E.H. Carr: The Realist's Realist

September 1, 1991 Tags: Soft Power

E.H. Carr: The Realist's Realist

Mini Teaser: E.

by Author(s): J.D.B. Miller

E.H. Carr, The Twenty Years' Crisis (current printing, New York: Harper & Row, 1981 [original printing, London: Macmillan and Company Limited, and New York: St. Martin's Press, 1939]).  240 pp., $7.95.

E.H. Carr's The Twenty Years' Crisis 1919-1939 is not, as the title suggests, a history of international affairs between the two world wars.  It is more accurately described by the subtitle, An Introduction to the Study of International Relations.  Carr wanted to explain how sovereign states behaved toward one another (especially in Europe, since the world in 1939, when the book appeared, was highly Eurocentric) and to encourage thinking that would be realistic and not utopian.  It is this dichotomy between realism and utopianism that has given the book its reputation and Carr his place among theorists of international relations.


Carr begins by saying that "the science of international politics is in its infancy," having, in his view, only been taken seriously since 1914.  Before that there was no organized study of international affairs in universities or anywhere else.  The fact that such study began after World War I provided Carr with a continuing basis for his treatment of opinions and attitudes with which he disagrees.  To put the matter briefly, he believed that nearly all the people who had been writing about the international system were so absorbed in finding ways of preventing another war that they created utopian constructs that failed to resemble the real world in various vital particulars.  Men such as Arnold Toynbee, Norman Angell, and Alfred Zimmern were his prime targets.  To him, they were so obsessed by the need to employ the League of Nations as an instrument of collective security, and later to forge some grand alliance to resist Mussolini and Hitler, that they neglected the true nature of international anarchy and of what could and could not be done within it.

Carr's book is not a sustained attack on the Toynbees and Zimmerns; they are used as examples of a general state of mind that Carr saw as characteristic of those who drew up the Covenant of the League of Nations, among whom President Wilson took pride of place as someone whose kind of thinking needed to be avoided.  The book's argument runs somewhat as follows.

There are two methods of approach to politics, "the inclination to ignore what was and what is in contemplation of what would be, and the inclination to deduce what should be from what was and what is."  In Carr's view, students and theorists of international politics tend to ignore what is and to put forward utopian schemes for what should be, whereas officials who have to live with the realities of diplomacy tend to be much more realistic.  They recognize the limits of the situation, while the utopians are impatient with the idea of limits and take refuge in plans "in which wishing prevails over thinking, generalization over observation, and in which little attempt is made at a critical analysis of existing facts or available means."

Carr thought that this utopian frame of mind was typical of an early stage in the development of the study of international politics, as of other studies.  In effect, the time had now come when "realism [would be] the necessary corrective to the exuberance of utopianism, just as in other periods utopianism must be invoked to counteract the barrenness of realism" (i.e., the realist's tendency to believe that whatever is, is right).  His own attitude was very much that of the realist, but he emphasized at various points in his book that realism was not enough.  Here is an extract from his chapter "The Limitations of Realism":

We return therefore to the conclusion that any sound political thought must be based on elements of both utopia and reality.  Where utopianism has become a hollow and intolerable sham, which serves merely as a guise for the interests of the privileged, the realist performs an indispensable service in unmasking it.  But pure realism can offer nothing but a naked struggle for power which makes any kind of international society impossible.  Having demolished the current utopia with the weapons of realism, we still need to build a new utopia of our own, which will one day fall to the same weapons.


This switchback approach to thinking and planning sounds exhausting and perhaps impractical.  But Carr himself showed that he was not a "pure realist" by publishing in 1942 a book entitled Conditions of Peace in which he laid out a scheme for a postwar Europe.  It was tentative and hedged about with qualifications, but something of a utopia nevertheless.  It was a very realistic one, as it foreshadowed a number of things that have happened in Europe since the end of World War II.

Carr's dichotomy between utopianism and realism is mirrored, as The Twenty Years' Crisis proceeds, by other dichotomies between theory and practice, between morality and power, between "the sense of right" and "the strong arm of authority" in inducing obedience to the law, and between law and politics.  All of these are seen in relation to policy-making in international politics.  In each case Carr begins by separating the two concepts.  He then brings them together as he has done with his original two: just as policy requires a blend of utopianism and realism, so it requires both theory and practice to reinforce one another, morality and power to be recognized as not necessarily antagonistic, and law to be seen as the outcome of politics.  Basically, however, everything must be seen against the background of politics: in the international arena, as in the domestic sphere, power will ultimately prevail--provided the powerful wish it to do so.  Carr puts considerable weight on the element of purpose in deciding outcomes.  Purpose alone will not move mountains (this is a utopian fantasy), but power may be affected by purpose, provided the purpose is apposite and realistic.

Along the way Carr deals some hard blows to what he regards as dangerous utopian fallacies.  One of these is the belief, common among creators and supporters of the League of Nations, that public opinion would provide backing for international action against aggressors; another was the belief that states had a common interest in peace; a third that there was a basic harmony of interests between states; a fourth, transferring the third to the economic sphere and closely allied with it, the almost universal view of Anglo-Saxon economists that free trade benefitted everyone; and a fifth that what seemed right to satisfied powers such as the victors of World War I would also seem right to those powers that had been defeated or disappointed.  He also took umbrage at a distinction being made at the time between states that pursued economic advantage and those that sought political power--every state, in his view, pursued both.

Carr was arguing against attitudes and opinions current in Britain as a result of victory in World War I, and affected by the entente with France: that the postwar settlement, in spite of certain defects had been good for the peace of Europe; that regimes such as those of Germany and Italy in the 1930s, which challenged the Versailles settlement, were to be disregarded, especially if they seemed to disturb the notional balance which that settlement had implied.  To what extent these views were wholly or even partially held by the people he attacked--Lord Cecil, Anthony Eden, Gilbert Murray, et al.--was not the point.  He saw these views appearing in a variety of quarters--political, official, academic--and he lashed out accordingly.

Behind this confrontationist approach lay a conviction that the international system rested on power, and that only a realistic appreciation of relative power and the readiness of national leaders to use it could provide a sound basis for policy.  In particular, this meant understanding the importance and the uses made of economic power, and the significance of war as a source of international change.  "If every prospective writer on international affairs in the last twenty years had taken a compulsory course in elementary strategy, reams of nonsense would have remained unwritten," he wrote.  His main complaint against his adversaries was that they had neglected the factor of power, and particularly of military power.


The impact of The Twenty Years' Crisis in 1939 was considerable, though the effect was delayed somewhat by the fact that war had recently broken out.  In the first place it was recognized as a substantial intellectual achievement: nothing on this scale of realist analysis had previously appeared in Britain, and a comparable effort would have been hard to discover in the United States.  The nearest approach was Reinhold Niebuhr's Moral Man and Immoral Society, to which Carr acknowledged a debt.  Second, it annoyed those "utopians" whom Carr had stigmatized and who were still alive.  Third, it ran into trouble because of brief statements commending Neville Chamberlain's policy of appeasement as realistic.  This third element in its impact has haunted the book ever since, in spite of Carr's having removed the offending passage in the second edition, published in 1946.

Essay Types: Book Review