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The realism that did not speak its name: E. H. Carr’s diplomatic histories of the twenty years’ crisis

  • Keith Smith (a1)

E. H. Carr was one of Europe’s pre-eminent thinkers in the field of international affairs. Yet his contribution to International Relations theory is continually questioned. Realists depict Carr as a quintessential realist; revisionists draw from his wider corpus to qualify his contribution. Although not inaccurate, the revisionist literature is incomplete as it neglects a number of Carr’s diplomatic histories. Refocusing on these, especially the manner in which traces of Ranke’s ‘the primacy of foreign affairs’ tradition is evident, this article points to a more conservative and less critical Carr. Utilising an interpretivist framework, this shift in traditions of thought is explained by the dilemmas Carr faced. Although works of history rather than theory, the article contends that Carr’s diplomatic histories remain relevant, particularly with regard to the embedded criticism of realpolitik they contain. This realisation is made evident through a reading of Carr in parallel with the concept of tragedy.

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*Correspondence to: Keith Smith, University of Strathclyde, Rm 415 McCance Building, Glasgow, G1 1XQ. Author’s email:
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1 Carr, E. H., What is History? (London: Penguin, 1964), p. 134 .

2 Sylvest, Casper, British Liberal Internationalism, 1880–1930: Making Progress? (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2009), p. 5 .

3 See, for example, Schmidt, Brian, ‘The historiography of academic International Relations’, Review of International Studies, 20:4 (1994), pp. 349367 ; Wilson, Peter, ‘The myth of the first great debate’, Review of International Studies, 24:5 (1998), pp. 116 ; Ashworth, Lucian M., ‘Where are the idealists in interwar International Relations?’, Review of International Studies, 32:2 (2006), pp. 291308 ; Brian Schmidt (ed.), International Relations and the Great First Debate (London: Routledge, 2012).

4 This literature is impressively large and growing. Indicative texts include: Lebow, Richard N., The Tragic Vision of Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003); Williams, Michael C., The Realist Tradition and the Limits of International Relations (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005); Molloy, Seán, The Hidden History of Realism: A Genealogy of Power Politics (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006); Michael C. Williams (ed.), Realism Reconsidered: The Legacy of Hans J. Morgenthau (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009); Duncan Bell (ed.), Political Thought and International Relations: Variations on a Realist Theme (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).

5 Ashley, Richard K., ‘The poverty of neorealism’, International Organization, 38:2 (1984), pp. 225286 .

6 See, for example, Bain, William, ‘Deconfusing Morgenthau: Moral inquiry and classical realism reconsidered’, Review of International Studies, 26:3 (2000), pp. 445464 ; Cozette, Murielle, ‘Reclaiming the critical dimension of realism: Hans J. Morgenthau on the ethics of scholarship’, Review of International Studies, 34:1 (2008), pp. 527 ; Scheuerman, William E., ‘Realism and the Left: the case of Hans J. Morgenthau’, Review of International Studies, 34:1 (2008), pp. 2951 ; Behr, Hartmut and Heath, Amelia, ‘Misreading in IR theory and ideology critique: Morgenthau, Waltz and neo-realism’, Review of International Studies, 35:2 (2009), pp. 327349 ; Rösch, Felix, ‘ Puovoir, puissance, and politics: Hans Morgenthau’s dualistic concept of power’, Review of International Studies, 40:2 (2014), pp. 349365 .

7 This one-dimensional depiction is still evident in certain quarters. Elman and Jensen, as an example, write that the classical realist research programme, which can be traced to the publication of The Twenty Years’ Crisis, hones in on the fact that the ‘desire for more power is rooted in the flawed nature of humanity’. That is, ‘states are continuously engaged in a struggle to increase their capabilities’; that for classical realists, ‘international politics can be characterized as evil’; and that ‘classical realism explains conflictual behavior by human failings’. Colin Elman and Michael Jenson (eds), The Realism Reader (London: Routledge, 2014), p. 3.

8 E. H. Carr, The Twenty Years’ Crisis 1919–1939: An Introduction to the Study of International Relations (reissued edition edited by Michael Cox, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001), p. xiii.

9 Wilson, Peter, ‘Radicalism for a conservative purpose: the peculiar realism of E. H. Carr’, Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 30:2 (2001), pp. 123136 (p. 125).

10 Booth, Ken, ‘Security in anarchy: Utopian realism in theory and practice’, International Affairs, 67:3 (1991), pp. 527545 .

11 Ibid., pp. 530–1.

12 Howe, Paul, ‘The utopian realism of E. H. Carr’, Review of International Studies, 20:3 (1994), pp. 277297 (p. 277).

13 Kenealy, Daniel and Kostagiannis, Konstantinos, ‘Realist visions of European Union: E. H. Carr and integration’, Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 41:2 (2012), pp. 221246 .

14 Ibid., pp. 241–2.

15 Linklater, Andrew, ‘The transformation of political community: E. H. Carr, critical theory and International Relations’, Review of International Studies, 23:3 (1997), pp. 321338 (p. 324).

16 Ibid., pp. 330–8.

17 Babík, Milan, ‘Realism as critical theory: the international thought of E. H. Carr’, International Studies Review, 15:4 (2013), pp. 491514 (p. 504). See, also, Dunne, Tim, ‘Theories as weapons: E. H. Carr and International Relations’, in Michael Cox (ed.), E. H. Carr: A Critical Appraisal (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), pp. 217233 .

18 Cox, Robert, ‘Social forces, states and world orders: Beyond International Relations theory’, Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 10:2 (1981), pp. 126155 (p. 131).

19 Germain, Randall, ‘E. H. Carr and the historical mode of thought’, in Michael Cox (ed.), E. H. Carr: A Critical Appraisal (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), pp. 322338 .

20 Ibid., p. 332.

21 Bevir, Mark, The Logic of the History of Ideas (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999); Hall, Ian and Bevir, Mark, ‘Traditions of British international thought’, The International History Review, 36:5 (2014), pp. 823834 ; Holthaus, Leonie, ‘L. T. Hobhouse and the transformation of liberal internationalism’, Review of International Studies, 40:4 (2014), pp. 705727 ; Leonie Holthaus and Steffek, Jens, ‘Experiments in international administration: the forgotten functionalism of James Arthur Salter’, Review of International Studies, 42:1 (2016), pp. 114135 . See also Bevir, Mark and Rhodes, Roderick A. W., Interpreting British Governance (London: Routledge, 2003); Bevir, Mark, Daddow, Oliver, and Hall, Ian, ‘Introduction: Interpreting British foreign policy’, The British Journal of Politics and International Relations, 15:2 (2013), pp. 164174 ; Bevir, Mark, Daddow, Oliver, and Hall, Ian (eds), Interpreting Global Security (London: Routledge, 2014); Bevir, Mark, Daddow, Oliver, and Schnapper, Pauline, ‘Introduction: Interpreting British European policy’, Journal of Common Market Studies, 53:1 (2015), pp. 117 ; Bevir, Mark and Daddow, Oliver, ‘Interpreting foreign policy: National, comparative and regional studies’, International Relations, 29:3 (2015), pp. 273287 .

22 Bevir, Logic, p. 158.

23 Ibid., p. 31.

24 Hall, Ian, ‘The promise and peril of interpretivism in Australian International Relations’, Australian Journal of Public Administration, 73:3 (2014), pp. 307316 (p. 308).

25 Carr, What is History, p. 31.

26 Bevir, Logic, p. 200.

27 Hall and Bevir, ‘Traditions’, p. 828.

28 Bevir, Logic, p. 203.

29 Ibid., p. 204

30 Bevir et al., ‘Introduction’, p. 167.

31 Bevir, Logic, pp. 221–2.

32 Hall and Bevir, ‘Traditions’, p. 829.

33 Ibid., p. 829.

34 Molloy, The Hidden History of Realism, p. 53.

35 Jones, Charles, E. H. Carr and International Relations (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), p. 46 .

36 Carr, E. H., ‘An autobiography’, in Michael Cox (ed.), E. H. Carr: A Critical Appraisal (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), pp. xii–xxii (p. xix).

37 Carr, ‘Autobiography’, p. xix.

38 George Lloyd and Edward Wood, The Great Opportunity (London: John Murray, 1919). Carr admitted in his biographical statement (see previous footnote) that he was ashamed of the harshness of The Twenty Years’ Crisis. This dilemma potentially explains his evolving thought between these publications.

39 Jonathan Haslam argued that Carr was ‘ultimately indifferent’ to his image as a ‘hard-boiled advocate of Machtpolitik (Power Politics)’ because ‘he recognised the image to be not altogether inaccurate’. Haslam, Jonathan, No Virtue Like Necessity: Realist Thought in International Relations since Machiavelli (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002), pp. 199200 . In terms of Carr and the realist and realpolitik traditions, see Hall, Ian, Dilemmas of Decline: British Intellectuals and World Politics, 1945–1975 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), pp. 2934 ; Bew, John, Realpolitik: A History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), pp. 177181 .

40 Cadbury Research Library (hereafter CRL), University of Birmingham, Carr Papers, Box 29, Carr’s Appointment Diaries, 1938.

41 Jones, E. H. Carr and International Relations, p. 60; Hall, Dilemmas of Decline, p. 33; Molloy, Seán, ‘Spinoza, Carr, and the ethics of The Twenty Years’ Crisis ’, Review of International Studies, 39:2 (2013), pp. 251271 (p. 261).

42 Carr, The Twenty Years’ Crisis, pp. 11–21, 63–88.

43 Pflanze, Otto, Bismarck and the Development of Germany: The Period of Unification, 1815–1871 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1968), p. 71 .

44 Farenkopff, John, ‘The challenge of Spenglerian pessimism to Ranke and political realism’, Review of International Studies, 17:3 (1991), pp. 267284 (pp. 269–72).

45 von Laue, Theodor, Leopold Ranke: The Formative Years (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1950), pp. 152180 .

46 Ibid., p. 167.

47 Ibid., p. 169.

48 Ibid., p. 172.

49 Ibid., pp. 208–15.

50 Ibid., p. 184

51 Simms, Brendan and Mulligan, William, ‘Introduction’, in William Mulligan and Brendan Simms (eds), The Primacy of Foreign Policy in British History, 1660–2000 (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), pp. 114 (p. 1).

52 Von Laue, Leopold Ranke, p. 99.

53 Ibid., p. 215.

54 CRL, Carr Papers, Box 29, Carr’s Appointment Diaries, 1938.

55 Carr, What is History, pp. 8–9.

56 Carr, The Twenty Years’ Crisis, pp. 15, 88. On the relationship between Carr and Meinecke, see Haslam, No Virtue, p. 185; Bew, Realpolitik, p. 179.

57 Sterling, Richard W., Ethics in a World of Power: The Political Ideas of Friedrich Meinecke (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1958).

58 Simms, Brendan, The Impact of Napoleon: Prussian High Politics, Foreign Policy and the Crisis of the Executive, 1797–1806 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), pp. 45 . Simms, in his formulation, actually includes a fourth factor – crisis and drama. This can be distilled into the first category.

59 Carr, E. H., International Relations since the Peace Treaties (London: Macmillan, 1937), pp. 172 , 228.

60 Carr, E. H., Britain: A Study of Foreign Policy from the Versailles Treaty to the Outbreak of War (London: Longmans Green and Co., 1939).

61 Carr, ‘Autobiography’, p. xix.

62 CRL, Carr Papers, Box 27, Carr to Macmillan, 4 December 1939.

63 Wilson, ‘The myth of the first great debate’.

64 CRL, Carr Papers, Box 27, Carr to Macmillan, 4 December 1939.

65 CRL, Carr Papers, Box 22, E. H. Carr, ‘Review of E. L Woodward’s The Study of international Relations at University’, Times Literary Supplement (24 March 1945).

66 Carr, E. H., The Soviet Impact on the Western World (New York: Macmillan, 1947). In personal correspondence to Arno Mayer, Carr indicated that he wished to ‘devote [his] energies’ to completing his History, adding that he ‘definitely’ did not wish ‘to return to the world of The Twenty Years’ Crisis and all that’. CRL, Carr Papers, Box 27, Carr to Mayer, 30 April 1963.

67 Haslam, The Vices of Integrity, ch. 5.

68 Carr, Britain; Carr, E. H., German-Soviet Relations between the Two World Wars (Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins Press, 1951); Carr, E. H., The Twilight of Comintern, 1930–1935 (London: Macmillan, 1982); E. H. Carr, The Comintern and the Spanish Civil War (published posthumously, edited by Tamara Deutscher, New York: Pantheon, 1984); CRL, Carr Papers, Box 15, E. H. Carr, The Popular Front, 1935–1938 (unpublished manuscript, prepared by Robert W. Davies). Correspondence from Davies to Deutscher indicates that, unlike The Spanish Civil War, it may have been felt that The Popular Front was too repetitive to stand alone as an ‘unfinished symphony’. CRL, Carr Papers, Box 15, Davies to Deutscher, 30 January 1985; CRL, Carr Papers, Box 15, Davies to Deutscher, 6 March 1985.

69 Haslam, No Virtue, pp. 17–18.

70 Carr, Twilight, p. 23

71 Ibid., p. 17. See also Carr, German-Soviet Relations, pp. 89–90.

72 Carr, Twilight, pp. 137–8.

73 Ibid., pp. 151–2.

74 Carr, Spanish Civil War, p. xviii.

75 Ibid., p. 15.

76 Ibid.

77 Ibid., pp. 27, 57–9, 61.

78 Ibid., p. 50.

79 Ibid., p. 84.

80 Carr, Popular Front, p. 51.

81 Ibid., p. 41.

82 Ibid.

83 Carr, Twilight, p. 44.

84 Ibid.

85 Ibid., p. 5.

86 Ibid., p. 93.

87 Ibid., p. 152.

88 Carr, Spanish Civil War, pp. 11–12.

89 Ibid., p. 19.

90 Ibid., pp. 20–1.

91 Ibid., p. 34.

92 Carr, Popular Front, p. 36.

93 Ibid., p. 131.

94 Ibid., p. 128.

95 Ibid., pp. 49–50.

96 Howe, ‘The utopian realism of E. H. Carr’, pp. 282–4; Jones, E. H. Carr and International Relations, pp. 144–7; Germain, ‘E. H. Carr and the historical mode of thought’, p. 239

97 Carr, Conditions of Peace, p. 6; Carr, The Twenty Years’ Crisis, pp. 89–101; Carr, The New Society, p. 14; Carr, What is History?, p. 95.

98 Carr, Twilight, p. 122.

99 Ibid., p. 124.

100 Ibid., p. 52.

101 Carr, The Spanish Civil War, p. 12.

102 Ibid., p. 15

103 Ibid., p. 14.

104 Ibid., p. 85.

105 Ibid., pp. 35–6.

106 In this respect, there is a certain amount of crossover between Carr’s diplomatic histories and the neoclassical realist approach. For this argument with regard to Britain and German-Soviet relations, see Keith Smith, ‘A reassessment of E. H. Carr and the realist tradition: Britain, German-Soviet Relations and neoclassical realism’, International Politics, forthcoming. Although, as will be returned to in the next section, the similarities between Carr’s minor works and the North American realist tradition should not be hastily overdone.

107 Carr, Twilight, p. 70; Carr, The Spanish Civil War, pp. 20–1; Carr, Popular Front, p. 34.

108 Haslam, Vices of Integrity, pp. 178–81.

109 Palan, Ronen P. and Blair, Brook M., ‘On the idealist origins of the realist theory of International Relations’, Review of International Studies, 19:4 (1993), pp. 385399 (p. 388).

110 Lebow, The Tragic Vision of Politics, p. 336.

111 Waltz, Kenneth N., Theory of International Politics (New York: McGraw Hill, 1979), pp. 127128 .

112 Walt, Stephen M., The Origins of Alliances (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1987), pp. 33, 266268 .

113 Steele, Brent J., ‘Context and appropriation: the risks, benefits and challenges of reinterpretive expression’, International Politics, 50:6 (2013), pp. 739752 .

114 Parent, Joseph M. and Baron, Joshua M., ‘Elder abuse: How the moderns mistreat classical realism’, International Studies Review, 13:2 (2011), pp. 193213 .

115 Ibid., p. 197.

116 Ibid., p. 202. They do of course recognise that what constitutes acceptable knowledge is different across time; and that applying the standards of contemporary ‘political science’ to classical works is unjust: ibid. In raising this ‘classical’ point, namely the conditionality of knowledge, the authors neglect its importance for attempting to create a timeless ideal of the realist tradition.

117 Ibid., p. 203.

118 Ibid., p. 195. See also Jeffrey W. Taliaferro, Steven E. Lobell, and Norrin M. Ripsman, ‘Introduction’, in Steven E. Lobell et al. (eds), Neoclassical Realism, The State, and Foreign Policy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), pp. 1–42 (p. 26), fn. 71. For a criticism of this argument, with specific reference to Morgenthau but classical realists more broadly, in terms of discordant epistemology and ontology, see Morgenthau, Hans J., The Concept of the Political, ed. Hartmut Behr, trans. Felix Rösch and Maeva Vidal (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).

119 Bevir, Logic, p. 201.

120 I borrow these terms from Hobson, John M. and Lawson, George, ‘What is history in International Relations?’, Millennium: Journal of International Relations, 37:2 (2008), pp. 415435 .

121 Ibid., pp. 421–3.

122 The qualifier is used because even the most atheoretical history contains implicit theoretical assumptions. With regard to Ranke’s historiography, Krieger argues that Ranke’s ideas (the independence of politics and history, the search for cause and the concern with vital insight) meant that implicitly he was committed ‘to a theory of history which exalted historically rooted facts over any theory to be drawn from history’. Krieger, Leonard, Ranke: The Meaning of History (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1977), p. 23 .

123 Ibid., pp. 425–7.

124 Haslam, The Vices of Integrity, p. 194.

125 Ibid., p. 195.

126 Carr, Twilight, p. viii, emphasis added.

127 See, for instance, his employment of Jacques Duclos’s and Palmiro Togliatti’s memoirs, The Spanish Civil War, pp. 2–3, 52–3. Carr had earlier pointed to the inherent subjectivity of memoirs as primary and authentic documents, What is History, pp. 15–17.

128 Bevir, Logic, p. 201.

129 I am referring specifically to the historically conditioned nature of knowledge and the emancipatory and progressive aspects of critical theory. See Rengger, Nicholas and Thirkell-White, Ben, ‘Still critical after all these years? The past, present and future of critical theory in International Relations’, Review of International Studies, 33:S1 (2007), pp. 324 (pp. 5–7).

130 Behr and Heath, ‘Misreading in IR theory’, p. 336.

131 Evans, Graham, ‘E. H. Carr and International Relations’, British Journal of International Studies, 1:2 (1975), pp. 7797 (p. 83).

132 Carr, The Twenty Years’ Crisis, p. 27.

133 Wilson, Peter, ‘Where are we now in the debate about the first great debate’, in Brian Schmidt (ed.), International Relations and the Great First Debate (London: Routledge, 2012), pp. 133151 (p. 135).

134 Carr, The Twenty Years’ Crisis, pp. 208–39; Carr, Nationalism and After, pp. 38–74; Carr, The Conditions of Peace, p. 130.

135 Morgenthau, Hans J., American Foreign Policy: A Critical Examination (Methuen & Co.: London, 1951). American Foreign Policy demonstrated how American geography (its isolated nature) shaped American foreign policy in the early republic (p. 10). It also pointed to the manner in which changes in international relations (bipolarity, British decline, and the decolonisation era) were, by necessity, altering America’s foreign relations (p. 51). Moreover, Morgenthau contended that security was prime (p. 89). There are, of course, areas in the text where Morgenthau departs from the tradition, that is, the impact of technology (pp. 52–3) and the influence of various ideological isms on American foreign policy (pp. 91–138). Nevertheless, as with Carr’s diplomatic histories, there are still connections between American Foreign Policy and the primacy of foreign affairs tradition. For a reading of Morgenthau that sees his work as an unsuccessful attempt to systematise the diplomatic insights of nineteenth-century Europe for an American political science audience, see Guzzini, Stefano, ‘The enduring dilemmas of realism in International Relations’, European Journal of International Relations, 10:4 (2004), pp. 533568 .

136 For one exception, see Gilpin, Robert, War and Change in World Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981).

137 Erskine, Toni and Lebow, Richard N., ‘Understanding tragedy and understanding International Relations’, in Toni Erskine and Richard N. Lebow (eds), Tragedy and International Relations (London: Palgrave, 2012), p. 3 .

138 Ibid., p. 6.

139 Lebow, The Tragic Vision of Politics, p. 20.

140 Ibid., p. 16.

141 Ibid., p. 257.

142 Carr, ‘Autobiography’, p. xix.

143 Carr, Popular Front, pp. 174–5.

144 Ibid., p. 178.

145 Ibid., p. 179.

146 Ibid.

147 Ibid., pp. 184–5

148 Ibid., p. 187.

149 Ibid., p. 188.

150 Ibid.

151 One might conclude that Carr was bowdlerising his own historical past here. Immediately following the Second World War, however, Carr did express doubts over the Munich agreement. On the sincerity assumption on Bevirian interpretivism, see Bevir, Logic, p. 236. Distortion caused by a pro-Soviet attitude may also be evident, see Bevir, Logic, pp. 267–70.

152 Cited in Cozette, ‘The critical dimension of realism’, p. 16.

153 Carr, The Spanish Civil War, p. xvi.

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