“The Twenty Years’ Crisis” by Edward Hallett Carr

Subject: Literature
Pages: 7
Words: 1962
Reading time:
7 min
Study level: PhD


The field of international relations has been evolving since the emergence of new philosophies and theories in the 20th century. The emergence of new philosophies and theories in political circles took a discourse process where realists and utopians differed in the manner in which they perceived international relations. Differences in perceptions between realists and utopians led to the formulation of varied laws and regulations to guide countries on how to interact amongst themselves through defined policies. The presence of laws and regulations that define relationships among different states imposed restrictions on international relations. In early 20th century, some laws and regulations favoured some states as compared to others, which compelled philosophers to question the essence of laws and regulations in enhancing “common good” and equality among states and individuals. Through a series of discourses in the 20th century, philosophies and theories emerged with the aim of delineating international relations and its essence in the modern society with democracy and justice. In this view, this essay critically reviews the book, The Twenty Years’ Crisis, 1919-1939: An Introduction to the Study of International Relations by Edward Hallett Carr.

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Identity of the Author

Edward Hallett Carr was a realist philosopher, who became famous of his realist ideologies regarding international relations. Carr was born in London, on 28 June 1892, where he lived for 90 years as he died in 1982. He schooled in London and secured employment in the British Foreign Office where he worked from 1916 to 1936 and gained experience in international relations. As a diplomat, Carr realised the impact of World War I and derived insights on how international relations contribute to the occurrence of war amongst states. During his diplomacy period, Carr participated in the formulation of the League of Nations, supported the Soviet Union, and advocated for Marxism. When he resigned as a diplomat in 1936 on medical grounds, Carr became a professor at the University of Wales in Aberystwyth where he made a significant contribution to the international relations by formulating several theories on the subject. Following his 20 years experience as a diplomat, Carr wrote The Twenty Years’ Crisis, 1919-1939: An Introduction to the Study of International Relations, which provides a realist perspective of international relations.

Summary of the Book

In the first part, Carr examines the infancy of international relations and asserts that it originated from science. He argues that established democracies like the United States and the UK perceived international politics as aspects beyond their scope and jurisdictions. Hence, professionals like diplomats were responsible for any issues that arose from international circles. Fundamentally, soldiers only participated in war, while diplomats only participated in international politics. Politicians then had no role to play in international relations. Moreover, learning institutions did not teach international relations, but professional diplomats were in political arenas to mediate international relationships among nations.

Utopia and reality is an important topic that Carr focuses in the second part of his book. Carr claims that utopia and reality contradict eternally because their proponents and opponents hold strong views about their application in international relations. In the exposition of free will and determinism, Carr advises that a rational human mind should balance utopia and reality to delineate free will and determinism, which are components of human action. Utopianism originated from natural law, which was a response to realists’ attempts to place politics above ethics. In contrast, realists believe in the supremacy of ethics. Thus, Carr argues that in politics, realists’ perspective of supremacy of politics is rational because leaders rule according to their power and the subjects accept leadership because they have no power.

In politics, theory and practice are different entities that people often confuse when assessing and examining political issues. Just as thoughts precede actions, theory precedes practice. In this view, the way people live reflects reality, while the way people ought to live underscores utopia. Hence, rational minds should balance the two views on how people live in a society. Foundation of reality philosophy is dependent on two principles. First principle is that history emanates from cause-and-effect sequence of events, which an intellectual process can analyse. Secondly, theory does not translate into practice literally, as utopians believe, but creates practice theory. On this basis, political theory and political practice have significant differences.

Although he was a realist, Carr examined the limitation of his view of international relations from the perspective of realism. Carr states that a limitation associated with pure realism is that it does not provide spring of actions. Realism can push politicians into perceiving problems as unalterable or changes as irresistible. Moreover, realism eliminates important elements of political thinking such as an emotional appeal, a finite goal, a ground for action, and a right of moral judgment. Exclusion of these important elements of political thinking is another limitation of realism.

The book majorly examines how elements of power and morality distribute across states as components of international relations. Power politics usually emerge when relating states have different powers and common issues that require resolution. Realism holds that struggles amongst states occur due to power differences for states that have no power do not appreciate the need of struggling against one another. In the aspects of morality, Carr states that morality hinges on moral codes that different states follow. Thus, international relations exist due to the ethics derived from moral codes that govern relationships among states.

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Accomplishments Made

Carr wrote from the viewpoint of realism and utopianism by delineating the formation of international relations. In his argument, Carr seeks to show antithesis of both realism and utopianism in the ontogeny of international relations after World War I. In the book, Carr wants to expound on the nature of international relations in aspects of science, power, and morality. Hence, through the book, Carr attempts to explain how realism conceptualises international relations better than utopianism, which is mainly theoretical. By describing the infancy and development of international relations, Carr provides a better perspective of viewing international relations.

In a bid to explain the role of realism and utopianism in international relations, Carr describes how each one developed. He argues that utopianism emerged from divine law, which supposes that universal political ethics and political systems in the society are subject to divine law. Hence, he illustrates how utopians hold supremacy of ethics over politics. This aspect means that political issues are subject to ethics, which are universal laws that govern societies. Moreover, utopianism perceives international relations from the perspective of ethics by regarding relationships among states to exist for the “common good” of all people. In a bid to enhance understanding of international relationships, Carr also examines the development of realism. Realism holds that politics are supreme when compared to ethics. In this view, politics utilise ethics as means of attaining given ends. Additionally, from his perspective of realism, Carr assumes that justice is dependent on power. The stronger the nation, the more justice it gains, which explains why realists find it ethical for the stronger to rule and the weak to remain subjects.

As an assessment of the author, Carr does not approach the subject of international relations with biasness. Although he is a realist, he clearly outlines the benefits and limitations of utopianism and realism in equal measure. The evidence that Carr employs in support of his arguments is credible for he uses examples based on his experiences as a diplomat and professor in international relations. The most important evidence that supports his thesis of development and application of utopianism and realism in international relations is the manner in which intellectuals and bureaucrats differ. While intellectuals nurture utopian ideologies, bureaucrats support realistic ideologies. Since realism is antithesis of utopianism, Carr examines utopianism as counter evidence of realism. By outlining the limitations of utopian ideology in international relations, Carr seeks to magnify the importance of realism. Although the author’s language is clear, his style and expression is composite because he uses analogies to explain his arguments. Hence, one should be conversant with his ideologies to understand their meanings in a given context.

Assessment of the Book

The central concepts of the book are realism and utopianism. In essence, theoretical framework of the book is both realism and utopianism. Hence, the book examines how power and morality interact as inherent attributes of international relations. Carr asserts that power politics play a central role in determining the nature of international relations. Power politics emerge from issues that different states experience in international relations. Power politics usually occur among states that have different powers yet they have common issues that affect them. In this view, without power, international relations would not be part of politics for universal laws would be applicable in a uniform manner. In the aspect of morality, Carr asserts that morality originates from a moral code of philosophers and moral behaviour of ordinary people. The philosophical moral code is more of theoretical than practice, while ordinary people’s moral code is more of practice than theoretical. Comparatively, the common morality in international relations emanates from a combination of the former and latter’s codes of morality.

The strength of the book is that it delineates how utopianism and realism developed in the 20th century, thus enhancing understanding of their application in international relations. By describing foundations of realism and utopianism, readers can easily capture the importance of the two aspects in the formulation of international policies. However, the weakness of the book is that it does not have clear difference between reality and utopia. Even though Carr aims at distinguishing the two, there are some instances where they have same meanings.

The book has made significant contributions in the development of international relations as an autonomous discipline in academics since the book is now useful for students. The concepts of utopia and reality are central in understanding international relations. The book outlines arguments decently since it provides a clear view of international relations. In literature, the book has contributed to the body of classical realism, which is a philosophical field applicable in political science. The book has also significant relevance to the modern society because it describes how power and politics distribute across different states in international systems. Compared with other books of international relations, the book provides the basis of international relations during the early part of the 20th century.

Personal Perspective

The book, The Twenty Years’ Crisis, 1919-1939: An Introduction to the Study of International Relations by Edward Hallett Carr is a defining work that enhances understanding of international relations through theoretical perspectives of realism and utopianism. The foundations of realism and utopianism are critical in international relations because they explain how morality and power interact in international systems. Hence, the book clearly elucidates how morality and power interacts through illustrations that show economic, political, and military powers. By using real life examples, Carr did credible research, which is attributable to his experience as a diplomat and professor of international relations. Carr wrote his book competently in an objective manner because it aims at depicting setbacks associated with utopianism and advantages of realism in international relations.

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The book delineates the emergence of international relations during the early part of the 20th century using the concepts of utopia and reality. Utopianism and realism form the theoretical basis of the book upon which Carr explains the emergence of international relations. The significant information that one can learn from the book is that morality and power are part of international relations. Students of international relations and political science can learn from the book because of its relevance in outlining how political powers and morality are critical in international relations. Therefore, I recommend students of international relations and political science to read this book in a bid to gain insights on the foundation of international relations.