EH Carr and the Realist Theory of Propaganda

November 28, 2011

I ‘accidentally’ bought a pamphlet by EH Carr, Propaganda in International Politics published in 1939 without realizing that this this was actually extracted from the first (1939) edition of The Twenty Years Crisis, 1919-1939.* Generations of International Relations students have read the second (1946) edition as one of the founding texts of realist international relations theory.  I remember being told as an undergraduate the chief difference the two editions was that in 1939 Hitler was still ‘Herr Hitler’ but from a quick comparison between the pamphlet and my copy of the second edition Carr seems to have toned down how he expresses his argument even if the basic direction remains unchanged.

Carr argues for the close association between ‘power over opinion’ and military and economic power.  The impact of ideas is tied to their promotion by states  – which in turn reflects interests.  Carr is dismissive of the power of ideas that are not supported by states.  For him the failure of the League of Nations and its belief in the power of ‘international public opinion’ is the ‘best modern illustration’  of the fact that propaganda ‘is ineffective as a political force until it acquires a national home and becomes linked with military and economic power’.

It is an illusion to suppose that if Great Britain (or Germany or Soviet Russia) were disarmed or militarily weak, British (or German or Soviet) propaganda might still be effective in virtue of the inherent excellence of its content.

The almost universal belief in the merits of democracy which spread over the world in 1918 was due less to the inherent excellence of democracy or of  the propaganda on its behalf than to the victory of the Allied armies and the Allied blockade.  Had the Bolshevik regime collapsed in 1919, far fewer people would today be convinced of the merits of Marxism.  If Germany is defeated in the present war, little more will be heard of the ideological merits of National Socialism.

But this isn’t the whole story

Propaganda to be successful must appeal to some universally or generally recognized values….Every country seeks to place its policy on an ethical basis, even if this can only be done by asserting that it has a historical mission to rule over inferior races for their own good.  Whatever the policy the need to clothe it in some altruistic guise is universally felt.

No national policy is disinterested, and no country can justly identify its own welfare with the welfare of the world as a whole. But some countries in the pursuit of their ends show more consideration than others for the rights and interests of the rest of the world.  In so far as they do so, they are entitled to claim that their policy is more moral: and their international propaganda, resting on this basis is likely to prove  more effective than that of their rivals

Three  thoughts:

What struck me in reading this was the question of the extent to which ‘power over opinion’ can be thought of as being an autonomous source of influence in international politics.  Carr is concerned to attack the idea that public opinion operates independently of other sources of power but at the same time he does recognize that ‘power over opinion’ has some force distinct from military or economic power.

Seventy years later can we argue that power of opinion has become more autonomous?  The standard view is that political change and a new media environment has produced this effect.  On the other hand I think that it would be a mistake to overstate the autonomy of power over opinion from other factors.   We wouldn’t be debating ‘Chinese  soft power’ if the Chinese economy was not as large as it is. The ability of the EU or the US to effectively promote its ideas will not be helped by the reality and perception of decline.

As with most writing from International Relations on propaganda or public diplomacy Carr is actually vague on the mechanisms by which power over opinion operates.

In a later post I’ll raise the question of what public diplomacy studies can learn from realism.

*Fortunately I only paid £3 (but the original price of the pamphlet was 3 pre-decimal pennies , there were 240 old pennies to the pound so ignoring inflation I paid 240 times the original price….)

Carr, E.H. (1939) Propaganda in International Politics. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Carr, E.H. (1946) The Twenty Years’ Crisis, 1919-1939: An Introduction to the Study of International Relations. 2nd ed. London: Macmillan.


  1. Thanks again, Robin. Looks like quite an intellectual archeology you are conducting 😉
    I would not blush at being called a “realist” when it comes to international relations. I often consider this kind of intellectual labeling as distracting from what is the heart of my work, and I don’t share some classical realist approaches, but I still understand most realists.
    But there is something I don’t understand here. To summarize, Carr emphasizes the fact that state-endorsed ideas have the biggest staying power in the field of international relations. And certainly, the backing of a state is an important asset for any idea to spread.
    But can you write at the same time that propaganda, to be efficient, needs to correspond to certain values? It seems to me that values are ideas too. Is it to say there is a pool of international values, relevant to groups of states, to which specific states have to bow if they want their propaganda to be efficient? This would introduce a more complex dimension to Carr’s assertion that “only states produce lasting ideas”.
    That is one thing I have always found weird with the use by realists of the Medean dialogue. Certainly this is an example of might making right: big Athenes crushes small Medea. At the same time, the Athenians as described by Thucydides go to great length to justify themselves, essentially claiming to be the arm of the gods’ will.
    Isn’t that some kind of propaganda, destined to other actors in the field of Greek city-states, and justifying their acts by using values common to all these city-states?
    Maybe Carr provides more reflections on that in the rest of the book.

    Long comment, hopefully not too off-key. All the best to you!

  2. Hi Louis – in writing this I’d been struck by the same point – Carr wants both to emphasize the importance of state support but to avoid reducing ideas to military or economic power. It rather reminded me of certain types of Marxism which want to avoid a simply economic reductionism and start introducing ideas of ‘relative autonomy’. Of course Carr like Morgenthau had been influenced by Karl Mannheim’s sociology of knowledge which perhaps gives a Marxist tinge to their analysis. In the end The Twenty Years Crisis it is a bit of a polemic and I don’t think that the theoretical framework can really cope with the complexity of balancing ideas against material power.

    I’ve got a quite a lot of time for classical realism I think that it flags up some issues that tend to get forgotten in studies of contemporary public diplomacy – I’ll pick this up in a day or two.


  3. Looking forward to that, Robin.

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