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This essay will critique the assumption that The Twenty Years’ Crisis can be considered the foundational text of International Relations.
This essay will argue that this book can be considered as a foundational text for the discipline, without necessarily considering it as the only text that had a major influence. One of the key points to consider when making this argument is that The Twenty Year’s Crisis cannot be considered as a book that was written ex nihilo, rather this book has to be inserted in the context of the history of political thought and in this perspective it is possible to understand how this book cannot be seen as the only one that had foundational value for the discipline.
In order to demonstrate the above-mentioned argument this essay will be divided in four main parts. Firstly, this essay will offer an overview a critical review of the literature concerning the definition of foundational for the discipline of International Relations. Secondly, this paper will benchmark the Twenty Years’ Crisis against the metrics of the definition of foundational text, whilst offering a critical overview of the relevant literature about whether The Twenty Years’ Crisis can be considered the foundational text of International Relations. Thirdly, this essay will argue that in order to demonstrate that The Twenty Years’ Crisis is a foundational text, rather than the foundational text it is necessary to insert it within the history of political thought. In this light, Carr’s text can be seen as not the only foundational text, rather one of the foundational texts with other books written before that.
It is important to look at the work of Wilson (2013: 4) when defining what are classics of International Relations. In this regard, he offers an overview of four main categories of classics and he inserts The Twenty Years’ Crisis in the category of the acknowledged or undisputed classic’ (Wilson, 2013: 3-5). Considering this categorisation of classical texts of International Relations, it is important to note that for the purpose of this paper it is important to note the difference between a classical and foundational text, in this respect it is necessary to correct and supplement his definition of the acknowledged and undisputed classic’ (Wilson, 2013: 3) to achieve a definition of what a foundational text is. Firstly, it is important to consider the intent of the author when writing the text. This is important because it poses the question whether the author was aware of the potential impact of his text on the discipline. Secondly, it is important to note that a foundational text is continuously interpreted and assumes new significance with every generation of scholars of International Relations. Thirdly, it is important that the text is explicitly prescriptive meaning that it offers the foundation for a further study of the subject.
In order to dismiss how The Twenty Years Crisis can be seen the foundational text of International Relations, it is important to see how the text performs against the metrics that define a foundational text as the foundational text rather than as a foundational text: (1) acknowledgment of the role of the text, (2) extent to which the text is undisputed within the discipline, (3) evaluation of the intent of the author, (4) prescriptive value.
Firstly, it is important to note that a foundational text, following Wilson (2013: 3) definition has to be widely acknowledged. In this respect, The Twenty Years’ Crisis respects these metrics as this text has been widely mentioned and used by scholars of International Relations and as Lyon (1965: 81) argues it has been recognised by scholarship that the text has launched the discipline of IR in a new phase which is indicative of the First Great Debate in International Relations.
Secondly, it has to be observed that even if the Twenty Years’ Crisis is a text whose impact has been widely acknowledged in the discipline, the same cannot be said about the fact that the text has been undisputed in International Relations. For, there are several interpretations of the text given his high level of ambiguity especially because it is difficult to understand the position of Carr in relation to utopianism and realism. For, Carr (1981: 87) says that: ‘Here, then is the complexity, the fascination and the tragedy of all political life. Politics are made up to two elements – utopia and reality – belonging to two different planes that can never meet.’ Carr (1981) throughout his work does not seek to clarify the relations to these two dimensions of power and as a consequence his work has been heavily criticised by scholars of International Relations such as Morgenthau (1948: 129), Woolf (1940: 172) Stebbing (1941: 12-16) and Linklater (2000: 325) for his ambiguity. In this respect, then, The Twenty Years’ Crisis does not fulfil this criteria, as rather than being an undisputed text it is a highly disputed text.
Thirdly, it is important to evaluate the intent of the author when writing the text. In this respect, it is important to observe that Carr (1981: 3) thought at the time that the discipline of international politics was still at its beginning, as he declares: “the science of international politics is in its infancy.’ Carr did not think that there was such a thing as a science of International Relations, and that therefore it was difficult to consider it as an academic discipline, rather, he thought of International Relations as an ideology that justified the use of force in the international scenario. Moreover, as Cox (2001: xii-xiii) observes Carr did not show a lot of interest in the faith of the Twenty Years’ Crisis and in the discipline of International Relations, rather, he was much more concerned in his works about the Soviet Union. Therefore, in this respect it is possible to argue that the intent of the author was not to make an ever lasting impact within the discipline of International Relation and that Carr did not write this book with the intent of offering a foundation for the discipline of International Relations.
Finally, it is important to consider to what extent The Twenty Years’ Crisis was meant to be a prescriptive text for the discipline of International Relations. In this regards, it is important to observe that Carr offered a critical assessment of the status of international affairs at the time of the League of Nations, rather than offering a prescriptive piece of work clarifying how this system could be improved. As Cox (2001: xxii-xxiii) observes Carr offers a high level analysis of the status quo; however, this ended up being more a critical analytical work, rather than a prescriptive one and with Carr’s ambiguity about the role of morality, utopia and reality it is difficult to assess the key prescription of this book. In conclusion, Carr (1981: 209-219) argues that change in the international arena had to be seen as natural and necessary; however, it was necessary to find a way to avoid that the change would happen in a violent way. Secondly, Carr (1981: 213-219) argues that it was necessary in order to guarantee security in the long term to tackle the problem of the nation state and of the structure of the international economy; however, Carr did not clearly outline the steps necessary for this change. As a consequence, The Twenty Years’ Crisis cannot be considered as a prescriptive text of International Relations.
Overall, The Twenty Years’Crisis benchmarked against the criteria for the definition of foundational text satisfies only one of the four requirements. The Twenty Years’ Crisis has been widely acknowledged for its role in the discipline of International Relations; however, it cannot be considered an undisputed and prescriptive text that contains a clear intent of the author to contribute to the discipline. Therefore, as the text does not satisfy all the criteria it cannot be considered the foundational text of the discipline, but one foundational text among others. In order to demonstrate how the Twenty Years’ Crisis can be considered a foundational text in International Relations, rather than the foundational text in International Relations it is necessary to note the role of other works in the history of political thought. For the purpose of this study, this paper will note how some of the methodology and concepts used by Carr were already present in the work of Thucydides. This is not to say that Thucydides was the unique influence on Carr’s work; also the works of Kant (1983), Marx (1992), Machiavelli (1988) and others played a role, but Thucydides is the most striking example of how the history of the founding text of International Relations has to be assessed across centuries and in this perspective Carr’s work is just one among others foundational texts. There are four main text that had an impact for the discipline and that had an impact on Carr’s work. First of all, in Carr it is possible to note the influence of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War. First of all, Thucydides put forward the method of historical research that will then be used by Carr in his book. This is to say that he adopts an inductive method of research that applied the observation of facts and the elaboration of theories out of empirical events, this is the same method that Carr (1961: 120) argues that it is important to adopt in historical research. Moreover, Carr makes use of the concept of the Thucydidean Trap that was already advanced in The History of the Peloponnesian War. In Thucydides’ (1980: 1.23.5-6) words: ‘The growth of the power of Athens and the alarm which it inspired in Sparta, made war inevitable’. In conclusion, as Skinner (1969: 3) argues it is important to consider the idea of historical contextualism when understanding a text and evaluating its value. In this context, Carr’s text plays a role only benchmarked against other works. In conclusion, as Evans (1975: 77) argues The Twenty Years’ Crisis played an important role for international theory but in this perspective he can be seen as an important figure for the discipline of International Relations and not necessarily the most important figure for the foundation of the discipline. Especially considering that as Evans (1975: 78) says: ‘the character of his thought of contribution, although universally acknowledged is not clear.’ This is important to note how the text of Carr fulfils the first criteria for a foundational text, because of its acknowledge role in the discipline, but fails to meet the other three criteria of being an undisputed and prescriptive text which clearly states the intent of the author whilst writing it.
In conclusion, this essay has argued that it is not possible to consider The Twenty Years’ Crisis as the foundational text of International Relations, rather this book can be considered as one among others foundational text. In order to demonstrate this argument this essay has first of all offered an overview of the relevant academic literature about the subject. Moreover, this paper has assessed the different perception of The Twenty Years’ Crisis in academic literature as the foundational text of International Relations. Secondly, this essay has examined the performance of The Twenty Years’ Crisis against the four criteria defining the foundational text for International Relations. It has concluded that Carr’s book fulfils only one out of the four criteria. Overall, the fact that Carr’s book cannot be considered as the foundational text but as a foundational text of International Relations does not dismiss its value for the discipline. Further studies on the subject will require to identify which text can be considered the foundational text of International Relations considering the above mentioned four criteria.
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