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Utopianism: Carr claims utopians follow in the tradition of Locke, Rousseau, Kant, and the utilitarian philosophers Bentham and Mills, who ground their thought in a belief in progress and human reason. Carr argues that utopianism made a resurgence in the 20th century under inter alia US President Woodrow Wilson and that the League of Nations is a failed attempt to apply truly utopian principles to an un-utopian world: “The whole conception of the League of Nations was from the first closely bound up with the twin belief that public opinion was bound to prevail and that public opinion was the voice of reason” (34).
According to Carr, this belief led the framers of the League of Nations to do silly things like getting all squeamish around the idea of material sanctions, preferring instead “the public opinion of the civilized world.” Utopians’ belief in the harmony of interests stems directly from the laissez-faire school of political economy and was extrapolated to the international system, such that states were free to pursue their own interests because doing so would produce the best outcome for the rest of the world. Utopianism underwent a turn with the advent of Darwinism, since it led to the belief that economic competition was as natural and beneficial to humanity as the struggle for survival was to a species and that in both cases the survivor was the “fittest.”
Realism: Carr envisions realism as based in the political tradition of Thucydides, Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Spinoza: “the ruler rules because he is the stronger, and the ruled submit because they are weaker” (42). Hegel (and later Marx) added an idea of progress to the realist school of thought. Carr argues that the most recent function of realism has been “to reveal, no merely the determinist aspects of the historical process, but the relative and pragmatic character of thought itself” (65). This is what he refers to as the realist critique. Realists argue that all thinking is pragmatic and purpose-driven and that theories are essentially instruments of power. In this sense, Carr’s description of the realist critique foreshadows some later postmodern critical schools of theory which also seek to deconstruct theories to reveal their oppressive implications: “Both the view that the English-speaking peoples are monopolists of international morality and the view that they are consummate international hypocrites may be reduced to the plain fact that the current canons of international virtue have, by a natural and inevitable process, been mainly created by them” (72-73).
Realists argue that by cloaking their arguments in the language of morality, states are just seeking disingenuously to impose their own interests on the rest of the world. If understanding the fundamental split (and mutual incompatibility) of realism and utopianism is relatively simple, understanding how Carr thinks the international community can or should proceed is considerably more difficult. He recognizes the profound limitations of utopianism in “The Realist Critique,” then quickly follows up with “The Limitations of Realism,” which include: the conception of politics as an infinite process (revealed in the problematic nature of Hegel and Marx, which assumes, as Engels points out, a reality outside the historical process in order to get to the ultimate goal [freedom, communism]); an emotional appeal to this final goal that is not explainable by reason; amorality; and, most importantly, a basis for any purposive action. It would be easy to apply some Hegelian logic to Carr’s presentation of these antitheses and to assume that Carr conceives of a synthesis between utopianism and realism, between morality and politics. But he does not: “The antithesis of utopia and reality – a balance always swinging towards and away from equilibrium and never completely attaining it – is a fundamental antithesis …” [emphasis added] (12).Carr further casts the utopian/realist debate in terms of free will and determinism; theory and practice; the intellectual and the bureaucrat; left and right; and, perhaps most significantly, morality and politics. Carr describes the international sphere as the “presence of a society which has no corresponding state” (212) whereby he refers to the lack of power in international relations and the misinterpretation of morality as the overarching rule that supersedes specific circumstances in different periods of history. In explaining his concept of the structure of world politics Carr refers to an “elegant superstructure’ such as an international organization must follow progress, which is often interpreted as a reference to the Marxist notions of base and superstructure.
Carr writes that “Morality is the product of power” (63). However, Carr goes on to qualify this statement, creating space for a role for morality that is independent of questions of power: “We shall never arrive at a political order in which the grievances of the weak and the few receive the same prompt attention as the grievances of the strong and the many. Power goes far to create the morality convenient to itself, and coercion is a fruitful source of consent. But when all these reserves have been made, it remains true that a new international order and new international harmony can be built up only on the basis of an ascendancy which is generally accepted as tolerant and unoppressive or, at any rate, as preferable to any practicable alternative” (217). Morality must also have an inherent meaning separate from power for us to talk about it as being antithetical to power (otherwise, were it just a means to an end, it would be power). Morality could thus be construed as producing power. To the extent that it plays some role (however minimal) in determining states’ actions, morality exercises power over states. However, the power of morality may hold over states’ actions should be carefully distinguished from the power states exercise over each other. Power is not the end of the game; morality is integrated into states’ decisions, which may or may not lessen or strengthen the power.
The argument Carr makes is necessarily incomplete because the battle is continuous. Consider the argument on p. 87-88 that real-world view will be torn down by the utopian ideals and the following utopia will be torn down by the realist. He views politics and history as a constant dynamic interchange between utopians, who have the drive and the motivation to conceive of acting, and realists, who reveal the incompatibility of their aspirations with reality. For as soon as the utopians have realized their ideas, those ideals have become real, are subject to the realist critique Carr lays out earlier in the book. But while the utopianism is ultimately futile, it is also necessary, because otherwise, nothing would ever happen. And for all his talk of “the fatal dualism of politics” (216), Carr does seem to believe something should happen as his discussion of the morality of Anglo-American hegemony on page 217 indicates. Thus, even though Carr does not believe a utopian harmony of interests can ever be achieved therefore abrogating the possibility of an end goal, he seems to believe that the utopian world-view is necessary to, at a bare minimum, prevent backsliding. For Carr, state politics in the 1919-1939 era needed to stand a step closer to realist side, in order to check the dominant utopian tendencies.
Carr’s argument is about process, not product. For he acknowledges this dilemma of continuity and change in international relations is here to stay. When utopia fails, there will always be a realist to alter the current plan and vice versa. As long as the process continues and humanity continues to strive for perfection- we’re advancing in his eyes, to a different stage for international relations. We need to address two issues as we progress:1. The problem of dominating world politics with nation-states whose goal is to maintain the status-quo. 2. Problem with sustaining a working and moral international economy.
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