In This Review

The Great Transformation
The Great Transformation
By Karl Polanyi
Farrar & Rinehart, 1944, 305 pp.
The Twenty Years’ Crisis, 1919–1939: An Introduction to the Study of  International Relations
The Twenty Years’ Crisis, 1919–1939: An Introduction to the Study of International Relations
By Edward Hallett Carr
Macmillan, 1939, 312 pp.
Political Community and the  North Atlantic Area: International Organization in the Light of  Historical Experience
Political Community and the North Atlantic Area: International Organization in the Light of Historical Experience
By Karl W. Deutsch et al.
Princeton University Press, 1957, 228 pp.

Editor’s Note: For our centennial issue, our reviewers each selected a set of books essential to understanding the past century and another set essential for imagining the century ahead.

The pivotal transformations of the twentieth century saw the emergence of a liberal international order anchored in Europe and North America. Polanyi, the Hungarian economist, provided one of the most influential midcentury arguments about the deep forces that had imperiled liberal democracies in the interwar period. In this seminal work, published in 1944, Polanyi traces the roots of the crisis to the rise of modern capitalism and the breakdown of the world market system during World War I. The utopian liberal dream of a self-regulating market never emerged, Polanyi argued. Instead, the market was built and embedded in an international system of geopolitical power and social order. Market society was neither natural nor truly self-regulating but was “submerged” in social relationships. “Laissez-faire,” Polanyi remarked, “was planned.” The crisis of the interwar years was a consequence of the breakdown of this complex embedded system. Polanyi’s message was clear: if capitalist society was to be rebuilt after World War II, it would need to be through a social democratic project of cross-class institutions that emphasized protecting citizens from economic predation and fostering political solidarity within a wider collaborative international order. The long “golden era” of postwar economic growth and social welfare in the Western industrial societies vindicated his hopes, and the current breakdown of that era confirms his fears.

On the eve of war in 1939, the historian Carr published a portrait of the political and economic turmoil of the prior two decades. Like John Maynard Keynes’s The Economic Consequences of the Peace, Carr’s work can be read as a polemic against the missteps and delusions of the Anglo-American peacemakers who crafted the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. Carr contended that liberals in the nineteenth century and again at Versailles thought that their international projects succeeded—and would again—because of the fundamental rationality of state actors and the harmony of their interests. But this was a delusion. The prewar international order was actually built on British hegemony and liberal ideology, forces that had dissipated by 1914. Carr’s depiction of Wilsonian-era liberals as “utopians” has not stood up to subsequent scholarship, which finds post-1919 liberal internationalists as remarkably pragmatic, experimental, and in many ways more clear-eyed about the coming fascist threat than was Carr. But for generations, Carr’s book has catalyzed debate over the role of authority, ideas, and power in the rise and fall of international order, and it remains a major contribution to the study of twentieth-century world politics. As Carr argues—and the twentieth century shows—powerful states do make international order, but if that order is to last, it will need to be backed by restraints on the abuse of power and infused with a shared sense of social purpose.

The emergence of precisely that kind of order after World War II ranks as one of the most important developments of the modern era. In the shadow of the Cold War, Western liberal democracies engaged in new and far-reaching forms of cooperation. They reopened the world economy, built regional and global institutions, launched the European project, turned former foes Germany and Japan into partners, and embedded their societies in a system of common security. In the 1950s, Deutsch’s pioneering work marked the beginning of serious efforts by social scientists to map the logic and significance of the new rules-based order. In Political Community and the North Atlantic Area, Deutsch and his co-authors advanced the claim that states are not trapped in a world of anarchy; through trade, exchange, learning, and the exercise of political imagination, groups of states can establish durable zones of peace. Deutsch argued that the countries of the North Atlantic region offered the most advanced form of this effort to dampen and even eliminate the anarchic causes of war. He showed that anarchy is not a fixed condition in international relations but a historical outcome that coordinated political action can prevent.

The years ahead will be shaped by China’s ambitions, the continuing struggles of liberal democracy, and the climate crisis. The rise of China might well be a defining feature of the twenty-first century. If so, it is a drama that the world has seen before. The rise and decline of great powers and the struggles over international order have marked world politics since the age of Thucydides. No modern book of international relations theory offers a more sweeping, elegant, and influential account of these global power transitions than Gilpin’s 1981 classic. Gilpin saw world politics as a succession of ordered systems created by leading (or hegemonic) states that emerge after war with the opportunity and capabilities to organize the rules and arrangements of interstate relations. Order is built not on the balance of power but on a structured asymmetry of power. These hierarchical orders can persist for decades and even centuries, but eventually the underlying material conditions of power shift, and the ordered relations of states break apart, sometimes violently. Gilpin’s book encourages the reader to place upheavals in contemporary world politics in a deeper historical perspective. Change is inevitable, and no order lasts forever. The question Gilpin leaves the reader with is the most profound: “Is there any reason to hope that political change may be more benign in the future than it has been in the past?”

Not since the 1930s or the dark days of the Cold War has the future of liberal democracy seemed so uncertain. Political philosophers such as Shklar sought to defend liberalism in a world of rising violence and tyranny. In her many books and essays, Shklar argued that liberalism cannot remake societies or resolve fundamental moral disagreements. Instead, the liberal ethos of forbearance and magnanimity in negotiating differences provides the best institutional framework for protecting humans from the destructive forces of oppression. Shklar laid the groundwork for this view in her 1957 masterwork, in which she traced the religious and Romantic backlash to Enlightenment beliefs in human reason and social progress. Shklar showed that reactionary and critical thinkers have shadowed liberalism from the beginning, rejecting its alleged utopianism and opening the way for an illiberalism rooted in fatalism and social despair. Liberalism can only endure, she insisted, when anchored in people’s mutual vulnerability to suffering and their aversion to the greatest of all “public vices,” cruelty. Safeguarding the delicate accomplishment of liberal societies will require the reaffirmation of the toleration of difference, a noble spirit that Shklar hoped could sustain liberal democracy even in an age of disillusionment.

Global warming and other environmental crises are threatening to radically change the way people live. In the early 1970s, a variety of thinkers began to offer warnings of the planetary-scale dangers generated by human activity, introducing terms such as “limits to growth” and “spaceship earth.” Falk’s evocative and illuminating 1971 book sounded the alarm and triggered a debate over the reform of the global political order. He argued that the threats to humanity were coming from a set of interlocking features of late-twentieth-century modernity, such as environmental degradation, militarization, population growth, and resource depletion—factors that were driven by the industrial state, military competition, and materialist ideologies of progress. For Falk, the world of sovereign states, with its nationalist impulses and short-termism, was the deep source of the global predicament. He called for a revolution in consciousness that would reimagine how peoples and societies could organize themselves for sustainable life. Falk hoped for a profound transformation in political organization beyond the constraints of nation-states and multilateral bodies, one driven by social movements and a global civil society in the service of “ecological humanism.” To date, no such transformation has taken place. The fate of the earth may depend on whether it eventually does.