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A Discussion of Whether E. H. Carr’s The Twenty Years’ Crisis is Still Relevant Today

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Words: 2174 |

Pages: 3|

11 min read

Published: Oct 22, 2018

Words: 2174|Pages: 3|11 min read

Published: Oct 22, 2018

Table of contents

  1. Abstract
  2. Introduction
  3. 'A Product of Diseased Times'
  4. The Relevance of The Twenty Years’ Crisis
  5. Conclusion

Abstract

The question of this essay is whether E. H. Carr’s The Twenty Years’ Crisis is a product of diseased times or it can still operate with a significant degree of broader relevance in the modern world. In terms of the first part of the quote in the question – “product of diseased times” – the crucial element here questions the extent to which Carr’s work was a product of interwar scholarship tending towards appeasement and a reaction to ‘utopian thinking.’ The reverse of such an argument is whether his work was more a combination of his contextually distinctive ‘upbringing’ as a journalist & historian, and his Mannheimian influences. This essay makes the assumption for reasons of brevity that ‘diseased’ refers to historical events such as the armament crisis, the world economic crisis stemming from the Great Depression of 1929, and the failure of the League of Nations culminating in support for appeasement. In terms of the second part of the quote – “broader relevance” – the question I wish to tackle is whether Carr’s text is still relevant if we move away from the traditional realist/idealist dichotomous debate, according to the usual ‘textbook’ interpretation. In this essay, I will argue in favour of the latter point, by emphasising the critical and theoretically diversified elements of The Twenty Years’ Crisis.

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Introduction

E. H. Carr’s The Twenty Years’ Crisis represents a polemical attack on the 19th century liberal internationalism that the author attributes as a root cause of the interwar crisis. The text has been regarded as a seminal chapter in the “philosophical orientation” of realism (Donnelly 2000:57); the latter’s proponents largely hail its depiction of the relationship between power and utopia, and the subsequent paradigmatic shift from utopianism to realism. Meanwhile, the allegedly opposing paradigm of utopians/idealists has begun to appreciate the forward-looking critical aspects of Carr’s work as part of a wave of revisionist scholarship Such aspects include Carr’s post-positivism, counter-hegemonic strategy, and his Western Marxist influences. Examples of these include Booth (1991), Linklater (1997), and Jones (1998) respectively.

'A Product of Diseased Times'

This essay argues that Carr’s text is a product partly of diseased times. It is important that Carr be placed in the appropriate historical context. Rather than solely situating him in the context of the aforementioned “diseased times”, with their various social, political and economic crises of the interwar period, a more nuanced approach would be to view Carr’s work in the context of historically conscious classical scholars such as Weber, Aron and Polanyi. These scholars frequently expounded their thinking on politics, diplomacy, and international affairs, without necessarily taking the more rigorous position of a professional academic as such. In a similar vein to these writers, Carr infuses his work with grander socio-political ideas such as the evolution towards mass societies, the industrial revolution and its consequences, and the rise of nationalism & self-determination. I therefore suggest that Carr’s text does not simply propagate a ‘Realist’ outlook – rather, his fusion of domestic & international problems, in combination with the aforementioned socio-political policies, result in a highly individual book; one that stands slightly apart from the ‘traditional’ realist texts within the canon of the realist/idealist debate.

Addressing the context of “diseased times”, the initial publication of The Twenty Years’ Crisis coincided with the year (1939) of maximum tension regarding the culmination of the various interwar crises, as detailed above, as well as the ultimate breakdown of the 19th century liberal internationalist order (the outbreak of the Second World War). One of the most commonly cited elements of Carr’s text in relation to these crises is his heavy promotion of the appeasement policy towards Hitler & Nazi Germany. I believe that Carr’s support of the appeasement policy should be historically contextualised in a situation where the memory of the First World War was still very raw, and hence the will to avoid another war was uppermost in Carr’s thoughts. This will was combined with his disdain for nationalism of all sorts, hence rejecting a potential military counter-balancing action.

One potential critique of this argument in terms of the historical context of Carr’s appeasement policy lies in his editorial revisions in the 1946 edition of his text. The Second World War diminished the idea that political hegemony could be bought away (i.e. appeasement), whilst it is equally difficult to argue that the annexation of Czechoslovakia in March 1939 for larger Lebensraum was a form of ‘peaceful change.’ Carr failed to adequately revise his mistakes (with the benefit of hindsight) in the light of the Second World War (1946 edition) regarding appeasement and the Nazi Germany military build-up. He erroneously continued to refer to various acknowledged forms of military expansion as instances of peaceful change & national self-determination. Hence the failure of The Twenty Years’ Crisis to adequately analyse the different practical implications of the appeasement policy (both in its first and second editions) does not bode well for the text’s broader relevance as a supply of explanatory & prescriptive theory.

The Relevance of The Twenty Years’ Crisis

While Carr himself attributes the failure of transplanting 19th century liberal internationalism into the 20th century as an underlying cause of the various interwar crises, I argue that The Twenty Years’ Crisis’ relevance extends beyond the alleged ‘First Great Debate’. The waves of revisionist 20th century scholarship have highlighted the myth of such a debate, generally arguing that there was no single recognised body of thought as ‘idealism’, whilst there were also many significant internal realist-realist debates. A snapshot of the relevant scholarship reveals that even many political realists shared similar concerns as the ‘idealists’; Morgenthau’s (1948-9) criticism revolved around the philosophical implications of Carr’s work, namely the “untenable equation of utopia, theory, and morality”. Meanwhile, idealists such as Wight (1946:3) failed to observe an adequately “fruitful tension” between utopia and reality.

Having dispelled the argument that Carr’s book only holds relevance with regards to the ‘First Great Debate’, I shall put forward three points in relation to The Twenty Years’ Crisis’ “broader relevance.” First, I view Carr’s text to be an intellectual weapon at its very core. This is in fitting with Carr’s tendency to infuse his seminal texts with a polemical character. For example, Nationalism and After (1945) attacked the propagators of national self-determination, while New Society (1951) attacked laissez-faire capitalism, and What Is History? (1961) trained its critical lens on “the English historical establishment”. In the case of The Twenty Years’ Crisis, this weapon happened to be directed at 19th century liberal internationalism, but this was not a specific move as such. Carr’s weapon was created in order to attack whichever universalised international relations theory was dynamically evolving from the historical process. This move builds on Carr’s critical theory tendencies (which I will explore further in this essay).

I will illustrate this characteristic of Carr’s text by demonstrating the ability of his ‘weapon’ to “critique, historicise, and relativise” one of the main IR theories of the late 20th/early 21st century: neoliberalism, and the subfield of complex interdependence (Babik 2013:501). Briefly, Keohane (1984) argues that the presence of either an international hegemon or an international institution is beneficial to the development of cooperation. Hegemony can replace the need for institutions, but Keohane’s argument is that the global political economy does not contain a hegemon. Hegemony provides the same enforcement and inspection mechanisms that institutions do through their power. However, there is no hegemony within the international system due to the existence of interdependent states that have differing power on a number of different issues. Thus, institutions are the only way to securely imbed cooperation within the international political economy. Institutions will only achieve this aim with non-myopic states to begin with.

In the same way that Carr (1964:82) rejects the idea that there is a morally privileged notion of peace – “international peace becomes a special vested interest of predominant power” – the undermining of cooperation suggests that the existence of institutions is therefore not a given fact. Such undermining often occurs due to problems of effective enforcement for powerful states; for example, the problems of World Trade Organisation (WTO) enforcement with regards to trade wars between the U.S. and China. Powerful states would either be those creators & main exponents of the Washington Consensus (e.g. the U.S.), or newly industrialised countries such as China with its ever-increasing military & economic heft. Instead, institutions function as tools used by the powerful to maintain their share of world power – there is no morally privileged notion of beneficial cooperation for the greater good.

Second, The Twenty Years’ Crisis displayed critical tendencies significantly prior to the fuller development of critical theory in the 1980s (cf. Cox 1981, 1986). Carr’s notion of fundamental emancipation for the purposes of progress drew on his Western Marxist influences. In this case, he was referring to the emancipation of the theory & practice of international politics from pre-existing or outdated ideas, such as 19th century liberal internationalism (Babik 2013:507). Carr’s conception of history as developmental and progressive drew on his Mannheim influences, stemming from the latter’s influential 1936 Ideology and Utopia on the relationist sociology of knowledge. Carr himself argued that realism acted as a “dialectical catalyst for social and political progress” when historically necessary (Babik 2013:502). His emancipatory & progressive writing was used and further explored by Booth (1991) writing on an anarchical ‘global community of communities’ vis-à-vis security. The dynamic and historical nature of The Twenty Years’ Crisis is especially relevant in the 21st century, given that international relations continues to be shaped by historical events; they create an international context and act as reference points. For example, there was the network turn in light of increased globalisation, as well as the practice turn following the 2011 Libyan intervention.

Third, I argue that Carr’s assimilation of various theories is still relevant. This is especially the case given the trans-disciplinary change experienced across the social sciences. Examples include the turn to more mid-range theorising, often trying to build syntheses of several grand theoretical perspectives. Carr’s mix of realist, Marxist, Mannheimian, and critical elements indicates Carr to be an early pioneer in this regard – his work is even more applicable in this age of theory and practice.

Finally, before concluding, I would like to examine the significance of “modern” more closely in the context of international relations theory. According to Osiander (1998), the role of the IR analyst is to fill the chasm between the faster pace of development for objective truths, and the slower pace for perception & popular attitudes. Carr fulfils this role through his proto-academic yet polemic and forward-thinking work. Meanwhile, Smith (1995) delineates forth that international theory is intertwined with international practice. This vindicates Carr due to the connections between historical events (i.e. international practice) and his various theoretical propositions (i.e. international theory). The advent of the practice turn makes Carr’s texts relevant again – he defies predictions of obsolescence in this matter. It is worth noting that Walt (1998) favours a multitude of major theories/paradigms in operation due to the sheer complexity of the modern world that we try to describe and explain. Therefore, Carr’s work can certainly be accommodated today – even the most minimal and esoteric contribution from The Twenty Years’ Crisis holds value in a cross-paradigmatic & trans-disciplinary world.

Following Snidal & Wendt (2009), Carr’s The Twenty Years’ Crisis provides an opportunity to draw together international political theory (his rejection of moral universalism), international relations theory (his comments regarding realism and ‘idealism’/’utopianism’), and international legal theory (only the ruling group was able to enact and enforce international law). Even if elements of the book are wrong or open to heavy criticism (as outlined earlier), The Twenty Years’ Crisis should still be lauded for its prescient attempt to integrate these three key pillars of international theory in the first place. Such an attempt renders it relevant in today’s integrative world.

It is important to unlock what it means for a theory to operate in the “modern world” before any final, concluding prescriptions can be made regarding Carr’s “broader” relevance. Devetak (1995:30) argues that there is a common notion of modernity to the Enlightenment, to critical theory, and to post-structuralism. This common notion is composed of two main concepts. First, there is an ‘ethos of critique’ – all three focus on the liberating power of thought and the necessity to continually question knowledge structures in order to distance science from tradition. Second, there is a ‘spirit of cosmopolitanism’. Carr’s text is certainly infused with an ethos of critique, whilst his attempt to find a new utopianism, where international morality is equated with the “demand for self-sacrifice”, includes the spirit of cosmopolitanism. Meanwhile, the focus of critical theory is to establish a modern account of liberation and emancipation respectively that takes up, modifies and extends the projects of modernity & human progress initiated by the Enlightenment.

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Conclusion

The Twenty Years’ Crisis by Nicholas Carr is suffused with elements of critical theory, especially in its Western Marxist influences, and determination towards fundamental emancipation & dynamic progress. It is also filled with the ethos of critique: it should be used as an intellectual weapon rather than solely exemplifying a specific attack directed at 19th century liberal internationalism. Hence according to these criteria, Carr’s The Twenty Years’ Crisis can still operate with a significant degree of broader relevance in the modern world.

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This essay was reviewed by
Dr. Charlotte Jacobson

Cite this Essay

Twenty Years of Crisis. (2022, December 07). GradesFixer. Retrieved February 25, 2024, from https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/twenty-years-of-crisis/
“Twenty Years of Crisis.” GradesFixer, 07 Dec. 2022, gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/twenty-years-of-crisis/
Twenty Years of Crisis. [online]. Available at: <https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/twenty-years-of-crisis/> [Accessed 25 Feb. 2024].
Twenty Years of Crisis [Internet]. GradesFixer. 2022 Dec 07 [cited 2024 Feb 25]. Available from: https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/twenty-years-of-crisis/
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