In Memoriam - John Wear Burton

John Wear Burton passed away. What a great loss, both professionally and more so personally. John had a great impact on my life, in fact he played a pivotal role. Philip Adams said that Burton “…did more to shape Australian foreign policy towards Asia and the Pacific than any other person before or since.”

If you’re not familiar with John he was born in Melbourne in 1915, his father had been a Methodist minister who struggled to eradicate the indenture system in Fiji. John graduated from the University of Sydney, and later the London School of Economics where he earned his doctorate. Afterwards, he returned to Australia and entered public service. He soon became the Permanent Head of the then Department of External Affairs, and worked closely with Australia’s Minister for External Affairs, Herbert ‘Doc’ Evatt. John always relished that role. And he relished his relationship with Evatt. He described how they worked together, noting that Evatt never issued instructions. Rather, Evatt and Burton would talk, engage in debate and in the end, according to John, it was clear what the next steps were. They obviously shared a close relationship. Burton’s career suffered setbacks, however, after the Coalition came to power. His style, his willingness to engage even with Australia’s then-enemies, did not go down well. In fact, a sad footnote to Australian history was the demise of John’s diplomatic career at the hands of McCarthy-esque cold warriors.

Happily, after some wrangling, John secured a new career as an academic in the UK. In London and later at the University of Kent Burton pushed the boundaries of how human behavior could be explained and understood. The central organizing idea in his thinking concerned understanding human behavior. John went on to become one of seminal founders of the modern field of conflict resolution. After a full career in the UK he left and travelled to George Mason University, where he began a new career leading the Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution. He published at least 11 books, though probably more. It may be difficult in this short space to explain his vision, but perhaps he can explain. In 1993 he wrote an essay entitled “Conflict Resolution as a Political System” saying:

"Decision-making bodies, such as local institutions, parliaments, and courts are the foundations of all modern systems of government. Both in developed and developing states they are failing to ensure social control internally and peaceful relations externally. Conflict, serious conflict, is almost universal, generating an increasing danger of catastrophe. Is conflict resolution a positive antidote to the negative processes of authoritative control? Is conflict resolution not just a means of dealing with a particular conflict, but a political philosophy in its own right, and a political system of social control which is democratic in a fundamental sense? We have reason to believe that this is the case."

For me, however, John was much more than a scholar or diplomat. John played a pivotal role in my life. He introduced me to my Ph.D. supervisor, John Groom, from the University of Kent. He also introduced me to Macquarie University, where I became a lecturer in conflict resolution. In fact, I can say without doubt that from that day onward my career was profoundly influenced by my relationship with John Burton. At least twice a year, from 1992 to 2000 I would drive from Sydney to Canberra and stay with John and his wife, Betty Nathan. Over time I added more people to my car, including my wife, two step children, and my son. John and Betty always opened their doors for me and my family. I loved his gruff and irascible manner. Always at 5PM his eyes would light up and he would say “what will you have?” I recall his comment after meeting my soon-to-be wife, he said with Burtonian understatement, “I like that girl.” Coming from John this was a ringing endorsement. At another moment in my life I recall struggling with some work issues. John, who was not a religious man, commented, “God is the passion we have. Finding God is about finding your passion in life.” He was always there for me.

He delighted in trying to better understand human behavior, and delighted in challenging those who would use coercion or power to get their way.

I’ll miss John. His vision and his intellect were profound. He was a great Australian; we need more like him.