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Conflict expert honoured
Comparing Michael Brecher's career to one of the many political tomes he's written -- lengthy, substantial and wide ranging -- somehow seems quite fitting. Especially now, given that his life's work has been recognized with an elite prize from the provincial government.
Just last week, Brecher, McGill's R.B. Angus Chair of Political Science, was honoured with the Léon-Gérin Prix du Québec. Call it the crowning chapter in Brecher's career, since the prize is largely considered the pinnacle of social science awards in the province.
But during a recent chat in his sparse Leacock Building office, Brecher puts aside his post-award excitement to mull over this reporter's comparison.
His smiling, well-weathered face reveals the book metaphor doesn't displease him. "I just never thought of it that way," he chuckles.
To get a better idea of Brecher's accomplishments, consider that he has penned 18 titles to date, covering everything from wars in the Middle East to an award-winning political biography of India's Jawaharlal Nehru.
At 75, Brecher shows no signs of slowing his writing pace either. "I'm currently working on four book projects," he says, one of which will examine the Bosnian war.
To anyone who wonders where Brecher finds time to write so many books -- between teaching, research and other responsibilities -- he admits that his writing is facilitated by the fact that he only teaches during the fall semester. The rest of the year, Brecher and his wife Eva live in Jerusalem, where he's able to make his investigations of world conflicts a full-time job.
Yet, he says, if extra research time has propelled his penmanship, it doesn't make writing easier. "Writing can be demanding, exhausting and challenging," he admits, stressing those very same challenges are also what fuel his writing. "Because once you finish a work, the sense of achievement you obtain is incredible."
That's not to say Brecher doesn't get an equal sense of achievement from his professorial duties. He points to visiting professor stints at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the University of Chicago, Stanford, Berkeley and Uppsala as highly rewarding.
Other teaching high points have been the H. Noel Fieldhouse Award for Distinguished Teaching in the Faculty of Arts Brecher received from McGill in 1986 and the inaugural Award for High Distinction in Research he recently shared with Hispanic studies professor Jésus Pérez-Magallón. These prizes and visiting professorships, he says, "show how my teaching, writing and research are inextricably linked."
Brecher says he's in no hurry to call it quits after five decades at McGill. "I've never considered retirement a by-product of age," he says, noting he considers teaching a privilege that's both exciting and gratifying. "As long as I feel I have something to contribute to open the minds of young people, then I'll continue."
When he does retire, however, Brecher won't mothball his research efforts because gaining a better understanding of world conflicts is a continuous quest for him. That's why he cites the method he devised to measure the severity of wars as one of his greatest contributions to political science.
A counterpart to the 10-point Richter scale used to grade earthquakes, Brecher's scale measures tremors of a political nature. World War II, for instance, rates a 10 on his scale, while the recent conflicts between Israelis and Palestinians would earn a 3.54. Brecher says his measurements are developed using six indicators: from the level of violence to the number of states involved in the conflict.
Of course, Brecher has made other contributions to political science that have made him proud, including his creation of the International Crisis Behaviour Project (ICBP). Since its 1975 launch, the project has united researchers from around the world in studying international conflicts, spawned 17 books and helped Brecher fine-tune his conflict measuring scale. Brecher's global renown in political science is also reflected by his recent role as president of the International Studies Association, a research society of 3,500 members.
These kinds of numbers, says political science professor Hudson Meadwell, are why Brecher's Léon-Gérin award is so well deserved: "In all his activities, he brings recognition and honour to McGill University and to Quebec."