Oz strategists: Robert O’Neill
8 Aug 2016|

Some big strategic brains fit the proof about why journalists shouldn’t run things—merely watch five of ‘em decide where to lunch.

Robert O’Neill shatters that proof. Here’s a big strategic brain that can think and do, teach and admin, persuade and push.

This is a strategist who can chair and chide and charm and chivvy, and always move the game along. As Sir Michael Howard writes of O’Neill: ‘He is a chairman made in heaven.’

In an appreciation a decade ago, Des Ball listed these O’Neill characteristics:

  • ‘Internationally recognised for his scholarship’;
  • Extraordinary project management and fund-raising ability;
  • Dedication to institution building;
  • Steadfast commitment to the strategic studies profession;
  • And ‘ultimately to be comfortable in the corridors of power to which he enjoyed access in many places around the world.’

These were the qualities that saw O’Neill head the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre in Canberra; then become Director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in London from 1982–1987, Chairman of the Council of IISS from 1986– 2001, and the Chichele Professor of the History of War at All Souls College at Oxford University from 1987 until his ‘retirement’ in 2001.

Come the 21st century, O’Neill headed back to Oz to play a big role in the sudden blossoming of Australian think tanks: the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, the Lowy Institute for International Policy and the United States Studies Centre at Sydney University.

O’Neill’s 2006 prescription for think tanks offers his recipe: ‘good ideas, dialogue with government and a relationship which tolerates free expression of views, especially on differences with existing policies’.

The ANU has just published a book-length appreciation of the O’Neill career (free download) entitled ‘War, Strategy and History’. It stretches across the evolution of strategic studies as a discipline, the role and influence of think-tanks, counter-insurgency, the utility of military responses to atrocity crimes and peacekeeping.

Launching the collection of essays, Gareth Evans (PDF) lauded an extraordinary career spanning ‘real-world bloodsports to academic ones’.

Not least of the O’Neill understanding of the bloody real world was his service as an Army intelligence captain in Vietnam. He analysed that experience—drawing on the long letters he wrote home to his wife, Sally—in the book ‘Vietnam Task: The 5th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment, 1966–67’.

Vietnam came after a Rhodes Scholar stint at Oxford which produced a book on ‘The German Army and the Nazi Party, 1933–1939.’ ‘Being a German-speaking Australian—not British—army officer helped a great deal,’ O’Neill recalled of his ability to interview old German commanders.

Returning from Vietnam, O’Neill produced an analysis of the conflict ‘The Indo China Tragedy’, followed by a biography of the general whose troops he’d been fighting, ‘General Giap: Politician and Strategist.’

There you have a summary of the man’s range as a writer—the German Army and the Nazis, a Captain’s war in Vietnam, and then peering across the lines at the nature and strengths of the enemy commander.

In 1970, he was appointed to write an official history of Australia’s involvement in the Korean War. The following year, he became head of the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, the position he held until 1982.

During those 12 years he dedicated much of his research and writing time to Korean War history. The scope of his research and thinking meant the projected single volume had to be divided into two—one on strategy and diplomacy, and the other on combat operations.

During those dozen years, O’Neill used to cram two jobs into one day: mornings at the War Memorial on the history, afternoons at the ANU running-building-saving-funding the SDSC.

As the ABC/Radio Australia foreign affairs/defence correspondent, I was often in need of an interview with one of Australia’s foremost academic strategists. I would ring SDSC in the morning and check for the least crowded moment in Bob’s afternoon schedule.

Turning up on spec in the afternoon, I never failed to score.

After a  couple of minutes chat on the topic, I’d turn on my Nagra reel-to-reel recorder for five minutes of O’Neill Q&A gold; invariably well-informed and interesting, often with a new thought or different perspective. No editing required (unless I’d stuffed up and had to repeat a question!).

In the 1980s when he was at the IISS and I was in the ABC’s London bureau, the cab ride to the Institute in Tavistock Street mined the same rich theme. In those strange days—Ronald Reagan and the coming of Gorbachev—the sane, informed understandings offered by Bob O’Neill were the balm that worked like a charm.

O’Neill has a rare ability to shift between the world of the writer/thinker and the doing universe of the boss-bureaucrat-leader.

Reach for a big strategic analogy. Napoleon claimed his mind was a series of boxes that he could open and close at will—giving each topic full attention before closing the lid and turning to the next problem.

Bob O’Neill is also excellent at juggling many boxes.