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A 21st-Century Bretton Woods

Author: Sebastian Mallaby, Paul A. Volcker Senior Fellow for International Economics and Director of the Maurice R. Greenberg Center for Geoeconomic Studies
October 25, 2008
Wall Street Journal

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There wasn't much to see in Bretton Woods in July 1944, when delegates from 44 countries checked into the sprawling Mount Washington Hotel for the United Nations Monetary and Financial Conference. Almost a million acres of New Hampshire forest surrounded the site; there were free Coca-Cola dispensers, but few other distractions.

In this scene of rustic isolation, 168 statesmen (and one lone stateswoman, Mabel Newcomer of Vassar College) joined in history's most celebrated episode of economic statecraft, remaking the world's monetary order to fend off another Great Depression and creating an unprecedented multinational bank, to be focused on postwar reconstruction and development.

At the Final Plenary, a sea of black-tied delegates gave a standing ovation to British economist John Maynard Keynes, whose intellect had permeated the three weeks of talks. Lord Keynes paid tribute to his far-seeing colleagues, who had performed a task appropriate "to the prophet and to the soothsayer."

The Bretton Woods conference has acquired mythical status. To economic-history buffs, it's akin to the gathering of the founding fathers at the constitutional convention. To politicians anxious to make their marks upon the world, it's a moment to be richly envied. The recent calls from British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and French President Nicolas Sarkozy for a new Bretton Woods conference, to which the Bush administration has acceded, have caused TV crews to descend upon the old hotel, which has undergone a $50 million facelift. But Bretton Woods revivalism is nothing new. Indeed, it's a long tradition.

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