in the final sentence in order to generate an accurate prediction of the Putin regime’s invasions of Georgia and Ukraine and its annexation of Crimea.

Some commentators, including some admirers, have seen in Owen an anti-Communist ideologue who mellowed into a cautious realist when the Cold War wound down. My own ill-chosen phrase in The Critic about his “slow turn” to realism seemingly reflects that view.

In fact the best overall description of him in the tributes above is Paul Kelly’s “Owen was both a wise man and a man of principle.” Owen was always a wise man — that is to say, a prudent realist who took into account the likely consequences of some action in foreign policy as well as the moral principles fueling it. He was always a man of principle, a humanitarian democrat who hoped to use foreign policy to improve people’s lives. He was as convinced as Ronald Reagan that Communism was an evil doctrine that made slaves of its subjects, and in his early debates about Vietnam he criticized Western governments for failing to make the moral case for their intervention.

But what persuaded him to argue both for resistance to Communism before 1989 and for resistance to democracy promotion after 1989 was the nature of the Cold War as a general global competition affecting everything: “Often it was not a case of competing interests generating conflict in a particular part of the world, but of conflict generating interests where previously none had existed.” Once the Cold War ended, therefore, the national interests of America and the wider West inevitably shrank. And because he also thought that democracy, however desirable, was a do-it-yourself project for other nations, he thought that democracy promotion might be unachievable, disruptive, and harmful to U.S. interests and to the nations we thought we were helping.

So I would amend Paul Kelly’s felicitous description as follows: Owen was always a wise man and always a man of principle. And though he was not always right, he was righter than most of us most of the time.

Oddly enough, I never recall his saying “I told you so.” He was wittier than that.

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