- International Economic Relations Since 1945 by Catherine R. Schenk
Catherine Schenk has written a highly readable and lucid survey of international economic relations since the end of the Second World War. The book begins with an explanation of Anglo-American plans to establish a new international economic [End Page 143] architecture in which the International Monetary Fund, the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (The World Bank), and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade were the main pillars. Four chronological chapters follow, beginning with the halcyon days of global economic growth (1950–1973), two periods of crisis (1973–1985 and 1995–1999), and the second wave of globalization (1985–1995), achieved roughly a century after the first wave of globalization had crested. The book ends with an up-to-date assessment of where we are now (2000+), making no predictions but open to the possibility of further crises.
Schenk’s study is succinct at 157 pages of text, including many useful graphs and tables. Short studies need a focus. Schenk identifies the movement of people, ideas, goods, and capital as the main ingredients of the international economy. Her aim is to explain the interaction of national economies along these four dimensions as well as their consequences. As she acknowledges, the book is a point of departure, giving readers “the context for more in depth analysis” (p. 18). For newcomers, this is an excellent place to start. Schenk handles fundamental concepts like balance of payments and moral hazard with clarity and deftness. The periodization is sound, slicing the 65 years since the end of the Second World War into coherent pieces with their own rhythms and logics. Although she never claims to offer comprehensive coverage, the book has a global reach. Much of the study revolves around Western Europe and the United States, but she highlights major shifts in economic activity, especially the emergence of China as an economic leader, and illuminates her points with examples from Argentina, Iceland, Indonesia, South Korea, Canada, and Australia.
Despite the clarity of Schenk’s writing and analysis, the definition of international economic relations could be more fully drawn out. She makes clear that she is primarily interested in the economic manifestation of international exchange and contact. However, the movement of people, ideas, goods, and capital are sometimes explained in parallel rather than linked. Agency is also occasionally hard to pin down. She examines a wide variety of actors, such as international institutions, groups of countries like the G7 and G20, and national governments. But the main actor is the market. Explaining agency within the market/global economy is not easily done. The causal gap between actors and economic developments is also partly a result of Schenk’s approach, which puts the international economy in the foreground and leaves political interests and interference (which she acknowledges affect the workings of the international economy) on the sidelines. Her approach is an important corrective to international and diplomatic histories in which the economy is often marginalized. But Schenk’s study can be criticized along the same lines. As a result, political and geostrategic forces and interests that affect government, business, and institutional decision-making, such as the Cold War, decolonization, and domestic lobbies, get only an occasional nod. Yet political intervention in the international economy has increased since 1945 as the economy had shifted from a matter of low policy to high policy. In the immediate postwar years, politicians entrusted economic matters to experts—people like John Maynard Keynes—but in the 1960s President John F. Kennedy had charts in his office to follow the daily inflow of textiles, and President George W. Bush paid attention [End Page 144] to the Honduran sock industry in the 2000s. What is needed is not just a slightly different balance but a more genuine synthesis of the political and economic. This observation applies generally, not just to Schenk’s study.
The overall narrative is of constantly improving economic conditions, offset by uneven participation in economic growth. As Schenk explains, “The unequal participation of rich and poor countries is a...