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January 22, 2024   8 mins

Last week, the Defence Secretary, Grant Shapps, warned that we are “moving from a post-war to a pre-war world” where, “in five years’ time, we could be looking at multiple theatres [of conflict] involving Russia, China, Iran, North Korea”. This can hardly be seen as the mere electoral ploy of a flailing government: there must, by this stage, remain very few voters who would entrust the Conservative Party with steering a globe-spanning conflict to a successful conclusion. Shapps’s warning was, unfortunately, merely a description of objective reality. We are on the brink of a conflict for which Britain is woefully unprepared. And, in navigating a path forward, I suggest it is worth reassessing the seminal 1939 masterwork of the great British International Relations (IR) theorist E.H. Carr. 

A Cambridge classicist turned diplomat, whose experience negotiating the 1919 Paris Peace Conferences disenchanted him with international politics, Carr laid out in The Twenty Years Crisis how the well-meaning illusions of liberal idealists had set Europe on the path to war. The “Utopians” had imported the precepts of Benthamite liberalism into the domain of International Relations, deluding themselves as to how the struggle between the world’s “haves” and have-nots” worked against a stable equilibrium. As Carr wrote, “The breakdown of the 1930s was too overwhelming to be explained merely in terms of individual action or inaction. Its downfall involved the bankruptcy of the postulates on which it was based” because “the principles themselves were false or inapplicable”. Then as now, “much comment on international affairs was rendered tedious and sterile by incessant girding at a reality which refused to conform to utopian prescriptions”. 

Both Britain in its moment of global hegemony and then its supplanter the United States had confused their own political and economic dominance with the good of all mankind, clothing [their] own interest in the guise of a universal interest for the purpose of imposing it on the rest of the world”, yet as soon as the attempt is made to apply these supposedly abstract principles to a concrete political situation, they are revealed as the transparent disguises of selfish vested interests”. Then, like the liberal dinosaurs who still dominate foreign policy discourse, “the utopian, faced by the collapse of standards whose interested character he has failed to penetrate, takes refuge in condemnation of a reality which refuses to conform to these standards”. 

There are two distinct, if overlapping, arguments here, both of which can rightly be made against our own Utopians. First, that the Idealists, for reasons inherent in Anglo-Saxon political culture, imposed the philosophically false precepts of 19th-century liberalism on the real world as it actually exists, and stood back in bewildered horror at the chaos that ensued. The second is that the idealist prescriptions of the Utopians masked naked self-interest, whether through cynicism or lack of self-awareness. In just the same way, there has always been a tension, in Realist critiques of US foreign policy, between criticising idealism for frittering away real-world power in pursuit of ideological delusions, and in deploying its stated values only cynically, shrouding its pursuit of naked power politics in a moral cloak.

As a result of his savage excoriation of liberal Utopianism, Carr has since been framed as one of the founding fathers of the Realist school of International Relations, which aims to deal with the world of foreign affairs as it is, and not as we may wish it to be. For as Carr lamented, “in contemporary British and American politics, the most powerful influence has been wielded by those more utopian statesmen who are sincerely convinced that policy is deduced from ethical principles, not ethical principles from policy. The Realist’s task, by contrast, “is to bring down the whole cardboard structure of utopian thought by exposing the hollowness of the material out of which it is built”. One of the first dedicated professors of the new discipline of International Relations, Carr, along with his American analogue Hans Morgenthau, has therefore since been framed as a central protagonist in the “first great debate” between Idealists and Realists, ever since the introductory fare of every IR undergraduate.

As American power surged following the Cold War, within the academy the intellectual pendulum swung away from the Realists towards Idealists who saw in the Pax Americana the opportunity to steer global politics towards an earthly paradise. Their ideas, in vulgarised form, have entranced our rulers ever since. As the great American Realist John J. Mearsheimer warned in his 2004 E.H. Carr memorial lecture: “Carr… would be appalled by the almost complete absence of realists and the near total dominance of Idealists in the contemporary British academy. In fact, it is difficult to imagine any British university hiring a young scholar today who makes arguments like those found in The Twenty Years’ Crisis.” 

Similarly, in his excellent 2019 work The New Twenty Years Crisis, the British IR scholar Philip Cunliffe applies Carr’s merciless dissection of liberal idealism to the delusions of our own rulers. He observes that, in the United States “the hard task of clearing the liberal-utopian undergrowth has largely been undertaken by strong-armed American realists” like Mearsheimer “who have hacked away at the dense foliage of liberal idealism”, which inspired America’s Middle Eastern interventions . In Britain, however, the reason “the political science that Carr sought to establish — realism — has been allowed to wither”. Just as Britain’s political leaders now commit us to the last-ditch defence of an American global order in whose strategic thinking they have no say, so has the British IR academy, like the Utopian pundits of the Thirties, committed itself to providing intellectual cover for this doomed and delusional project.

Today, however, Carr’s work is undergoing a reassessment within the British IR academy in which he remained, for the duration of his life, a neglected prophet. There is something ironic in Carr’s centrality to IR theory: Carr himself had no great love for the discipline he helped found, declaring that the supposed “science of international relations” was merely an intellectual “rag-bag” and a “fiasco”, grumbling that: “Whatever my share in starting this business, I do not know that I am particularly proud of it.” Carr was, fundamentally, a historian whose understanding of international order came from the close, humane observation of human affairs that was, in earlier times, the natural product of a British Classical education. Yet his scepticism of IR’s intellectual value is, I would suggest, more than an amusing biographical quirk. For contained within The Thirty Years Crisis, largely neglected due to the blistering force of his intellectual demolition of liberal Idealism, is an underappreciated dissection of the failings of IR Realism, downplayed by those who claim his mantle for their own.

The failings of liberal idealism are, just as in the Thirties, clear to see: we inhabit the mess the Utopians have created, and are once again on the path to global war. Yet, at least in the vulgarised form IR Realism has adopted in policy discourse, the discipline has overcorrected away from the Utopians’ illusory dreams of global harmony towards a meek subjection to the claims of naked power, which often gives the sense of relishing its own amorality for pure shock value. Yet this is a tendency Carr himself both foresaw and warned against, the neglected half of his masterwork being what we could call a “Critique of Pure Realism”.

As Carr warned: “Where utopianism has become a hollow and intolerable sham… 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.” Indeed, Carr observed “it is an unreal kind of realism which ignores the element of morality in any world order”, as “an international order cannot be based on power alone, for the simple reason that mankind will in the long run always revolt against naked power”. For Carr, the cold power-politics of the Realists is morally unsatisfying, and thus will ultimately fail to provide order, as the human spirit will naturally rebel against it. His value therefore lies in showing that pure Realism, by ignoring the moral considerations underpinning IR, was in a literal sense unrealistic, and no less illusory than the follies of the Idealists.

Yet popular understandings of IR veer between an amoral caricature of Realism indistinguishable from a fawning worship of brute power, and a hysterical, expeditionary Idealism increasingly unmoored from realpolitik — which in the current context means the hard reality of the West’s dwindling power. Just as the struggle for supremacy within the academy between Realists and Idealists obscures these tensions within Carr’s work, many prominent IR Realists today find themselves making moral judgments of their own as they cast their cold eye on world affairs. Realists who view Ukraine’s struggle against Russian domination as a delusional folly of an Idealist West cannot resist making moral claims where their own consciences intrude. For Cunliffe, Nato intervention in Yugoslavia and Libya, like the invasion of Iraq, was not just folly but morally wrong in itself, through violating the rights of small nations of which Carr himself was largely dismissive. Similarly, Mearsheimer observes that Israel’s war on Gaza is a “crime against humanity that serves no meaningful military purpose”, yet claims that even if it were effective, it would be hard to view it as anything other than an outrage. As Mearsheimer states, he wishes “to be on record so that when historians look back on this moral calamity, they will see that some Americans were on the right side of history.” 

Another prominent American Realist, the strategist Elbridge Colby, who has long warned against Washington’s bogging itself down in Ukraine and the Middle East as a distraction from the looming contest with China, takes the opposite position. Colby argues that the Gaza war requires US backing, and that America should be willing to “defer more to Israel’s judgment about how best to manage its security challenges”. This is a position he is most unwilling to take regarding Ukraine. Right or wrong as any of these particular stances may be, they are all moral value judgments, rather than the cold-eyed weighing of power balances which Carr’s Realist heirs profess to expound. Just as Idealists couch naked power politics in dubious moral claims, so do Realists, when it comes to it, find themselves taking moral stances informed by Idealist principles. 

This observation is not an attempted “gotcha”, or accusation of hypocrisy: both Mearsheimer and Cunliffe are alive, within their analysis of Carr’s work, to the moral factors that will always undercut pure Realism, even if they understate their importance. Instead, the observation is that in its circular transatlantic journey, Carr’s Realist tradition has over-emphasised the cold logic of power while underemphasising the natural sense of right and justice that still, despite it all, plays upon the affairs of man. The dispute within the academy has in a few short years been firmly won: the Idealists have led us to catastrophe, and we are soon to find ourselves humbled by the iron laws of power governing international affairs. Yet even still, now that the Realists have won the battle, we would do well not to throw out the ethical baby with the liberal-imperialist bathwater. 

There is a danger, as theory transmutes into policy, that IR realism becomes a more sophisticated version of the vulgar anti-Western self-hatred of the younger Left. Multipolarity, by itself, is no more likely to bring global harmony than European decolonisation brought what we now call the Global South peace and prosperity. One can believe that the invasions of Iraq and of Ukraine are both wrong for precisely the same reasons, just as one can condemn the grossly disproportionate conduct of the Gaza War while also condemning Hamas’s war crimes against Israeli civilians. Carr himself noted that British and American claims that their rule was more humane and driven by local consent than that of their German and Japanese rivals — though cynical and self-serving — were also true in an objective sense. Writing in 2019, Cunliffe was entirely correct to lambast the expeditionary liberalism that destabilised the world order, yet it is a marker of how swiftly the global order has changed that the focus of his polemic is a system that already seems of only historical interest. The US is no longer searching the world for new monsters to slay, but desperately trying to preserve the remnants of its order for those desirous to live under it. The de-escalatory meekness of its responsive use of military force is startling. Realists are in danger of tilting at windmills that have already fallen into ruin. 

The issue at hand is no longer to impose liberalism on other societies by force, but to preserve what was humane about it, in some form, for ourselves. It is fanciful that the Europe that will emerge from the trials ahead will be the world of oppressive liberal hegemony we rail against: critics of runaway liberalism, including myself, may have cause to dread the hard world whose dawning we have so long proclaimed. Is this liberal idealism sneaking in through the back door? In so far as Carr’s conception of the basis of international morality seems to echo liberalism, it is through liberalism’s own self-obscured Christian inheritance. In essence, our task is to rescue what liberalism best preserved of this — as Carr put it, to “ascertain what can be saved from the ruins”. Perhaps here again morality cloaks self-interest — now the West is weak, we throw ourselves back onto the better angels of human nature. 

Through his rejection of IR as a science, Carr is liberated from its sterile determinism. Things, he believes, can yet be better than they are. Whether or not this is true — and the failure of Carr’s chosen projects justly provokes scepticism here — his understanding that we believe this should be so, and that it is morally unsatisfactory to believe otherwise, is worth holding onto. For if the Idealist fallacy is that things are other than they are, the Realist fallacy is that things cannot be so. By not replicating their errors in turn, the Realists may still navigate a path out of the jungle. As Carr observes: “Political science is the science not only of what is, but of what ought to be.” 

Aris Roussinos is an UnHerd columnist and a former war reporter.