EH Carr and the Realist Theory of PropagandaNovember 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
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….)