E. H. Carrs Challenge of Utopian Idealism

In his main work on international relations, The Twenty Years Crisis, first published in July 1939, Edward Hallett Carr (1892??“1982) attacks the idealist position, which he describes as ???utopianism.??? He characterizes this position as encompassing faith in reason, confidence in progress, a sense of moral rectitude, and a belief in an underlying harmony of interests. According to the idealists, war is an aberration in the course of normal life and the way to prevent it is to educate people for peace, and to build systems of collective security such as the League of Nations or todays United Nations. Carr challenges idealism by questioning its claim to moral universalism and its idea of the harmony of interests. He declares that ???morality can only be relative, not universal??? (19), and states that the doctrine of the harmony of interests is invoked by privileged groups ???to justify and maintain their dominant position??? (75).

Carr uses the concept of the relativity of thought, which he traces to Marx and other modern theorists, to show that standards by which policies are judged are the products of circumstances and interests. His central idea is that the interests of a given party always determine what this party regards as moral principles, and hence, these principles are not universal. Carr observes that politicians, for example, often use the language of justice to cloak the particular interests of their own countries, or to create negative images of other people to justify acts of aggression. The existence of such instances of morally discrediting a potential enemy or morally justifying ones own position shows, he argues, that moral ideas are derived from actual policies. Policies are not, as the idealists would have it, based on some universal norms, independent of interests of the parties involved.

If specific moral standards are de facto founded on interests, Carrs argument goes, there are also interests underlying what are regarded as absolute principles or universal moral values. While the idealists tend to regard such values, such as peace or justice, as universal and claim that upholding them is in the interest of all, Carr argues against this view. According to him, there are neither universal values nor universal interests. He says those who refer to universal interests are in fact acting in their own interests (71). They claim that what is best for them is best for everyone, and identify their own interests with the universal interest of the world at large.

The idealist concept of the harmony of interests is based on the notion that human beings can rationally recognize that they have some interests in common, and that cooperation is therefore possible. Carr contrasts this idea with the reality of conflict of interests. According to him, the world is torn apart by the particular interests of different individuals and groups. In such a conflictual environment, order is based on power, not on morality. Further, morality itself is the product of power (61). Like Hobbes, Carr regards morality as constructed by the particular legal system that is enforced by a coercive power. International moral norms are imposed on other countries by dominant nations or groups of nations that present themselves as the international community as a whole. They are invented to perpetuate those nations dominance.

Values that idealists view as good for all, such as peace, social justice, prosperity, and international order, are regarded by Carr as mere status quo notions. The powers that are satisfied with the status quo regard the arrangement in place as just and therefore preach peace. They try to rally everyone around their idea of what is good. ???Just as the ruling class in a community prays for domestic peace, which guarantees its own security and predominance, ??¦ so international peace becomes a special vested interest of predominant powers??? (76). On the other hand, the unsatisfied powers consider the same arrangement as unjust, and so prepare for war. Hence, the way to obtain peace, if it cannot be simply enforced, is to satisfy the unsatisfied powers. ???Those who profit most by [international] order can in the longer run only hope to maintain it by making sufficient concessions to make it tolerable to those who profit by it least??? (152). The logical conclusion to be drawn by the reader of Carrs book is the policy of appeasement.

Carr was a sophisticated thinker. He recognized himself that the logic of ???pure realism can offer nothing but a naked struggle for power which makes any kind of international society impossible??? (87). Although he demolishes what he calls ???the current utopia??? of idealism, he at the same time attempts to build ???a new utopia,??? a realist world order (ibid.). Thus, he acknowledges that human beings need certain fundamental, universally acknowledged norms and values, and contradicts his own argument by which he tries to deny universality to any norms or values. To make further objections, the fact that the language of universal moral values can be misused in politics for the benefit of one party or another, and that such values can only be imperfectly implemented in political institutions, does not mean that such values do not exist. There is a deep yearning in many human beings, both privileged and unprivileged, for peace, order, prosperity, and justice. The legitimacy of idealism consists in the constant attempt to reflect upon and uphold these values. Idealists fail if in their attempt they do not pay enough attention to the reality of power. On the other hand, in the world of pure realism, in which all values are made relative to interests, life turns into nothing more than a power game and is unbearable.

The Twenty Years Crisis touches on a number of universal ideas, but it also reflects the spirit of its time. While we can fault the interwar idealists for their inability to construct international institutions strong enough to prevent the outbreak of the Second World War, this book indicates that interwar realists were likewise unprepared to meet the challenge. Carr frequently refers to Germany under Nazi rule as if it were a country like any other. He says that should Germany cease to be an unsatisfied power and ???become supreme in Europe,??? it would adopt a language of international solidarity similar to that of other Western powers (79). The inability of Carr and other realists to recognize the perilous nature of Nazism, and their belief that Germany could be satisfied by territorial concessions, helped to foster a political environment in which the latter was to grow in power, annex Czechoslovakia at will, and be militarily opposed in September 1939 by Poland alone.

A theory of international relations is not just an intellectual enterprise; it has practical consequences. It influences our thinking and political practice. On the practical side, the realists of the 1930s, to whom Carr gave intellectual support, were people opposed to the system of collective security embodied in the League of Nations. Working within the foreign policy establishments of the day, they contributed to its weakness. Once they had weakened the League, they pursued a policy of appeasement and accommodation with Germany as an alternative to collective security (Ashworth 46). After the annexation of Czechoslovakia, when the failure of the anti-League realist conservatives gathered around Neville Chamberlain and of this policy became clear, they tried to rebuild the very security system they had earlier demolished. Those who supported collective security were labeled idealists.