I Never Meant to Be an Academic by Susan Strange

[Below is the only published autobiographical writing of Susan Strange (1923-1998). Strange established the field of international political economy in Britain and was “arguably Britain’s most influential scholar of world politics in the last quarter of the twentieth century”. It was originally published by Lexington Books in Journeys Through World Politics (1989) edited by Joseph Kruzel and James Rosenau. For a full introduction by Nat Dyer click here or here.

“I never meant to be an academic. If I had the talent, I would rather have been an actress, preferably a comedian, or a painter. Next to that, and if I had had the chance – and no children – I would also have dearly liked to be an independent newspaper columnist.

Morevover, I have to confess that luck and coincidence, more than planning and purpose, have shaped my career. I have certainly never thought that by teaching students about international relations (which I have been doing now for nearly forty years) I was going to change the world or alter the course of history. I am a woman and an ex-journalist. Women seem to me to tend to be more realistic about life and people than men – who are often incurable romantics. Journalism too brings home the truth that politics is the art of the possible – and a good many things are not possible. We can do a lot in personal relations. Beyond that we can expect only to change things at the margin, to move ideas a little further along one path rather than another.

My first lucky break was getting to university at all, and specifically the London School of Economics. At school, if you were bright you hoped to get to Oxford or Cambridge. (Misguidedly, British boys and girls still nurture this curious ambition.) But to do so in my pre-war days you still needed both money and Latin, and I had neither. But the father of another girl at my school was the LSE careers officer and my head teacher arranged for me to go and see him. He persuaded me to enter for an LSE scholarship. I won it, to my amazement, and the school came up with another one.

The second lucky break was getting out of France in 1940, a day after my elder brother in the British Army escaped from the dunes of Dunkirk. Having six months to fill in before the university term started, I had found an au pair job as ‘secretary’ to a French professor of English as the University of Caen in Normandy. I was happy there and saw no reason to leave despite the advancing tide of wretched refugees – until we could hear the German guns shelling Rouen and I began to get furious telegrams from my father, then flying somewhere over France with the RAF, telling me to come home.

To cut a long story short, I finally joined a troop ship at Cherbourg carrying three thousand weary British soldiers who had fought in vain to hold the line of the Somme, the four other civilians – ‘Uncle Dick’ of the commercial Radio Normandy and his wife from Rouen, and a Belgian lady and her daughter who had come along the coast from Boulogne by fishing boat. But for the British Army, I would have spent the rest of the war in France, or a German concentration camp.

I had a great, rackety time at the LSE, then evacuated to Cambridge. Cambridge girls were locked firmly into their colleges every evening. We LSE girls were free and could go to the local pubs or stay up late in a friendly Greek cafe singing, arguing and eating plates of eggs or baked beans and chips. The fact that London was being blitzed and that most of the boys would be drafted sometime in their second year and some would never come back sharpened our appetites for life and love. The only problem was what to study. We had to choose from a broad social science menu. My preference was for politics, but I found the Department dominated by a cliquey set of disciples of Harold Laski. I found Laski an entertaining lecturer but I couldn’t agree with some of his rather simplistic ideas, nor did I want to be anybody’s disciple.

International relations seemed the answer. The professors had all gone to fight the war in Whitehall. We were a small bunch of students of several nationalities, supervised by one kindly but ineffectual old diplomatic historian. It was the ideal solution though I must say, in fairness to Laski, that he was invariably accessible, kind, and helpful to students. When I left the LSE, he gave me the excellent advice to take the job with The Economist rather than work for twice the money as David Mitrany’s research assistant.

That came about through a third lucky break – though it didn’t seem at the time that getting pregnant at nineteen and in my third undergraduate year was so very lucky. I was at least married – but to a penniless medical student. As soon as the baby was born, I had to get a job. The good luck was that motherhood spared me being drafted in the armed forces or the Foreign Office or some other branch of the British government. The Economist, then edited by Geoffrey Crowther with Barbara Ward as foreign editor and Isaac Deutscher as special writer on Russia and Eastern Europe, was as good as any graduate course at a university. I was taught to write clearly, concisely, and to the point. I have to say too that I only got the job by luck; my brother picked up a girl in a London bar on his last leave before shipping out to fight in Burma. Her mother sat on some committee with Crowther. Knowing I was desperate for a job, she persuaded Crowther to give me an interview. The job was great, though the pay was terrible. In fact, to make ends meet I had to moonlight was Time Life and the now defunct March of Time documentary film team. They paid twice as much for half the work – but were apt to murder truth without a qualm.

The Economist led to an irresistible offer in 1946 from the prestigious British Sunday paper, the Observer, to go to Washington as a correspondent. At twenty-three, this was an offer I couldn’t refuse even though it meant temporarily parting from my husband and baby. I was the youngest White House correspondent by about ten years – even though, again, the pay was terrible. But, as my mentor and guide to American politics, the great historian Denis Brogan (also employed from time to time by the Observer), used to tell me, ‘The higher the morals, the lower the pay!’ He told me many other things besides in long one-to-one tutorials on the old Baltimore and Ohio trains between Washington and New York. He was a great scholar and a great liberal – a great drunk sometimes too, but that was less important.

If I have dwelt quite a bit on this apprenticeship in serious journalism, it has been conscious and deliberate. Journalists are often despised by the academics. ‘Journalistic’ applied to a book is often a derogatory adjective; ‘no more than a journalist’ means that the writer has failed in analysis, and has been purely descriptive.

Such judgements are unfair as well as offensively arrogant. Some of the best academics I know have been, or have learned to be, journalists. And in my experience, the best journalists are every bit as intelligent, as diligent and hardworking, as much concerned with the pursuit of truth as the best academics. They gain in breadth what they lose in narrow specialization. They have their faults, but few of them inflict on their readers the sort of stodgy, long-winded, pretentious, jargon-ridden writing that too many academics inflict on their unfortunate students. Nor, contrary to what might be supposed, does competition stop the journalists from being ever ready to help a colleague, particularly one in trouble.

It is also arguable that academic theorists have less impact on events and on the processes of policy formation than do the journalists. Like the eccentric who explained that he was throwing lavatory paper out of the window of the London-to-Manchester train to keep the elephants off the track, the academics are often prone to think that it is their powerful arguments that have convinced policy-makers. More often, the truth is that the politician has ‘rented an economist’ – or a political scientist, or a version of history – in order to justify and legitimate a course of action already forced on him by the pressures of power and events. It is not he, or she, who is keeping the elephants off the track.

Journalists and newspapers do, however, sometimes alter the course of history – or at least nudge it strongly along one path rather than another. In Marshall Plan Days (1987), Kindleberger recollects that it was the BBC correspondent in Washington at the time who, through his dispatches, focused official thinking on the problems of European reconstruction and expounded ideas later formulated by Acheson and Marshall. And everyone is familiar with the Washington Post’s exposures of Watergate and the consequences. More recently, the television crews who risked their lives to get pictures of Israeli conduct on the West Bank and in the occupied territories may well have had more effect on American policy-making in the long run than all the academic literature on Lebanon and the PLO.

On my return from the United States at the end of 1948, I took my first teaching job, thinking I would stick to it for a couple of years and use it as a learning device to broaden my reading and deepen my understanding. I owed the chance to Georg Schwarzenberger, a German international lawyer at University College London. He had taught me at Cambridge and taught me well. He was a realist writer on international relations even before Morgenthau was ever heard of. But thought he fled Nazi Germany, like many of his generation, his ideas of the role of the professor had been formed in his native country. He tended to be overbearing and intolerant of contradiction, especially from his students. When the Observer followed up a summer assignment to cover the first meeting of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg with an offer to come back part-time to be their economic correspondent, I jumped at the chance. I could slip away from Gower Street at the end of the week to join an editorial conference that was lively, informed, and open to new ideas. In the 1950s, the paper had a small staff and a radical reputation. We had to be ready to tackle other jobs besides our own. I wrote editorials, stood in for the political correspondent when he was ill, for the diplomatic correspondent when he was abroad – and even sometimes for the man who covered labour relations and strikes. Even that was instructive; I only got to talk to some striking railwayman by explaining that the Observer was the Sunday equivalent of the Daily Worker! Mostly, I got to talk to senior officials at the Foreign Office or the Treasury and to most of the leading politicians, Labour, Liberal, and Conservative.

I can’t say any of them impressed me as intellectual giants. Most of them seemed perversely blind to Britain’s changed position in the world. They overrated the importance of the Commonwealth, which I came to think of as a kind of methadone to the heroin addict, softening the withdrawal symptoms of a postimperial role. They also overrate the ‘special relationship’ with the United States. As I had seen in 1949 in Strasbourg, neither party really saw the country’s future as part of a European union of states. Change at home and in foreign policy was needed but they were not really ready to make it. Much as I loved the green hills and valleys of England – indeed, because I did, and because I thought we still had brains, enterprise, and an unquenchable love of liberty – I was increasingly impatient of The Establishment and all it stood for. Even the Royals with all their flummery served to sustain a class system that belonged to a past age. Academic life at least gave the freedom to teach and write independently.

Sadly, I had to leave the Observer when, with a second marriage, I started another family, adding three more sons and a daughter to the boy and girl from my first marriage. The pregnancies made me vulnerable to Schwarzenberger’s bullying ways, and when he tried to take away my tenure on a technicality, I felt it was time to go. One of my colleagues in the law faculty offered to help by proving that if the real grounds were that I had had too much maternity leave, he could prove that the chances of heart disease striking any of the middle-aged teachers in the college was hundreds of times greater than my getting pregnant for the seventh time. But twenty years ago the feminist case in the professions still had to be made, and with four young children at home I didn’t relish a fight.

Moreover, there would have been two battles to fight. While my last son, Adam, was being born, John Burton had appeared on the Gower Street scene, and like Laski, was more interested in recruiting disciples than teaching students to think for themselves. Nor could I accept his unrealistic notions that all conflict could be resolved with better analysis and rational discussion. (I remember asking him once if he had ever quarrelled with his wife or his mother-in-law!) My view of international relations was that it was an arena in which there was, inevitably, both conflict and cooperation – and wishing it otherwise was not going to change that fundamental fact of life. All reports suggested that Burton wasn’t an easy man to get along with if you didn’t agree with everything he said. I thought it better to leave him to it.

As it turned out, falling out with University College over the number of children it was reasonable for a lecturer to have turned out to be another lucky break. Andrew Shonfield had taken my job at the Observer when I left. Now he had moved on to be research director at Chatham House, the British equivalent of the New York Council on Foreign Relations. It was 1964 and Harold Wilson’s Labour government had just been elected. There had been a crisis for sterling, and Andrew asked me if I would like to come and write a book on the subject. The connections between power, influence, the reserve currency role, and the national economy were an enticing subject and there was very little that was political written about it.

I stayed on at Chatham House after the book was finally written – and stayed with the politics of monetary relations as a still largely unexploited subject. I found that writing the second monetary volume for a study edited by Andrew on international economic relations in the 1960s wasn’t easy. But it raised some new questions and made me challenge some of the neofundamentalist ideas about the relation between governments and international organizations. For instance, even Shonfield – who understood the economics well enough – misunderstood the significance of the issue of Special Drawing Rights at the beginning of the 1970s. Like many economists he welcomed it as the embryo of a world currency, an acorn to be welcomed and cherished as the seed of a great oak tree. He could not see that supplementing the dollar as a reserve asset was not the same politically as substituting for the dollar and replacing it as the prime component in monetary reserves. Another thing that came out strongly from the story was the enormous structural power of the United States under the Bretton Woods arrangements, and its even greater power after the dollar devaluation of 1971 and the floating rate regime after 1973. That power enabled the United States to shift the burdens of adjustment on to others, and to choose when, for its own reasons, it preferred inflation to deflation or vice versa, and when it preferred a strong dollar to a weak dollar and vice versa.

That insight into structural power was reinforced by my last assignment before I left Chatham House in 1976. This was to direct a project funded by the Ford Foundation on transnational relations. My colleagues were a distinguished Italian economist, Marcello de Cecco, and a British writer on multi-national corporations, Louis Turner. We made a good team and though (to the mild annoyance of the foundation and the institute) Louis was the only one to produce a full-blown book out of it, we all wrote articles and conference papers and held many meetings of people from the far left to the far right to explore the same issue of structural power and to discuss the problems of both research and teaching in international political economy.

I had been interested and puzzled by this for some time. Before leaving University College, my colleague and predecessor at the LSE, Geoffrey Goodwin, and I had put on an intercollegiate course we called the Politics of International Economic Relations. That was in 1963 and was quite an innovation in its day. But the work at Chatham House made me think that this – still the title of two or three leading textbooks in the field – was not really the same as international political economy. Surely, if transnational relations meant anything, it involved more than the topics that governments saw fit to discuss and negotiate over. That hunch had led me as a visiting teacher to start a course at the LSE in the early 1970s on International Business in the International System.

About the same time, I had started a working group of academics drawn from several British (and sometimes, one or two French) universities and polytechnics to meet and argue about the theory and substance of international political economy. Mostly young and enthusiastic, the International Political Economy Group got some modest supporting funds from the British Economic and Social Research Council and though we did not have the resources available to Keohane and Nye in America, we too were convinced that this was the coming new wave in international relations, a wave that would make the arid debate between the behaviouralists and the traditionalists seem outdated and uninteresting. Indeed, I increasingly came to think that the study of international (that is, intergovernmental) relations was only a branch of international political economy, as diplomatic history had been a branch of international history. International relations was concerned (sometimes almost obsessively so) with questions of order, with the problematic of war and peace. International political economy was concerned with that too, but also with problematics of wealth and poverty, of justice and freedom, not only for states but for other social groups in the increasingly integrated world economy and society.

The symbiotic, conflictual and cooperative, asymmetrical and inconsistent relationship between states and markets, markets and states, seems to me to contain the key to the perennial political question, who gets what?

The 1970s also gave me the chance to get to know about the International Studies Association, as a vice president when Ken Boulding was its president. ISA had – and, if I am right, still has – grave financial problems unless heavily subsidized by some kindly American university. But it seemed to me lively, democratic, liberal and, in a peculiarly American way, friendly and unstuffy. Its proceedings were much more stimulating than the dreadfully constipated and hierarchical Bailey conferences that Charles Manning used to run at the LSE. When I got the chance, I resolved to get something similar started in Europe, or at least in Britain. I wrote to every vice chancellor in the country asking for the modest sum of £2 ($4) as start-up funds for a British ISA. My old colleague on the Observer, Alistair Buchan, had started the International Institute of Strategic Studies and had just moved to Oxford as the professor of international relations. He used his good transatlantic contacts to get us some funding and we held the first conference in Oxford in 1974. Money is power and as treasurer of BISA I saw to it that we provided the members with a service, and lived frugally and carefully within our means, offering equal opportunities to the young lecturer as to the established professor, to the provincial polytechnics as much as to any of the older universities. Getting BISA going was a job worth doing.

Unfortunately, I think both ISA and BISA have failed to live up to their names. They are not associations of people engaged in international studies but of people engaged in international relations. A few historians, a few lawyers, a few sociologists, and more than a few political scientists have joined in from time to time – indeed the International Political Science Association could hardly function without its IR participants. But the lawyers and even more the economists have their own professional associations and they bar the door to outsiders. Both operate a one-way system: we are welcome to try and learn from them, but they cannot see that they have much to learn from us, more’s the pity. International relations stands as the one social science with barriers to entry so low that anyone can jump them. It has been and will remain the richer for keeping those barriers low. Today, one of the most promising avenues of cooperation seems to me to lie with the business schools. They are more involved with the real world, less hidebound by conventional theories, and increasingly aware of the international political dimension within which business enterprises must function. My own experience of collaboration with Professor John Stopford of the London Business School in a research project on bargaining between governments and foreign enterprises suggests that we have a lot to learn from each other.

Looking back I am not sorry now, that instead of two years, I have spent nearly forty teaching – and learning – about international relations. Next to having a large family, having students to teach at all levels is a great way to stay mentally alert and alive. I am doubly lucky to have had both – and both have taught me a great deal in return. I have tried to teach both students and children not to expect justice in life – but to try hard to get it; to work hard – but to question authority, whether political or academic; to distrust ideologies – but to respect the evidence; to avoid following the crowd – but to trust your own judgement and to stand up for your own ideas. The freedom to do so is one of which, in free countries, the universities should be the most jealous guardians. That and not the service of the state is the true justification for their existence.”

Citation: ‘I Never Meant to Be an Academic’ by Susan Strange was published in Joseph Kruzel and James N. Rosenau (editors), 1989, Journeys Through World Politics: Autobiographical Reflections of Thirty-four Academic Travellers (Lexington: Lexington Books): pages 429 - 436.