This past month may be remembered as the moment the United States lost its role as the underwriter of the global economic system. True, there have been any number of periods of frustration for the US before, and times when American behaviour was hardly multilateralist, such as the 1971 Nixon shock, ending the convertibility of the dollar into gold. But I can think of no event since Bretton Woods comparable to the combination of China’s effort to establish a major new institution and the failure of the US to persuade dozens of its traditional allies, starting with Britain, to stay out of it.
This failure of strategy and tactics was a long time coming, and it should lead to a comprehensive review of the US approach to global economics. With China’s economic size rivalling America’s and emerging markets accounting for at least half of world output, the global economic architecture needs substantial adjustment. Political pressures from all sides in the US have rendered it increasingly dysfunctional.
Largely because of resistance from the right, the US stands alone in the world in failing to approve the International Monetary Fund governance reforms that Washington itself pushed for in 2009. By supplementing IMF resources, this change would have bolstered confidence in the global economy. More important, it would come closer to giving countries such as China and India a share of IMF votes commensurate with their new economic heft.
Meanwhile, pressures from the left have led to pervasive restrictions on infrastructure projects financed through existing development banks, which consequently have receded as funders, even as many developing countries now see infrastructure finance as their principal external funding need.
With US commitments unhonoured and US-backed policies blocking the kinds of finance other countries want to provide or receive through the existing institutions, the way was clear for China to establish the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. There is room for argument about the tactical approach that should have been taken once the initiative was put forward. But the larger question now is one of strategy. Here are three precepts that US leaders should keep in mind.
First, American leadership must have a bipartisan foundation at home, be free from gross hypocrisy and be restrained in the pursuit of self-interest. As long as one of our major parties is opposed to essentially all trade agreements, and the other is resistant to funding international organisations, the US will not be in a position to shape the global economic system.
Other countries are legitimately frustrated when US officials ask them to adjust their policies — then insist that American state regulators, independent agencies and far-reaching judicial actions are beyond their control. This is especially true when many foreign businesses assert that US actions raise real rule of law problems.
The legitimacy of US leadership depends on our resisting the temptation to abuse it in pursuit of parochial interest, even when that interest appears compelling. We cannot expect to maintain the dollar’s primary role in the international system if we are too aggressive about limiting its use in pursuit of particular security objectives.
Second, in global as well as domestic politics, the middle class counts the most. It sometimes seems that the prevailing global agenda combines elite concerns about matters such as intellectual property, investment protection and regulatory harmonisation with moral concerns about global poverty and posterity, while offering little to those in the middle. Approaches that do not serve the working class in industrial countries (and rising urban populations in developing ones) are unlikely to work out well in the long run.
Third, we may be headed into a world where capital is abundant and deflationary pressures are substantial. Demand could be in short supply for some time. In no big industrialised country do markets expect real interest rates to be much above zero in 2020 or inflation targets to be achieved. In the future, the priority must be promoting investment, not imposing austerity. The present system places the onus of adjustment on “borrowing” countries. The world now requires a symmetric system, with pressure also placed on “surplus” countries.
These precepts are just a beginning, and many questions remain. There are questions about global public goods, about acting with the speed and clarity that the current era requires, about co-operation between governmental and non-governmental actors, and much more. What is crucial is that the events of the past month will be seen by future historians not as the end of an era, but as a salutary wake up call.
The writer is Charles W Eliot university professor at Harvard and a former US Treasury secretary
Letter in response to this column:
Get alerts on Washington when a new story is published