A 1930s history lesson

Protectionism on the rise, bickering about exchange rates, the debilitating costs of war -- where have we heard this story before?

By Andrew Leonard
Published March 17, 2008 9:00PM (EDT)

As long as comparisons to the 1930s are getting thrown around with reckless abandon, another visit down history lane, courtesy of "Power and Plenty: Trade, War, and the World Economy in the Second Millennium," seems in order.

Ronald Findlay and Kevin H. O'Rourke, in the conclusion of a chapter dealing with the breakdown of the global economy between World War I and World War II, write:

Less obviously, during the crucial years of the late 1920s and early 1930s, which saw not only the invasion of Manchuria and Hitler's arrival to power, but growing Italian bellicosity as well, constant infighting among Britain, France, and the United States about economic policy -- protectionism, war debts, reparations, and exchange rates -- meant that they never responded effectively to counter the growing militaristic threat. Robert Boyce expertly reveals how leaders such as Chamberlain and Roosevelt came to loath each other as a result of conflicts about economic policy, and concludes his essay in terms that may seem uncomfortably familiar today: "in war, wherein mutual incomprehension fuelled a downward spiral in relations which left the three powers alienated from one another and incapable of addressing the problems underlying the crisis... Long run strategic interests gave way to ostensibly short run economic necessity. And from this vantage point the gravest threats came not from the Fascist or militarist power but the other democratic powers themselves."

Should we substitute China for Britain and France? Certainly protectionist concerns and squabbles about exchange rates are the subject of constant bickering. And while there may be no reparations due today, on the order of that decreed by the Treaty of Versailles, there is that little affair in Iraq, sucking down trillions of dollars that perhaps could be better spent stabilizing an economy that is spinning wildly off course.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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Globalization How The World Works National Security U.s. Economy