Thursday, September 14, 2017

The Twenty Years’ Crisis, 1919-1939 by E.H. Carr

E.H. Carr. Looks the part, doesn't he? 
Foundational text in IR & realist thought

This book was published in September 1939 as Britain was going to war with Germany over the invasion of Poland. The book, despite new editions and having remained in print since that time, makes few concessions to changed views or ideas. Thus, as a history, it’s a first draft, but it's best remembered as a foundational text of what was to become the academic study of international relations. Carr, after having spent around 20 years in the British Foreign Office, accepted an academic post in Wales, where he was working at the time of the publication of the book. The book serves as an outstanding introduction to international relations because whatever its shortcomings as history, it’s a brilliant exposition of the issues of international relations (IR), especially from the realist point-of-view.

Carr is a proponent of the realist view as opposed to what he termed the “utopian” view. In short, he attributed to the utopians the belief that treaties, tribunals, and public opinion would overrule the forces of “power” that create wars. This was the age, following the First World War, when the League of Nations was created and the Kellogg-Brian treaty (1928) that sought to outlaw war as a means of state action. As you know, neither of these worked well for long. Instead, following a long history of realist thought, Carr notes that the struggle for power marked relations between nations during this period, and unlike the situation within nation-states, where governments and laws held sway, relations between nations was one of relative anarchy marked by the use (or threat) of force.

Carr’s arguments and prose are concise and pithy. He understands the crucial differences between and the relation of politics and law. He also concedes the role of morality (however defined) in decision-making, and its effect on public opinion, which while not controlling, is a matter of concern to each government. In short, while a realist, he shows himself a realist who understands that power is more than simply the ability to deploy military force and win wars. He also understands that nations vie for status and power in many ways and that something often guides them other than a cold, hard rationality.

While I consider myself a realist in matters of international relations, I appreciate that other perspectives (liberal internationalism, constructivism, and so on) all have their value and provide insights into this complex field. For someone new to the field, I recommend Carr’s work as an introduction from the realist perspective; i.e., the ability of each state to exert power—primarily by the threat or use of force—is the most reliable guide to understanding the interactions between states. But Carr isn’t blind to other perspectives, either, which serves to enhance the value of his book.

For anyone seeking entry into the field of international relations, I can recommend this book. (I know it's assigned in graduate courses in IR.) Also, this re-issued edition with a preface by Michael Cox provides a wealth of background information about the book and Professor Carr, making it an especially useful edition.  

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