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EH Carr Morality and Realism

Carr’s 20 years crisis is a book worth revisiting from time to time. I recently gave it another read and I was surprised as to how relevant it still is. Whether this is because there is some timelessness to Carr whose book is a classic right up there with Hobbes, or perhaps because I am just imposing the present backwards doesn’t seem to make much difference at this point.

The twenty years crisis is the transition period in world politics in which the mantle of power is given from the UK to the United States. In this time a wave of utopianism (according to Carr) Swept the sphere of international politics and within the league of nations and other international realms came to undermine the foundations on which true or “real” order had been maintained.

Carr lets loose a directed criticism of this “utopianism” he is a dualist in that he believes that facts do exist external to man and they do frustrate his actions. Carr is a brilliant writer and his narration of events, perhaps anb influence of his training in history, perhaps because he is just English is a delight to read.

He divides power into three main domains, Economic, Military, and Propaganda. For Carr Utopian ideals should meet realism which looks at the world as it is not as it should be. In this the main point I want to focus on is where at several places in the book he uncovers morally disguised action as simple power politics.

So when the British wanted to stop the germans and French from building submarines they argued it was against international law of war, but they maintained a vast naval power which they argued was for defense. The realist would see that utopian lecturing is simply a cover for pure power based behaviour. It is generally the dominant owers in the world which establish the norms and rules under which they maintain their rule. Another example is the attitude of the US to free trade. Up until 1840 the US was against free trade, but it shifted its position when it became the dominant economic power.

This does not mean that Carr believes there can be no action towards a better international sphere. He argues for a balance of utopian ideals based in a realist outlook of what is possible. So perhaps propaganda can be separated from true moral intentions. He mentions that there are lost opportunities at the end of the first world war, in which Wilson blinded by Idealism set up an ineffective league, where instead he could have set up an effective organization to lead international politics.

Carr’s Realism is actually closer to cynicism in that it not only deals with the base causes of the distribution of power, but it also uncovers the propaganda used to justify it.

The point I wish to hold Carr up to is that in his model utopianism becomes impossible. If one were to place the cynicists gaze on every enterprise no normative enterprises would remain. He would require a brief lull in the realist cynciism for the institutionalization of new normative orders before they are torn down again.

Ultimately Carr is a good realist but he fails to provide an exit for normative behaviour. Most importantly it becomes impossible to judge between different actors. Taking a current example,  the Nato led war, or rebel uprising in Libya can be seen in cynical terms as the expansion of Western order into Libya. But it surely does have some moral or normative ideals  which move it. Maybe it doesn’t after all there are many more injustices and brutalities in the world which NATO doesn’t seek to interfere in, this looks like a case of reasserting stability in the international realm by pouncing on an opportunity. “events my dear boy, events”

So the thing is that Carr’s position is untenable, there can be no utopianism. Perhaps his measure is “less deaths are better than more deaths” but then that would just bring up millions of ways in which this could be thwarted. In fact this motto is the farthest possible position one can take from normative reform. Economic sanctions may be worse than war, repressive regimes may cause less death than an uprising. In general Carr fails to provide a model in which normative and real action can be taken, but the impression is that, by far the largest  chunk goes to realist action 90/10.

The truth is that within Carr’s model there can be no reform (at least in this book elsewhere he expands his vision in a different way).

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