The Twenty Years' Crisis

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The Twenty Years' Crisis: 1919–1939: An Introduction to the Study of International Relations is a book on international relations written by E. H. Carr. The book was written in the 1930s shortly before the outbreak of World War II in Europe and the first edition was published in September 1939, shortly after the war's outbreak;[1] a second edition was published in 1945. In the revised edition, Carr did not "re-write every passage which had been in someway modified by the subsequent course of events", but rather decided "to modify a few sentences" and undertake other small efforts to improve the clarity of the work.[2]


The text is considered a classic in international relations theory, and is often dubbed one of the first modern realist texts, following in the fashion of Thucydides, Machiavelli and Hobbes. Carr's analysis begins with the optimism that followed World War I, as embodied in the League of Nations declarations and various international treaties aimed at the permanent prevention of military conflict. He proceeds to demonstrate how rational, well-conceived ideas of peace and cooperation among states were undermined in short order by the realities of chaos and insecurity in the international realm. By assessing the military, economic, ideological, and juridical facets and applications of power, Carr brings harsh criticism to bear on utopian theorists who forget to consider the exigencies of survival and competition.

Carr does not, however, consider the prospect of human improvement a lost cause. At the end of The Twenty Years' Crisis, he actually advocates for the role of morality in international politics, and suggests that unmitigated Realism amounts to a dismal defeatism which we can ill afford. The sine qua non of his analysis is simply that in the conduct of international affairs, the relative balance of power must be acknowledged as a starting point.

He concludes his discussion by suggesting that "elegant superstructures" such as the League of Nations "must wait until some progress has been made in digging the foundations".[3]


Since its publication, The Twenty Years' Crisis has been an essential book in the study of international relations. It is still commonly read in undergraduate courses, and the book is considered "one of the founding texts of classical realism".[4] The book has served as the inspiration for numerous other works, such as The Eighty Years' Crisis, a book written by the International Studies Association as a survey of trends in the discipline, edited by Michael Cox, Tim Dunne, and Ken Booth, who write that "many of the arguments and dilemmas in Carr's The Twenty Years' Crisis are relevant to the theory and practice of international politics today",[5] praising the book as "one of the few books in the 80 years of the discipline which leave us nowhere to hide".[6]

The response to Carr has not been, however, entirely positive. Caitlin Blaxton criticized Carr's moral stance in the work as "disturbing".[7] Scholars have also criticized Carr for his presentation of the so-called realist-idealist conflict. According to Peter Wilson, "Carr's concept of utopia ... is not so much a carefully designed scientific concept, as a highly convenient rhetorical device".[8] Conversely, rather than attempt to critique Carr with the benefit of hindsight, Stephen McGlinchey states that Carr's analysis of events in The Twenty Years Crisis was significant and timely within its context, particularly in its critique of the League of Nations.[9]

The complexities of the text have recently been better understood with a growing literature on Carr, including books by Jonathan Haslam, Michael Cox, and Charles Jones.


  1. ^ Carr (2001)
  2. ^ Carr (1945), p. vii
  3. ^ 1892-1982., Carr, Edward Hallett, (1964). The twenty years' crisis, 1919-1939; an introduction to the study of international relations (2d ed.). New York,: Harper & Row. p. 239. ISBN 0061311227. OCLC 180416.
  4. ^ Tortola (2005)
  5. ^ Dunne, Cox & Booth (1998), p. xiii
  6. ^ Dunne, Cox & Booth (1998), p. xiv
  7. ^ Wilson (1998), p. 3
  8. ^ Wilson (1998), p. 11
  9. ^ McGlinchey (2010)