International Relations

The Twenty Years’ Crisis: a foundational text of International Relations theory?

Nicolas Mejía Riaño, (2016), The London School of Economics and Political Science, Msc in International Relations. 


Schmidt argues that ‘the task of demarcating the disciplinary boundaries is an important prerequisite to establishing authority over its object of inquiry’ (Schmidt, 2013: 5-6). The definition of boundaries is connected to the origins and works that helped to shape a certain field of study. Hence, and in order to assert its uniqueness and provide its practitioners with a common frame of reference, a history is created through the repetition of specific facts that (supposedly) pinpoint the exact moment from which it is feasible to speak of ‘the discipline’.

In the case of International Relations (IR) it is often said that E.H Carr’s book, The Twenty Years’ Crisis, played the pivotal role on the foundation of the field. Burchill and Linklater wrote that it can be considered as the ‘foundational text of the discipline’ (Burchill and Linklater, 2005: 1), a position shared by Colonomos who mentions ‘Carr’s foundational text’ (Colonomos: 2008:34) and recognized by Cox when he notes that the book is ‘one of the key foundational texts in international relations’ (Cox, 1999: 643)

This essay takes issue with the claim that The Twenty Years’ Crisis is the foundational text of International Relations and asserts that it is a problematic statement because it tends to underestimate the degree of continuity between the tradition of international political thought and Carr’s approach and because it misrepresents the relation between science and realism within the book.

For this purpose, the next section will briefly examine the concept of science and relate it to the wider debate within the historiography of IR. Afterwards, the main argument will be developed by presenting an alternative reading of The Twenty Years’ Crisis. Finally, it will be concluded that it is necessary to rediscover the link between the history of IR and the role played in it by The Twenty Years’ Crisis in order to have a more nuanced view of the continuity of topics within the discipline.

I/ The notion of science

Historiography is an expression of power because it highlights some facts but omit others. It creates the myths that a field needs for justifying its origins and presenting a timeline of how it has developed in a coherent and progressive manner. In the case of IR, as noted by Schmidt (1998:21-22), ‘disciplinary history in international relations, like political science, has often been written for purposes of legitimation and critique; that is, history has been cast to support or undermine a particular interpretation of the state of the field’. The claim that The Twenty Years’ Crisis is the foundational text of IR is an argument used for legitimating the dominance of one particular specific philosophical and political paradigm (and its later variants) over the field because it equates ‘science’ with ‘realism’. And so, the argument goes, IR became a scientific enterprise after 1939 when realism triumphed on the so-called ‘Great Debate’, another milestone in the historiography of the discipline that was, until recently, accepted without further thought (Wilson, 1998)

Another issue arises from this argument: that works about international politics, published before The Twenty Years’ Crisis, were unscientific or speculative and thus were buried for good after realism became the ‘normal science’ of IR. For example, McLaughlin, Diehl and Morrow adopt this position when they write that:

‘International politics as a field of inquiry did not exist prior to World War I. And to the extent questions about international phenomena were entertained at all, they occurred largely in the context of law: the rules that should govern the interactions of states with one another… But the horrors of World War I turned attention away from should, the ethics of state interaction, to questions about why things happen as they do. Hence, realism became the new approach as students of international politics sought to understand the dynamics of state interaction that led to such events as war.’ (McLaughlin, Diehl and Morrow, 2012: 4)

Nevertheless, this claim begs some questions: what is science? What was said about the ‘international’ before The Twenty Years’ Crisis? What existed before? Did it influence Carr? According to Chalmers (2013), the concept of ‘science’ is related to the standards used in each discipline as valid to confirm or discard the arguments that support an idea and it is also connected to which questions are asked. This definition emphasizes not only how science is conducted but also the problems that it tackles. If this concept is accepted, it becomes clear that the idea that The Twenty Years’ Crisis marks the scientific birth of the discipline merits further attention because science entails more than a variance on the methods of inquiry.

II/ The Twenty Years’ Crisis: an exercise on international political theory?

In a sense, The Twenty Years’ Crisis could also be seen as an exercise on international political theory, an old and multifaceted branch of political analysis that, as noted by Brown, Nardin and Rengger addresses themes concerning the relation between the national and the international, state and system and insiders/outsiders (Brown, Nardin and Rengger, 2002: 6).

It can be argued that what distinguished Carr from previous contributions was a distinct epistemological focus (i.e. towards ‘objectivity’) and a methodological approach rooted on the analysis of ‘hard facts’ and power, rather than an absolute rupture with the themes that had been explored by previous political philosophers and writers. Carr did not wholeheartedly embraced the notion of ‘science as realism’, and the fact that some textbooks still project that image is part of the mythology of IR (De Carvalho, Leira, & Hobson, 2011).

Carr did not break completely with the insights of international political thought because it was a conceptually difficult move. It would have deprived him of the ideas he needed to engage in his critic of ‘utopianism’: realism itself is a peculiar branch of international political thought, a fact readily recognized and celebrated by him ([1981], 2001: 62-65). That might explain Carr’s suggestion that science has a utopian drive which is necessary to balance with the insights of realism in order to arrive at ‘sound political thought and sound political life’ (Carr [1981], 2001: 9-10) Science is not only the unfettered application of realism. On the other hand, Carr’s numerous references to Hobbes, Kant, Machiavelli, the Abbé Saint Pierre and Locke hint that he is directly working with a (fragmented) tradition of thinking about the international and a recognition that both what he was attacking and the weapons he was using to attack it were not of his own discovery or creation. In this sense, Carr’s contribution can certainly be classified as unique, but there is a difference between highlighting the novelty of his work and ascribing to it a mythical status with which Carr disagreed (Haslam, 1999).

The Twenty Years’ Crisis discusses some of the classical themes of international political thought, two of which warrant further consideration1: the demarcations between inside/outside and universalism/particularism.

Inside/outside: According to Brown, Nardin and Rengger’s framework, this theme addresses relations between collectivities and where the domestic/international line is to be drawn. It was a topic examined before by Aristotle, St. Augustine, Hobbes and Rousseau among others. Carr’s emphasis on the relations of the international vis-à-vis the domestic fit within this theme. For example, when discussing the prospects for a new international order he directly engages with this dichotomy insofar as he dwells on the future of the nation-state as the ‘most comprehensive unit of political power’ (Carr [1981], 2001: 211) That he opts for doing this analysis entails that the division between the international and the domestic was, for him, not a case closed and that it merited attention.

Moreover, his belief in the possibility of extrapolating some of the measures taken at the domestic/state level to the international/system level (what he calls ‘the conditions which have made the process of conciliation between social classes in some degree successful’, (Carr [1981], 2001: 217)) suggests that for him it was possible, indeed, desirable, to create a bridge between the inside (state) and the outside (the ‘international’) as a way of pacifying international politics.

Brown, Nardin and Rengger sustain that for much of history there was not a separation between the domestic and the international: in their words, this separation ‘is fundamental to both conventional Political Science and conventional International Relations. The model on which these disciplines are based posits a clear separation between politics within the collectivity…and politics between collectivities’ (Brown, Nardin and Rengger, 2002: 9) If it is admitted that for Carr such isolation was difficult to maintain, it stands to reason that to claim that The Twenty Years’ Crisis is the foundational text of IR becomes questionable and that there was a continuity of political thought which Carr accepted and criticized.

Universalism/particularism: It refers to the orientation of individuals towards their collectivity and its relationship to the wider whole. A derivation of the theme is the possibility of having universal standards, values or guidelines that apply equally to all individuals and states and whose beneficial effects are rooted on the perfectibility and rationality of human nature. Smith, Kant and Vattel had justified the universal appeal of certain ideas (free trade, democracy and the equality of states), which Carr groups under the label of the theory of the ‘harmony of interests’ The international face of that theory, internationalism, is for him a cynical policy espoused by a ‘prosperous and privileged class, whose members have a dominant voice in the community and are therefore naturally prone to identify its interest with their own’ (Carr [1981], 2001: 75) and a way to mask the disparities of power and standing.

Moreover, there is the idea that justice is possible in the international system provided that note is taken of the constant struggle for power that is a staple of politics and of whose interests and morality are represented at the international sphere. In this regard, Carr’s attitude exhibits a tension present in works of political thought like the ones of Reinhold Niebuhr: between the possibility of achieving a more peaceful and just world but without resorting to all-encompassing schemas. It is the dichotomy between the human drive for justice (‘when a contested demand for change is made, the question which immediately exercises the minds of most people is whether it is just’ (Carr [1981], 2001: 199)) and the realities of power.

These issues, returning to the quote of McLaughlin, Diehl and Morrow above, concern the ‘ought and not only the ‘why’ To that extent, The Twenty Years’ Crisis might classify as a work on international political thought which did have a great impact but did not create IR pristinely and out of nothing.


Carr’s critique was made within the boundaries of existing concepts and ideas; his novelty laid not so much on the creation of new concepts or ideas but rather on a skillful presentation of the advantages and flaws of each one and how they could be deployed for overcoming the international crisis and building a different international order. It might be an obvious point but it is often forgotten than before Carr there was a substantial, fragmented and varied body of work relating to what Hartmut Behr calls ‘the ontologies of the international’ (Behr, 2010) and that there is a relation of necessity between the insights of international political thought and the discipline of IR in terms of a shared history and common preoccupations.

The Twenty Years’ Crisis is not the foundational text of IR because no discipline is born from a tabula rasa state. Its creation is a nonlinear, cumulative and convoluted process, full of continuities and discontinuities. The book is a valuable contribution to the extent that it tries to link theory and practice with an interesting view on the pervasiveness of power and it would be more realistic for the discipline to consider it as such instead of uncritically accept his mythological character.


Behr, H. (2010). A History of International Political Theory: Ontologies of the International. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Brown, C., Nardin, T., & Rengger, N. (2002). International Relations in Political Thought: Texts from the Ancient Greeks to the First World War. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Burchill, S., & Linklater, A. (2005). Introduction. In S. Burchill, A. Linklater,

Devetak, J. Donnelly, M. Paterson, C. Reus-Smit & J. True (Eds.), Theories of International Relations (3rd ed.). Basingtsoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Carr, E. H. ([1981] 2001). The Twenty Years’ Crisis: With a New Introduction by Michael Cox. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Colonomos, A. (2008). Moralizing International Relations: Called to Account.,Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Chalmers, A. (2013). What is this Thing Called Science? (4th ed.). Indianapolis: University of Queensland Press and Hackett Publishing Company.

De Carvalho, B., Leira, H., & Hobson, J. M. (2011). The Big Bangs of IR: the myths that your teachers still tell you about 1648 and 1919. Millennium-Journal of International Studies, 39(3), 735–758.

Haslam, J. (1999). The Vices of Integrity: E.H. Carr, 1892-1982. London: Verso.

Mitchell, S. M., Diehl, P. F., & Morrow, J. D. (2012). Introduction. In S. M. Mitchell, P. F. Diehl & J. D. Morrow (Eds.), Guide to the Scientific Study of International Processes. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

Schmidt, B. (1998). The Political Discourse of Anarchy: A Disciplinary History of International Relations. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Schmidt, B. (2013). On the History and Historiography of International Relations. In W. Carlsnaes, T. Risse & B. Simmons (Eds.), Handbook of International Relations (2nd ed.). London: SAGE Publications.

Wilson, P. (1998). The Myth of the “First Great Debate’. Review of International Studies, 24(05), 1-16.

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