Among the titans who bestrode the scholarly world of Asia and its security, few proved as consummate a student of the region as Sheldon Weiss Simon, Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Arizona State University, who passed away on January 2, 2021. In an academic career spanning well over five decades (four-fifths of which were spent at Arizona State) with a vita comprising well over 200 research articles and books, Sheldon Simon – “Shell” to his friends and colleagues – assiduously observed, reported on, and critically analyzed developments in Asia and its sub-regions from the Cold War to the present.
A native of Minnesota, Simon was born in Saint Paul on January 31, 1937. A brilliant student from young, it was in high school that Simon began combining academic excellence with a lifelong involvement with musical theater. Indeed, it was as a cast member of a melodrama theater in Cripple Creek, Colorado where Simon met his future bride Charlann Scheid, playing opposite her for 158 performances of the same play. As newlyweds they continued performing on stage together, making enough to finance a trip to Europe. Political science and musical theater were very much intertwined throughout his life, including in delightfully unexpected ways: in 1976, Simon played the lead role of John Adams in the Phoenix Theater’s production of the musical 1776.
Simon was educated at the University of Minnesota where he obtained his BA degree (Phi Beta Kappa, summa cum laude) in 1958 and his PhD in political science in 1964; in between, he obtained a MA degree from Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs in 1960. It was during his undergraduate years where his academic fascination with Asia began. His career, which included a stint as a political analyst with the Central Intelligence Agency, took him to George Washington University and subsequently to the University of Kentucky, where he served briefly as the acting director of UK’s Patterson School of Diplomacy. While in Kentucky, Simon applied for and won a grant from the National Humanities Council to put on musical theater shows for rural Kentuckian communities.
In 1975, he accepted an offer to join Arizona State, where he served as the chair of the ASU political science department and subsequently as the director of the university’s Center for Asian Studies. The quintessential “snowbird” who detested Minnesotan winters, Simon found the warmer Arizonan climes very much to his liking. He also spent a long and productive period as the director for Southeast Asian research at the National Bureau of Asian Research and as a regular contributor on Southeast Asian affairs for Comparative Connections, an e-journal of the Honolulu-based Pacific Forum. Along the way, he held visiting appointments at various universities and regularly consulted for US Government agencies and the private sector.
Simon belonged to the golden generation of scholars who collectively founded Asian security studies. He came of age as a scholar at a time when intellectual suspicion against formal social science theory as a political weapon of the Cold War ran high. Like most Asia specialists of his generation, Simon’s scholarship was predominantly empiricist in orientation, partly because of the shared perception among his peers that Asian data rarely met the assumptions and expectations of Western-centric international theory. That said, he was not loath to engage in theoretically driven work as exemplified by War and Politics in Cambodia: A Communications Analysis (1974) and “Realism and Neoliberalism: International Relations Theory and Southeast Asian Security” (1995). Simon’s oeuvre was prodigious and impressive. Notwithstanding an early concentration on Communist China and its foreign policy towards its Asian neighbors, such as with The Broken Triangle: Peking, Djakarta and the PKI (1969), Simon’s main claim to fame was as a thoughtful sage on Asia’s regional security and particularly on US policy toward Asia with well received works like Southeast Asian Security in the New Millennium (1996), “Is There a US Strategy for East Asia?” (1999), and “Theater Security Cooperation in the US Pacific Command” (2003), inter alia. Simon played a crucial dual role in explaining the complexities of Asia to US audiences – moreover, from 2000 onward and to the envy of his colleagues, he moonlighted as a cruise lecturer, tutoring US travelers on Asian affairs – whilst enlightening Asian audiences on the security perspectives, planning, and policies of successive US administrations.
If there was a common thread that ran through all of Simon’s writings, it was his thoughtful concern over the interactions, conflictual as well as collaborative, between the global and the local in Asia from the Cold War to the present. In “Davids and Goliaths: Small Power-Great Power Security Relations in Southeast Asia” (1983), Simon provided what, in a key sense, had all along been his principal concern: the seemingly irresoluble gaps in perception and interest between great powers and small countries that require careful management through collective action. In riposte to this enduring puzzle, Simon wrote extensively on the efforts by Southeast Asian countries to construct a regionalism through regional organization in the form of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), built not only to facilitate intraregional reconciliation among ASEAN member states themselves, but engagement with the great powers and other extra-regional powers and international actors. His prodigious scholarship on ASEAN included The ASEAN States and Regional Security (1982), the work that brought this acolyte to the feet of the guru himself at ASU. In an early nod toward what scholars like Peter Katzenstein would later christen “analytical eclecticism,” Simon, avoiding the crass reductionism of analysts who readily dismiss ASEAN as a pansy of an organization that serially overpromises but significantly underdelivers, saw Southeast Asian regional institutional life in constant theoretical tension (see, “Realism and Neoliberalism”).
Notwithstanding his occasional dabble in international theory, Simon remained unwedded to a particular theoretical and/or ideological persuasion. That said, it is possible to detect a tacit liberal mien in some of his observations on Asia, as exemplified by his essay “Security, Economic Liberalism, and Democracy: Asian Elite Perceptions of Post-Cold War Foreign Policy Values” (1996). Empirical accuracy was what Simon consistently sought for in his scholarship. The astute student of US foreign policy that he was, Simon was deeply concerned with what he saw as the Trump administration’s “abandonment” of the traditional global leadership role played by the United States – a responsibility that had been assumed by virtually every US administration since the end of the Second World War. It is safe to say that Simon likely welcomed the prospect of a Biden administration as that means America’s return to the international and multilateral fold.
In a fundamentally different respect than the leadership vacuum caused by America’s recusal from its global responsibilities, a great void of another kind has been created as a consequence of the passing on January 2 of an equally “great power” – one defined not by military might but of unparalleled intellectual heft and academic leadership. “His record of seeking truth from the facts on the ground as they have emerged in Asia, and offering sound judgments about what they mean and how to respond to them, is unsurpassed,” as William Tow wrote in his contribution to a 2018 festschrift in honor of Simon. “His work and insights serve as a model for all of us who remain concerned about US relations with Asia and beyond.” Aspiring and upcoming scholars would do well to take note of Professor Tow’s words.
But perhaps more crucial than his illustrious academic career, it was the very essence of the man that stood out most to those who knew him best. Slight of stature – but capable of playing a mean game of tennis and rocking a turtleneck sweater even on a warm summer day – Simon was a veritable giant of a man: big of heart, hospitable and generous to a fault, and a consummate diplomat and peacemaker (whose Hebrew name, quite appropriately, was Shalom). More than just an outstanding scholar, educator, mentor, and musical thespian, Simon was an honorable and classy gentleman who taught us, who taught me, how to live right and well. He will be sorely missed.
This in memoriam will appear in the May issue of Political Science Today.
—See Seng Tan, Professor of International Relations
Nanyang Technological University and
International Students Inc.