Journal Article

The multiple contexts of Bretton Woods

Harold James

in Oxford Review of Economic Policy

Published on behalf of The Oxford Review of Economic Policy Ltd

Volume 28, issue 3, pages 411-430
Published in print January 2012 | ISSN: 0266-903X
Published online September 2012 | e-ISSN: 1460-2121 | DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/oxrep/grs028
The multiple contexts of Bretton Woods

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This paper examines why so much debate about the structure of the international economy revolves around a conference held at Bretton Woods in July 1944 which was not immediately conspicuously successful. There was a unique confluence of contemporary contexts—in terms of trade policy, stabilization policy, and policies with regard to capital movements—that meant that prevailing ideas (especially the ideas of John Maynard Keynes) and the interests of the United States coincided. It was fundamentally a victory of the United States, but dressed up as benign multilateralism. A similarly unique combination of circumstances surrounded European efforts in the 1970s and was later to create, through the European Monetary System, a scaled-down version of Bretton Woods. The myth of Bretton Woods was created by a powerful retrospective interpretation or retrospective context that lent a golden halo to the whole exercise. In that sense our interpretation of a very specific historical event is inseparably intertwined with views of what happened after as well as before that event.

Keywords: Bretton Woods; European Monetary System; international economic order; international cooperation; imbalances; capital movements; inconsistent trinity; E65; F33; F36; F55; F68

Journal Article.  10010 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: Economics ; International Relations and International Political Economy ; Macroeconomic Policy, Macroeconomic Aspects of Public Finance, and General Outlook ; International Finance

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