Realist theory arose by way of reaction to the shortcomings of utopian philosophy and the utopianism underlying the post-World War I peace-building process. What is the realist critique of utopianism in relation to the League of Nations? Do you agree or disagree? Why?
Woodrow Wilson was the most prominent advocate of the utopian approach underlying the post-World War I peace-building process. His concept of international world order was based on two important prerequisites: first, he envisaged a new world order governed by an international framework of “collective security” (Carr, p. 8) between nations which he considered essential for the peaceful settlement of international disputes and second, the existence of representative democracy whereby elected officials would represent the interests of their people. E.H. Carr developed his philosophy as a response to the utopian views that since all nations have a “common interest in peace” (Carr, p. 51), it would be irrational and immoral to go against that goal.
The realist critique of Carr was centred on the idea that economic and military aspects of power have an impact on the functioning of global politics. In his views, the utopian solutions to prevent war and crises by establishing an international organization such as the League of Nations, whereby every member-state would commit to the avoidance of war because it is undesirable to the group as a whole, failed to recognize that the self-interest of nations does not always coincide with the interest of more powerful states or the assumed common interest in peace. According to the realist doctrine, the utopian approach to peace-building and the creation of the League of Nations was merely a method used by powerful states to hide their interests of subjugating their rivals (Cox, p. 4). Thus, Carr’s first major realist critique of the utopian approach in relation to the League of Nations could be summarized as the complete disregard by its founders of the importance of power and the role of self-interest in the reality of competition and the need for survival.
His second critique of the utopian approach in creating the League of Nations is centred on the “peace through law” doctrine. In Carr’s view, peace could not be achieved through the imposition on the part of the powerful nations, or the victors, of laws and reparations. He felt that imposition of international order and solidarity among nations were only means to impose the self-interest of a group of nations in maintaining their status of a Great Power. According to realist critique, the creation of the League of Nations was a project bound to fail because international relations were not governed by the assumed existence of laws and norms to maintain peace, but by the reality of the needs and self-interest of peoples. In this sense, his second criticism could be formulated as the potential failure of the organization in case it is confronted with the refusal of other states to adopt those policies and integrate them on a national level as something which overrides the self-interest of a state for survival and further economic development.
In my own view, Carr’s conclusions that the utopian approach in creating the League of Nations and disregarding the role of economic and political power were valid. His position that the common interest in eradicating violence and aggression between nations is not sufficient to maintain peace is well argued in the sense that imposition of peace by the victors of World War I, failed to recognize the existing disparities between the victors and those who were defeated. The states who had already gained a position of economic, military and political power would naturally have an interest in maintaining this by avoiding another war. The group of states who were defeated were not in a position to bargain the conditions which would govern international relations. As such, the utopian model allows for failure to recognize the importance and impact of power as an utopian creation such as the League of Nations provides the framework for imposition of the self-interest of a dominant group over the interests of other members of the group, claiming that acting against those perceived common interests would be irrational and immoral since it would serve to the detriment of the whole group.
Carr’s second critique against the potential of the League of Nations, however, does not follow the same line of argumentation. He argues that the continued existence and success of an international peace platform such as the League of Nations is at peril in the occasion when one or more states refuse to abide by the standards imposed by the League’s founders. While I agree with the fact that both human beings and nation-states have the ultimate instinct of self-preservation and improvement, Carr does not provide any empirical or theoretical argument as to why mutual cooperation cannot be achieved once after a common interest has been objectively established. Nevertheless, it should be noted that he recognizes this possibility, but only after “some progress has been made in digging the foundations” (Carr, p. 239), i.e. after the realities of lack of security and disruption and the relative balance of power between states has been recognized.
In conclusion, Carr’s realist critique of the utopianism in relation to the League of Nations is well-founded. It demonstrates the deficiencies in the utopian doctrine in its disregard of the role of power in international relations and the problematic nature of effectively maintaining peace through law without acknowledging the reality of insecurity and competition.