This book, perhaps the one for which Carr is best remembered, was written immediately before the start of World War II, and is considered one of the seminal texts of international relations. In fact, the preface to the first edition is dated September 30, 1939, a mere four weeks after the Wehrmacht invaded Poland. This is by no means incidental to the content, either. "Twenty Years' Crisis" is a thoroughgoing critique of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century international politics and especially the assumptions on which they rest.
It can be broken up into roughly two sections; the first is more theoretical in approach, while the second part analyzes certain instances of political structures, treaties, and international relations that support his theoretical assertions. I'm much more interested in the theory, so my focus in this review will be the first half, where Carr explores utopianism, realism, and their intellectual genealogies.
After the end of the Great War, a popular idea in diplomatic circles was that only irrationality and aggression could possibly start another war, and only the construction of a set of international institutions, like the League of Nations, could prevent a similar breakout. That certainly is a pleasing thought, considering how much carnage and loss of life there was. This hope, which Carr identifies as a naïve and empty sentiment, is perhaps the most conspicuous symptom of what he calls "utopianism." Utopians "pay little attention to existing `facts' or to the analysis of cause and effect, but will devote themselves wholeheartedly to the elaboration of visionary projects for the attainment of the ends they have in view - projects whose simplicity and perfection gives them an easy and universal appeal" (5). Carr associates utopianism with the more intellectual strains in international relations, imputing the label to those with "the inclination to ignore what was and what is in contemplation of what should be." Utopians put their moral ideals before political observation and empiricism. He traces utopianism to the willed, persistent belief in "the harmony of interests" - the common assumption that the pursuit of individual self-interest will necessarily dovetail with the interests of the nation as a whole. This idea is similar to the social Darwinism which also populated much nineteenth-century European social thought.
Realism can in many ways be thought of as the antithesis of utopianism. Realists let observation, national interests, and power inform their view of international policy. Realists have "the inclination to deduce what should be from what was and what is." Whereas utopians let morality inform their politics, realists let their politics inform their morality. Because of the rationalist, Weberian strains Carr associates with realism, he associated realism with the bureaucrat instead of the intellectual.
While this book is often listed as the first defense of realism, Carr is extraordinarily fair-minded, and openly admits that there are problems with this approach, too. Importantly, realism fails to provide the idealism that any international policy must have. As Carr says, "Most of all, consistent realism breaks down because it fails to provide any ground for purposive or meaningful action. If the sequence of cause and effect is sufficiently rigid to permit of the `scientific prediction' of events, if our thought is irrevocably conditioned by status and our interests, then both action and thought become devoid of purpose" (92).
Because of the respective strengths and weaknesses of utopianism and realism, Carr concludes the theoretical portion of the book by suggesting that any meaningful, pragmatic political approach must rest somewhere near the middle of the realist/utopian continuum. "We return therefore to the conclusion that any sound political thought must be based on elements of both utopia and reality. Where utopianism has become a hollow and intolerable sham which serves merely as a disguise for the interests of the privileged, the realist performs an indispensable service in unmasking it. But pure realism can offer nothing but a naked struggle for power which makes any kind of international society impossible" (93).
In the second part of the book, Carr asserts that utopians were so concerned with preventing another Great War, they began to completely ignore the element of power in international relations. For example, utopians assumed that all nations had the same interests in maintaining peace, and for the same reasons. A simple look at the actual milieu of European politics leading up to both World Wars I and II will suggest something different.
He also spends a good deal of time pointing out how the three kinds of power that operate in international politics - economic, military, and public opinion - can't be analyzed separately and have to be considered interdependently. Also, because (at least at that time) the international community has not agreed upon a means of resolving international disputes, treaties are barely worth the paper they're printed on since countries can opt out on trivial conditions. It would have been interesting to see how the formation of the United Nations and the International Court of Justice would have changed Carr's option on this point, if at all.
For being over seventy years old, Carr's analysis is still fresh, fascinating, and convincing. The only part that dates the book is the second half that looks at actual international events, since nothing after 1939 is covered. I did have to read up a little on the some of the treaties that are now lesser-known, like the Treaty of Locarno and the Franco-Soviet Treaty, but Carr very much rewards the reader's effort in this respect. I would recommend this to anyone with an interest in the history of international relations, or anyone who wants a full-throated defense of realism and its place in the field.