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The Lexical Funk!

Daniel has wanted to be a writer ever since he was in elementary school.He has published stories and articles in such magazines as Slipstream, Black Petals, Spindrift, Zygote in my Coffee, and Leading Edge Science Fiction. He has written four books: The Sage and the Scarecrow (a novel), the Lexical Funk (a short story collection), Reejecttion (short story/ essay collection), and The Ghosts of Nagasaki (a novel).

Review of E.H. Carr's The Twenty Years' Crisis

The Twenty Years' Crisis, 1919-1939 - Edward Hallett Carr

E.H. Carr’s classic book remains essential reading for any student of International Relations (IR). Carr’s greatness is rooted in:


  • *the strength of his dialectical method
  • *his recognition of the vital nature of theoretical pluralism
  • *the groundwork he laid for critical approaches to International Relations
  • *and the case he made for the special nature of international politics as compared to domestic politics.


In many ways, the great debates in IR have been a working out of Carr’s arguments and oppositions, (though unfortunately within and among much more entrenched, demarcated lines). The fact that most of these debates have resolved little validates Carr’s own methodology of pluralism and mediation.


His use of realism as a critique of IR’s idealistic and legalistic beginnings, as well as his use of idealism to treat the hollowness of the realist focus on power, has provided a much needed model for those seeking to tame the excesses of theoretical orthodoxy. Carr’s ability to expose the hidden dynamics of power that underpin such concepts as the harmony of interests and collective security has provided some of the practical groundwork for critical approaches that have sought to expose similar hidden relations of power and knowledge. When all of these specific contributions are taken together they add up to a foundation for a discipline of IR that is beyond the parochial departmental politics of “choosing sides.”


The last seventy years of theoretical debate have validated Carr’s employment of a mediation of dialectical oppositions. In many ways, the three debates have been a working out of the key concepts in Carr’s The Twenty Years’ Crisis. Carr writes:


“The complete realist, unconditionally accepting the causal sequence of events, deprives himself of the possibility of changing reality. The complete utopian, by rejecting the causal sequence, deprives himself of the possibility of understanding either the reality which he is seeking to change or the process by which it can be changed. The characteristic vice of the utopian is naivety; of the realist, sterility” (p. 11-12).”


In his focus on causal sequences, we can see the beginnings of the neorealist arguments for structural determinism; in Carr’s admonishment of realist “sterility,” we can also see English School and critical theorist arguments for the moral and political impotency of neorealism and other “problem-solving” theory.  


In his writing, Carr at once argues for a discipline attentive to causal factors, cognizant of the hidden power structures of mainstream thinking, and sensitive to the depoliticization of utopian thinking. Carr would even anticipate Hedley Bull’s moral inquiry into the international system as a society of states. Carr asks, “In what sense can we find a basis for international morality by positing a society of states?” (p. 161).


Despite the very obvious influences Carr has had on later works, the parochialism and oftentimes downright meanness of some of the debates in IR stands as evidence that the discipline has failed to capitalize on Carr’s examples to create a truly rigorous interdisciplinary pluralism. His dialectical process shuns a short-sighted, cynical disciplinary politics that asks simply: choose a side.


Nor does Carr’s approach simply lapse into uncritical pluralism. Carr’s use of theory and critical approaches to entrenched political theories is grounded in a respect for the necessities of modern politics and the usefulness oppositions can have for exposing the weaknesses idealized positions. The importance of realist analysis is based on its ability to unmask the purported universalism of idealism: to expose “the hollowness [politically and often ideologically] of the utopian edifice” (p. 89) and to prevent the catastrophic errors of judgment that occur when politicians swallow their own moral rhetoric wholeheartedly. Conversely, the vital importance of idealism is based in its ability to overcome the emptiness of brute power politics.


This theoretical pluralism is conditioned and justified by its contribution to international politics, the creation of more thoughtful political leaders/thinkers, and a more sophisticated public debate. The goals that Carr posits as the necessary contribution of idealism: “a finite goal, an emotional appeal, a right of moral judgment and a ground for action” (p. 89) are all tied to the persuasive elements of moral rhetoric. Though Carr saw one of the vital functions of idealism as the debunking of the realist concept of ‘might makes right,’ he realized that this debunking has to take place within the political fray, in the realm of politics, not the abstract realm of human reason.


In terms of the use of realism, Carr justified its employment as a cautionary force to idealism based on its ability to prevent future political follies on the scale of those enacted during the interwar period. Realism’s promise is formulated as its ability to make political idealists aware of the fact that they are susceptible to the blind, irrational collisions of diverse interests and asymmetric powers (p. 224). Thus theoretical pluralism is never justified as a good in and of itself, but rather as means to a better practice of international politics.      


In addition to Carr’s contributions to theoretical pluralism and his focus on the needs of international politicians, Carr also set important groundwork for critical IR theory. In differentiating problem-solving theory from critical theory, Cox (1986) states that, whereas problem-solving theory is essentially conservative and seeks to smooth out the functioning of the system as it currently stands, critical theory attempts to show hidden injustices within current systems of governance and mainstream discourse, and to posit viable alternatives (p. 207-210). In the Twenty Years’ Crisis, Carr employs both idealism and realism as critical theories as defined by Cox.


Though Carr identifies idealism as having the ability to create alternative political orders, realism is the key tool he uses to debunk such entrenched concepts as laissez-faire, collective security, and the harmony of interests strain of thought that runs through both of these concepts. Instead of a true harmony of interests, Carr shows how the interests of the world community are selfishly identified as being the same as “that part of it in which we are particularly interested” (p. 167).


Finally, Carr helped create a disciplinary space for IR. In his discussion of the difference between international and domestic morality, Carr frequently points to the lack of an international government as a conditioning factor for the difference between international and state politics. In his discussion of the differences between international and domestic morality, Carr writes: “One reason why a higher standard of morality is not expected of states is because states in fact frequently fail to behave morally and because there are no means of compelling them to do so” (p. 161). Carr sets much of the framework for IR as a discipline by showing how the state of anarchy influences all aspects of world politics. In terms of morality, anarchy helps undermine the formation of an international morality that would overtake national interests. Thus, “the role of power is greater and that of morality less [than domestic politics]” (p. 168). In terms of international law, anarchy creates a legal system based on custom more so than legislative authority (p. 171). These key distinctions regarding the conditioning power of anarchy on international politics, as opposed to domestic politics, would be foundational in justifying the study of IR as a separate discipline of politics.   


Will E.H. Carr’s seminal work continue to be required reading? If it has stood as one of the foundational works for over seventy years, then surely it will continue to be a must-read ten, fifty, even a hundred years from now.