The Canon: The Twenty Years’ Crisis: An Introduction to the Study of International Relations. By E. H. Carr

September 17, 2009

The bibliographies in today’s inter­national relations texts rarely include anything published before about 1990, but there is one work still regularly listed and discussed that appeared as long ago as 1939. Why has E.?H. Carr’s The Twenty Years’ Crisis (like his 1961 bestseller, What Is History?) exercised such enduring appeal? What made Bernard Crick say that, of all the books he had read, this was the one that had possibly influenced him most?

To me, as a student in the 1950s, part of its appeal lay in its penetrating analysis of the interwar years, a period that aroused (as it still does) great curiosity and controversy. Carr explains the deep underlying reasons why the dissatisfied powers of 1918 could see little or no “harmony of interests” with the victors; why such promising steps as the Locarno Treaty of 1925 and Germany’s subsequent admission to the League of Nations reflected no more than transient stages in a changing balance of power; and why the world economic crisis of the 1930s stimulated mounting waves of international conflict, culminating in a new war. Another reason for the book’s appeal has been the force of Carr’s polemic against the doctrines and approaches current in the 1930s in the still-fledgeling academic field of inter­national relations. Carr spent 20 years in the Foreign Office before becoming the Woodrow Wilson professor at Aberystwyth in 1936. He was appalled by the yawning gap between the “real” world of international politics as he knew it from the inside, and its Utopian portrayal by academics including Arnold Toynbee, Alfred Zimmern and the eminent lawyer Hans Lauterpacht, or by League of Nations enthusiasts such as Lord Robert Cecil. He demolished for ever the illusion that the international jungle of power politics could be tamed by institutions, the rule of law or a higher morality on the part of world leaders, unless the policies adopted took account of the factor of power.

However, Carr’s message, though sometimes misunderstood, went far beyond the precepts of crude realism. In this book and later he advocated national and international economic planning, respect for justice as well as power, and international behaviour that recognised the existence of a “society of states” (though he disputed this concept’s descriptive validity).

One of the proofs of the canonical status of The Twenty Years’ Crisis (which has appeared in numerous foreign translations) is the massive flow of commentary, dissent, elucidation and extrapolation it has provoked in its 70-year existence. In the latest edition (Palgrave, 2001), Michael Cox, the editor, accompanies the text with an illuminating discussion giving references to more than a hundred books and articles relating to Carr’s work. Of how many 20th-century books could this be said?

To end with an experience that gave me a pleasing personal link with the great work: when I became an assistant lecturer at Aberystwyth in 1959, my first book was typed by Miss Morris, the redoubtable departmental secretary who, two decades earlier, had typed The Twenty Years’ Crisis.

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