International Financial History in the Twentieth Century: System and Anarchy

International Financial History in the Twentieth Century: System and Anarchy

International Financial History in the Twentieth Century: System and Anarchy

International Financial History in the Twentieth Century: System and Anarchy

Excerpt

The long-run history of the international financial system in the course of the twentieth century can be described in terms of the current debate about globalization and its limits. At the beginning of the new century, there existed a substantially integrated world economy, tied together through more or less unconstrained flows of capital, goods, and labor. During the next decades that “one world” economy disintegrated, in part as a response to World War I, in part as a result of growing political expectations about how the state might limit the shocks emanating from the global economy. The years after 1945 saw the creation of an institutional infrastructure – in particular the Bretton Woods institutions – that altered the calculations about appropriate state policy and permitted the recreation of a world in which trade expanded more quickly than production, capital flows increased (especially after the 1970s), and labor also began to move.

The course of the twentieth century can be described from this perspective as a U-shape. First integration collapsed, and then the pendulum swung back. Can there be another dip in the U? If so, what does history tell us about “backlashes” against globalization (to use the expression of Kevin O’Rourke and Jeffrey Williamson)? What exactly is a “backlash” – an attempt to reverse the previous course of globalization, or an attempt to secure that course by directing it along more stable tracks?

In the nineteenth century, international markets existed without international institutions. A response to the problems of capital flows came in the form of attempts to regulate national capital markets (for instance through the establishment of central banks). In the interwar years, there were (largely unsuccessful) attempts at designing a genuine international

1 Kevin H. O’Rourke and Jeffrey G. Williamson, Globalization and History: The Evolution of a Nineteenth Century Atlantic Economy (Cambridge, Mass., 1999).

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