E.H. Carr and the Failure of the Inter-War International System

Essay, 2013

21 Pages, Grade: 80/100


Peace and international cooperation may not be sustained on a permanent basis simply by virtue of the illusory belief that states will invariably seek to preserve these ideals merely because they allegedly benefit the international community as a whole. Neither will their presumed adherence to a superior code of morality ultimately suffice on its own to protect the international order from major disruptions caused by the actions of one of its constituent sub-units.

As E.H. Carr remarked, ethical standards cannot exist independent of politics, in particular not without setting them in proper relation to the less abstract determinants in international relations, notably power.1 It was such a separation of power from morality which led politicians of the inter-war period to believe that international cooperation could be perpetuated solely through the establishment of institutions designed to resolve inter-state disputes within an international society whose members supposedly all shared the same goals, even though in reality they clearly didn’t.

Still, as Carr acknowledged, attempts to root moral ideals within the international order need not necessarily suffer the same fate they did in the run-up to World War II.2 Importantly, however, one must first become alive to the highly sensitive constellation of power and morality ultimately required to prevent the international system from giving rise to such forces as might before long prove a potential source of its own instability.

By drawing on a critical engagement with E.H. Carr's work as well as on some particularly illuminating cases in recent modern history in which the promotion of moral ideals arguably led to the creation of a more substantive and enduring order of international peace and cooperation, the essay seeks to make the argument that 'moral ideals' are indeed not per se a lost cause in international politics, albeit only when morality is essentially considered a function of power and not vice versa as Carr noted,3 and, what's more, when they likewise also succeed in enhancing their practical appeal by providing individual state actors in due time with adequate incentives for conceiving of international cooperation as a viable alternative to war and aggression for effecting changes in their favour.

Historical analysis of the failures and deficiencies of the inter-war international order has undeniably produced a wealth of interesting and instructive scholarly literature,4 yet E.H. Carr’s work still stands out as one particularly insightful and conclusive study on it. In essence, Carr attributed the collapse of that order to the presumably unavoidable confluence of a number of conflicting forces and tendencies which combined to lay bare with a vengeance the misguided illusion that the dictates of power politics on individual state behavior could be rendered immaterial–probably even redundant–through the mere presence of institutional arbitration and cooperation alone.5

Arguably most detrimental to lasting peace and international stability was the intrinsically erroneous view that the peculiar balance of power by which European countries had accommodated each other for nearly 100 years before it was eventually shattered by the First World War might in a less power-driven form be restored by encouraging the belief that compliance with international norms and conventions would invariably work towards the common good of all nations.6 Such presumptions, however, failed to appreciate that the 19th century political order had actually never even in the first place rested on a universal validity of rational principles and ethical standards; rather it had been primarily the result of a distinct and, by implication, non-transferable constellation of historical contingencies,7 a balance of forces peculiar ''to the economic development of the period and the countries concerned.''8

Failure to recognize that reality then eventually found its most glaring expression in the concept of the so-called international harmony of interests, i.e. the assumption that collective security, free trade, the sanctity of treaties and international arbitration would always serve nations' common interests.9 Yet unfortunately that doctrine contained one particularly flagrant imperfection, namely that it only provided for the settlement of international disputes within the legal framework of the established order, without at the same time, however, also allowing for far-reaching revisions of its own inherent failings and shortcomings.10

In consequence, the proclaimed harmony of interests missed to extend the advantages shared by its most powerful exponents to such nations as ultimately did not see their concerns sufficiently addressed by it.11 Quite to the contrary, these countries didn't believe that the preservation of the status quo helped them advance their own interests and ambitions.12 In a world facing a serious political, social, economic and moral crisis which not only took issue with the distribution of power among nations, but, moreover, also questioned the very basis of its theoretical underpinnings–democracy, laissez-faire economics, liberalism and self-determination–it was indeed overly optimistic to presume that a professed harmony of interests would ensure peace and security without first re-interpreting its own moral foundations and adapting them to the era's prevailing circumstances and arrangements.13 Accordingly, the reluctance of satisfied nations to effect the necessary amendments for accommodating the needs of dissatisfied powers as well only further hardened the latter's conviction that international morality and solidarity were ultimately but idle platitudes employed by privileged nations to ''justify and maintain their dominant position''14 by masking their ''own interest in the guise of universal interest for the purpose of imposing it on the rest of the world.''15 Before long, their vexation with the international system then translated into open hostility and aggression, setting them on an arguably inevitable collision course with its defenders that would eventually see their societies pitted against one another in history’s most devastating and atrocious conflagration.

In general, E.H. Carr was certainly right that international law and institutions cannot be relied upon to act as a universal remedy for redressing inter-state grievances, in particular not within the constraints of an international order whose members didn't identify the interests of the whole community with their own.16 In that event, such institutions might even constitute a potential root cause for international conflict, if only because differing perceptions with regard to moral precepts and the constitutive nature of the international system stand to result in different strategies adopted by states for handling their relations with other nations. Accordingly, the mere advocacy of such noble principles as universal peace will hardly ever suffice to persuade dissatisfied nations of their alleged suitability for generating mutual advantages. It was precisely this divorce of morality from the far more practical exigencies of states, notably their dependence on certain elements of power to further their most fundamental national needs which Carr accurately identified as one of the most significant flaws in inter-war 'utopian' thought.17

It is only when international law and institutions are widely held of assisting, or at least of not substantially interfering with national objectives that they might place the international system on a less fragile and volatile foundation.18 Dissatisfied states are reluctant to adhere to moral ideals not because they are less appreciatory of their potential merits; rather they simply judge them less helpful and conducive in advancing their own interests as well.19 All states aspire to meet certain indispensable needs, notably political independence, national security and, as far as possible, economic autarky and prosperity. What distinguishes them, however, are the at times very different means applied for realising and/or preserving them.20 As Carr noted, powerful nations with the necessary wherewithal routinely seek to perpetuate their pre-eminent standing by maintaining the status quo at the expense of potential challengers,21 whereas countries with less sophisticated methods for procuring vital resources and directing international capital movements in their favour might accordingly more easily be tempted to revert to less peaceful devices for asserting their demands, notably in the form of territorial expansion and bellicose aggression towards other nations.22

It is on account of these fundamentally opposite strategies employed by states in relation to their respective power that for as long as there do not exist appropriate opportunities and incentives for all of them to more readily forego military violence in their conduct of foreign affairs, appeals to preserve peace for the common good will never be able to deter inter-state conflict on their own. Hence, institutions such as the League of Nations were indeed ill-equipped to meet that noble aspiration, notably as dissatisfied nations were loath to abide by the norms and regulations of an international organization which they perceived unwilling of curing its own ills and inequities. Accordingly, the League thus not only neglected to adequately account for the element of power in international politics,23 but it was likewise a fallacy to believe that merely because it presumed to pass international judgements, resentful nations might in the event more readily comply with its instructions. As Carr remarked, global peace would basically remain an elusive enterprise while there still persisted an overly idealistic belief in the ''normative power of morally decent but ultimately irrelevant bodies'' such as the League of Nations.24 Unable to generate a common interest capable of not only encouraging states to acquiesce to its institutional regulations, but of also overriding their more self-centred ambitions, recourse to war consequently never ceased to be regarded by vengeful nations as an expedient alternative for satisfying their own interests.25

By implication, however, it also follows that self-help and aggression do not a priori mandate the foreign policies of individual state actors.26 Hence, 'Wilsonian ideals' of enduring peace, security and cooperation might indeed be able to receive greater currency if states were not to conceive of international politics primarily as a global and self-fulfilling zero-sum game in which one actor's gains automatically entail losses for another one. By the same token, the exercising of aggressive power must not solely be put down to a presumed absence of moral ideals in inter-state relationships, but arguably even more so to their perceived hollowness and inherent double standards.27

In that context, responsibility for maintaining peace and international cooperation will indeed primarily rest with dominant powers' willingness to effect a constant re-evaluation and re-adjustment of the status quo, notably by addressing unjust practises of the international system of their own volition instead of unwisely handing over the initiative for doing so to revisionist challengers of it.28 In particular, they need to avail themselves more systematically of their 'soft' powers29 to convince other nations that peace and cooperation are more than merely artful institutions to further their own self-enrichment.30 Such need for allowing peaceful change to take place should, however, not only be enjoined upon state actors by moral considerations, as Carr duly remarked,31 but also because already for purely practical reasons any such measured modifications are ultimately much preferable to a potentially far more radical and violent upheaval in international politics.

Accordingly, Carr was right that ''to establish methods of peaceful change is[…]the fundamental problem of international morality and of international politics''32 and that its solution ''must be based on a compromise between morality and power.''33 Above all, however, international relations need to be characterized by a widespread compliance with the principles of 'self-sacrifice' and 'give-and-take', i.e. of attaching equal value to the grievances of both strong and challenging nations.34

Conciliation and mutual accommodation are therefore key to the longevity of any international order, and the instruments or institutions most suited for doing so might arguably indeed best be found along the path of economic reconstruction.35 However, there is one significant qualification to be made here, one which Carr only insufficiently addresses himself. Undeniably he is right to argue that seeking ''the consent of the governed by methods other than coercion'' can help 'Wilsonian ideals' acquire a more universal validity in international politics.36 Still, that approach nevertheless fails to specify that it is ultimately just as important to consider the factors of not only when to offer such conciliation and cooperation, but essentially also of whom to extend it to. Accordingly, Carr might have been a bit hasty to dismiss ideological differences between disparate modes of societal organization, notably between Fascism and Democracy.37

Admittedly, conciliation of resentful nations such as Germany and Japan could have gone a long way towards preserving international peace and stability as Carr maintained.38 Importantly, however, a genuine willingness of dominant powers to not merely employ the League's institutions for their own ends, but to also actively help dissatisfied countries redress their economic and political grievances as well, was ultimately but one part of the solution. As a brief historical survey will show, it is important to remember that resentful nations may actually not always be pacified by the prospect of international equality or common gains. After all, much also depends on a nation's domestic character, given that its distinctive political make-up will basically determine the degree of international cooperation deemed suitable by its rulers for assisting their country achieve its primary objectives. Thus if cooperation should for whatever reasons rather be judged inimical to the realisation of its projects, than conciliation might likewise not deter that nation from resorting to more aggressive power politics.

Accordingly, Carr incorrectly believed that appeasement would work irrespective of whom it was ultimately addressed to.39 Put differently, he failed to perceive that the Allies were dealing with two different Germanys during the inter-war period, one in general responsive to international conciliation, while the other–pervaded by nationalistic fanaticism–categorically refused to even consider in the first place such an option, notably as it was on principle deemed utterly unfit for accomplishing their leaders’ long-term schemes and intentions.40

Undeniably, the international order established by the treaty of Versailles was one that dissatisfied nations rightly believed to operate at their disadvantage, a condition only made worse by the League's apparent incapacity for rectifying its own deficiencies.41 As a result, such views basically undermined the credibility and legitimacy of the very institutions and laws it sought to promote. Importantly, however, it was not a foregone conclusion that further accommodation with Germany, notably in the field of rearmament, couldn't have led to a more benign approach of its leaders in foreign affairs. While such concessions might indeed have prompted them to push for still greater demands, they could nevertheless also have substantially boosted the political reputation and position of the Weimar government, above all that of its Chancellor Gustav Stresseman, the arguably most genuinely peace-minded figurehead in German politics.42

In that context, it is important to understand that the principal reason why Germany wished to rearm was not because it was per se bent on pursuing a more aggressive foreign policy43 ­–at least not in military terms, but rather on account of the perception that its international competitors were actually not willing to comply with the arms limitation terms they had agreed to in 1919 either.44 That failure of the Allies to follow suit on their self-declared objective for general disarmament as a result only reinforced the impression of revisionist countries that the League of Nations was ultimately less an organization of all nations than merely one of its primary beneficiaries.45

That is why political observers such as Winston Churchill were only partially right in maintaining that Germany was actually more after the recovery of lost territories than obtaining equality of status.46 The truth of the matter is that its government above all hoped that a compromise on disarmament issues would provide it with the very diplomatic success it so desperately needed in view of public opinion for suppressing the harmful fascist disease that was presently running rampant within its society.47 According to Carr, Allied intractability to thus help Stresseman secure an acceptable revision of the Versailles Treaty consequently greatly assisted the rise of Social-Nationalism in Germany.48

Yet once Hitler had seized power, attempts to appease him were arguably a vain and fruitless enterprise from the start.49 Granted, the mere fact that that approach ultimately didn’t preserve peace must not detract from its at least theoretical potential for doing so as Carr rightly believed, albeit if and only if, as he failed to discern, it had been directed at the right time at the right political leaders.50 The tragedy with appeasement was not that it was a misconceived policy per se, but rather that its underlying promise to maintain peace and inter-state cooperation basically lacked the willingness of all parties involved to commit themselves in equal part to the unequivocal observance of these high-minded principles. In consequence, the entrenchment of these ideals failed to precede the ascent of intransigently resentful enemies which, in marked contrast to their predecessors, clearly preferred aggressive power politics over peaceful reconciliation for achieving their goals.51 To that degree, Carr rightfully blamed unfair international structures for courting Germany's growing embitterment and thereby abetting the spread of fascism. Importantly, however, a more conciliatory international environment, one in which peace and cooperation truly benefited the entire community of states, could only have secured international stability when dealing with a Germany that was likewise genuinely interested in the pursuit of these ideals. As Hitler-Germany, however, clearly wasn't, it is therefore difficult to imagine how short of substantive territorial concessions it could have been placated to a satisfactory degree. In other words, it was thus essentially less a question over whether appeasement could ever have worked at all than basically one of how, when and, above all, with whom it might have done so.

The same observation also holds true for pre-WWII Japan, a country in which there had never developed any pronounced affinity, let alone identification with the international order. Importantly, however, the translation of its frustration with international politics into open hostility was likewise not so much a pre-determined inevitability than but the effect of foregoing developments which, on balance, greatly accelerated the country's international defection. In particular, one must not confound the especially militaristic form of Japanese nationalism that caused millions of innocent people in Far-East Asia such indescribable pain and suffering in the 1930s with a putatively innate or premeditated desire of its society to inescapably follow such despicable a course of action irrespective of its internal political composition.

Above all, one must not disregard the fundamental break that occurred in Japanese politics during the inter-war period, a deviation from previous policies which although it may have stood in some continuity with deeper, long-term strands of modern Japanese history,52 still cannot be interpreted as but the logical and natural evolution of its distinct political system. Once again, intense nationalism was essentially but the symptom of larger historical trends at work in the background,53 a disease which undeniably the Japanese government itself lacked the determination to blight as early and rigorously as it might have, yet one which the international community as well only insufficiently helped to prevent from gaining in strength in the first place.

International practices such as the extremely ill-received decision to deny Japan racial equality in the Covenant of the League of Nations,54 for instance, considerably increased domestic perceptions that the country was basically asked to conform to the rules of an international order which by all accounts rather sought to perpetuate than do away with the double standards and preferential treatment of a few privileged nations in international politics.55 Thus when the perceived dissonance between national interests and continued compliance with international norms came close to breaking point in the early 1930s, it ultimately took but one final decisive straw such as the non-sanctioned incursion of Japanese forces in northern China to once and for all set the country on a far less peaceable course.56 Belief in advancing matters of important national concern through peaceful accommodation had by that point already reached such low levels of approval that the idea of satisfying these needs by different, more radical avenues was now able to find favour with much broader parts of the country's ruling elite, or at any rate not meeting any sizeable opposition from it.57


1 E.H. Carr, The Twenty Years' Crisis 1919-1939: An Introduction to the Study of International Relations (London: Macmillan, 1939), p. 19.

2 Peter Wilson, 'The Myth of the First Great Debate', Review of International Studies, Vol. 24 (Dec 1998), pp. 12-13.

3 Carr, The Twenty Years' Crisis, p. 62.

4 See, for instance, Frank McDonough (ed.), The Origins of the Second World War (London: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2011); R. Boyce, The Great Inter-war Crisis and the Collapse of Globalization (Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009); Donald Kagan, On the Origins of War and the Preservation of Peace (New York: Doubleday, 2009), pp. 281-436.

5 As Peter Wilson noted, it was precisely this analytical quality of E.H. Carr to identify the correlative nature of both domestic and international issues–war, revolution, social justice, self-determination, economic distress and power politics–which enabled him to critically examine major developments in international politics. See Peter Wilson, 'Radicalism for a Conservative Purpose: The Peculiar Realism of E.H. Carr', Journal of International Studies, Vol. 30:1 (2001), p.135.

6 On the subject of Great Power Politics prior to World War I, see Norman Reich, Great Power Diplomacy 1814-1914 (New York: Mcgraw Hill Book Co, 1992); Paul W. Schroeder, "The Nineteenth Century System: balance of power or political equilibrium?", Review of International Studies, Vol. 15 (1989), pp. 135–153; and Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500-2000 (New York: First Vintage Books, 1989), pp. 143-255.

7 Wilson, 'The Peculiar Realism of E.H. Carr', p.127.

8 Carr, The Twenty Years' Crisis, p. 29.

9 Wilson, 'The Peculiar Realism of E.H. Carr', p. 126.

10 Carr, The Twenty Years' Crisis, pp. 182-184.

11 Robert W. Davies, "Edward Hallett Carr, 1892–1982", in: Proceedings of the British Academy, Volume 69 (1983), p. 486.

12 Carr, The Twenty Years' Crisis', p. 57.

13 Graham Evans, 'E.H. Carr and International Relations', British Journal of International Studies, Vol. 1:2 (July 1975), pp. 82-84.

14 Carr, The Twenty Years' Crisis, p. 75.

15 Carr, The Twenty Years' Crisis, p. 71; Wilson, 'The Peculiar Realism of E.H. Carr', pp. 126-127.

16 Carr, The Twenty Years' Crisis, p. 57.

17 Lucian M. Ashworth, 'Where are the Idealists in Inter-War International Relations?', Review of International Studies, Vol. 32:2 (April 2006), p. 302.

18 Carr, The Twenty Years’ Crisis, pp. 42-43.

19 Ruth Henig, ‘The League of Nations: An Idea before its Time?’, in: Frank McDonough (ed.), The Origins of the Second World War (London: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2011), p. 40.

20 Robert Jervis, 'Realism, Neoliberalism and Cooperation: Understanding the Debate', International Security, Vol. 24:1 (Summer 1999), pp. 50-51; and Robert Powell, 'Anarchy in International Relations Theory', International Organization, Vol. 48:2 (Spring, 1994), pp. 318-321.

21 Typically they try to do so through their often extensive capital exports as well as their privileged access to foreign markets. Carr, The Twenty Years' Crisis, p. 114.

22 Charles Jones, E.H. Carr and International Relations: A Duty to Lie (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), p. 29.

23 Jonathan Haslam, The Vices Of Integrity: E.H. Carr, 1892–1982 (London/New York: Verso, 1999), p. 70.

24 Michael Cox, 'E.H. Carr and the Crisis of Twentieth-Century Liberalism: Reflections and Lessons', Journal of International Studies, Vol. 38:3 (May 2010), p. 528.

25 S. Brown, The Causes and Prevention of War (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1994), pp. 123-124.

26 Opposite views are in particular advanced by prominent offensive realists such as John Mearsheimer in John J. Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001).

27 In Carr's appreciation, these principles were “but unconscious reflexions of national policy based on a particular interpretation of national interest at a particular time.” Carr, The Twenty Years' Crisis, p. 111.

28 Carr, The Twenty Years' Crisis, pp. 152-153.

29 For Joseph Nye, 'Soft Power' is essentially about “co-opting and shaping the preferences of people rather than coercing them”. Joseph S. Nye, Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics (Cambridge, M.A.: Perseus Books Groups, 2004), p. 5.

30 Carr, The Twenty Years' Crisis, p. 174.

31 Carr, The Twenty Years’ Crisis, p. 191.

32 Carr, The Twenty Years’ Crisis, p. 202.

33 Carr, The Twenty Years’ Crisis, p. 192.

34 Carr, The Twenty Years' Crisis, pp. 149-150.

35 By 'economic reconstruction' Carr does not only mean the granting of relief credits to distressed nations, but on a more fundamental level also the widespread acceptance that in order to permanently achieve international peace, stability and security, national policies will on principle have to take into consideration the welfare and societal content of other countries as well. Carr, The Twenty Years’ Crisis, pp. 218-220.

36 Carr, The Twenty Years’ Crisis, p. 217.

37 Jones, E.H. Carr and International Relations, p. 29.

38 Jones, E.H. Carr and International Relations, p. 31.

39 Wilson,’ The Myth of the First Great Debate’, pp. 3-4.

40 Nazi-Germany's true ambitions were after all not only borne out by the conduct of its foreign policy in the 1930s, but even before that the belligerent mind-set of its leaders was hardly veiled in secrecy, notably in Hitler's own writings Mein Kampf and the unedited ‘Zweites Buch'. On Hitler's premeditated international objectives, see in particular J. Noakes and G. Pridham, Nazism 1919-1945. Volume 3: Foreign Policy, War and Racial Extermination (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1997), p. 8.

41 Michael Cox, 'E.H. Carr and the Crisis of Twentieth-Century Liberalism', pp. 527-528.

42 Ruth Henig, 'The League of Nations', p. 41.

43 In that regard, it is thus highly debatable whether Germany would in any event have become an aggressive power by the end of the 1930s as John Mearsheimer contends. Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, p. 199.

44 Ruth Henig, 'The League of Nations', pp. 43-44.

45 John W. Coogan, 'Wilsonian diplomacy in war and peace', in: Gordon Martel (ed.), American Foreign Relations Reconsidered 1890-1993 (New York: Routledge, 1994), p. 85.

46 Z. Steiner, The Lights that failed: European International History 1919-1933 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), pp. 786-792.

47 Ruth Henig, 'The League of Nations', p. 43.

48 Haslam, The Vices of Integrity, p. 59.

49 Jeffrey Record, ‘Appeasement: A Critical Evaluation Seventy Years On’, in: Frank McDonough (ed.), Origins of the Second World War (London: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2011, pp. 223-237.

50 Carr would later admit that he had at the time failed to see Hitler-Germany's true intentions. Davies, Edward Hallett Carr, pp. 483-84.

51 For a balanced appraisal of appeasement policies during the inter-war period, see in particular R.A.B. Dimuccio, ‘The Study of Appeasement in International Relations: Polemics, Paradigms, and Problems’, Journal of Peace Research, Vol. 35:2 (March 1998). pp. 245-259; and Frank McDonough, Neville Chamberlain, Appeasement and the British Road to War (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1998).

52 See M.G. Sheftall, 'An Ideological Genealogy of Imperial Era Japanese Militarism, in: Frank McDonough (ed.), Origins of the Second World War (London: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2011), pp. 50-65.

53 The emergence of popular imperialistic movements was in no small measure a direct corollary of the increasingly acute perception that the western model of democracy and free market economics was rife with grave social and economic injustices and would therefore cause the gradual erosion of Japan's capability to satisfy her most basic national needs. John Toland, The Rising Sun. The Decline and Fall of the Japanese Empire 1936-1945 (New York: Pen & Sword Military Classics, 1971), pp. 5-6.

54 Margaret MacMillan, Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World (New York: Random House, 2003), p. 321.

55 A sentiment fittingly conveyed by Foreign Minister Makino Nobukai upon saying that “we are not too proud to fight but we are too proud to accept a place of admitted inferiority in dealing with one or more of the associated nations. We want nothing but simple justice.” Quoted in Paul Gordon Lauren, Power And Prejudice: The Politics And Diplomacy Of Racial Discrimination (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1988), p. 90.

56 John Toland, The Rising Sun, pp. 8-9.

57 John Keegan, Fateful Choices. Ten Decisions That Changed the World 1940-1941 (New York: The Penguin Press, 2007), pp. 139-140.

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