The shifting political balance in the United States is changing the agenda for global economic policy. The Biden administration is de-globalizing, following in Donald Trump’s footsteps. This marks a new stage in the global economic narrative, but it is not unprecedented. Changes in economic power within the United States have always been important to the way Washington oversees the international economic order.
Martin Dunton’s book, World Economic Government, provides a historical account of the United States’ role in global economic governance from 1933 to 2023. The book shows that the process of opening the doors to the free movement of goods and capital has always been fraught with turmoil and uncertainty. The institutional framework for globalization is precarious and relies on shaky deals between various interest groups. Until the early 20th century, the United States was strongly protectionist, and efforts to lower tariffs were often thwarted by political divisions.
Washington needed a partner to build a new economic order. London was eager to participate in shaping the world economy, and economist John Maynard Keynes played a crucial role in Bretton Woods’ vision. However, after World War II, Europe’s recovery created its own challenges, with the European Economic Community looking more and more like a closed economy. To ensure that Europe remains firmly within the US orbit, the Kennedy administration initiated a new GATT talk.
By the 1970s, the tide of protectionism was growing in the United States, and President Nixon declared a new era of nationalism in economic policy. Presidents Carter and Reagan ushered in an era of neoliberalism at home, but flanked their domestic policies with the slogan of “fair” trade rather than “free.” The US relied on multilateral trading systems, and the World Trade Organization was established after 1995 to replace GATT.
Dunton’s narrative shows that the deep uncertainty and ambiguity in American politics have always existed for the global economy. The current batch of US geoeconomic strategists insists there is no decoupling, but this is not the first time Washington has changed its terms. The United States will seek agreements with global partners in a series of technical negotiations centered around a coalition of US political and interest groups. Dunton’s book is a must-read for providing a realistic assessment of what US-led global economic governance entails in practice.