Published by EH.Net (December 2023).

Christopher R.W. Dietrich, ed. Diplomacy and Capitalism: The Political Economy of U.S. Foreign Relations. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2022. 312 pp. $34.95 (paperback), ISBN 978-0812225310.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Jeffry Frieden, Harvard University.


Scholars have long been fascinated by the interaction of security and economic interests in the making of foreign policy – especially the foreign policy of a “Great Power” such as the United States. This collection of essays provides a variety of historical examples of the ways in which American geopolitical and economic interests have affected the country’s relations with the rest of the world. There is no particular theoretical or empirical theme to the collection, but together they offer the reader an interesting, almost kaleidoscopic, perspective on how the global role of the United States looks in a range of historically and geographically specific settings. Rather than attempt to synthesize a somewhat disconnected set of essays, I quickly summarize those of most potential interest to scholars of economic and political history.

Alex Hickmott (chapter 3) tells the fascinating story of how a Black agricultural economist from Fisk University applied New Deal principles to his work in Haiti (and elsewhere). In an interesting parallel, Jason Smith (chapter 4) shows Nelson Rockefeller as an evangelist for New Deal-style capitalism in Latin America. Erum Sattar (chapter 5) analyzes American technical assistance to Pakistani water projects as part of the country’s place in global Cold War rivalry. Giulia Crisanti (chapter 6) looks at how the USIS used its films to prod Italian public opinion in a pro-American (and anti-Communist) direction. Nicole Sackley (chapter 7) explores the attempts of the American cooperative movement to provide an alternative internationally – in this case, specifically to India – to American corporate capitalism. Jennifer Miller (chapter 8) argues that Japan was converted to a “productivity program” incorporating American managerial ideas and emphasis on productivity, and helped transmit this program to much of the rest of Asia. Alanna O’Malley (chapter 9) shows that the United Nations worked to find a balance between the need for private investment, on the one hand, and post-colonial nationalism, on the other in sub-Saharan Africa, and that developing countries used the United Nations to try to rein in and contest the power of major natural resource corporations. Abou Bamba (chapter 10) argues that Ivorians used public relations techniques to attract foreign direct investment from the United States in order to counter the influence of France and French corporations. Jayita Sarkar (chapter 11) considers how, in the aftermath of the Three Mile Island nuclear catastrophe, the Reagan Administration and the American nuclear industry worked to expand nuclear power exports despite existing non-proliferation restrictions.

As this catalogue illustrates, the essays in the volume range widely across time and space. Many of the individual essays are interesting, especially when they provide a nuanced and contextualized understanding of the disparate forces at work in both the United States and other countries. The editor’s introduction and the first couple of chapters (not described above) attempt to draw much broader conclusions, typically without much analytical and empirical depth or success. As a scholar of the political economy of international relations, I found the more close-to-the ground studies much more convincing and valuable.

However, reading the volume prompted a couple of dissatisfied reactions, largely of opportunities missed. First, some of the essays are overlain with a veneer of ideological rhetoric that does not contribute to, and sometimes obscures, the essay’s contributions. The scholarly tradition more familiar to readers of EH.Net would emphasize a more dispassionate, less engaged, description and analysis of the trends and phenomena in question – and might find (as I did) that the transparent biases of some of the authors detracted from the force and believability of their arguments.

Second, for a volume dedicated to the historical interaction of international economic and international political forces, it was remarkable to me that there is virtually no engagement with – or even, with rare exceptions, acknowledgement of – the extraordinarily extensive, rich, broad, and deep literature on these topics that has been produced by economists, economic historians, political scientists, and historical political economists. There are after all entire journals devoted to the topics addressed here, and decades of theoretical and empirical work precisely on how to think rigorously about how politics and economics affect the making of foreign and domestic policy. This seems to me part of a broader, and very unfortunate, trend among historians to separate themselves from other social scientists. I know that some historians reject being called social scientists, and doubtlessly our methods differ; but as we are analyzing the same phenomena, the possibilities for collaboration abound. Certainly, ignoring work by other scholars on identical topics is not the answer. Economists and political scientists typically make ample use of the empirical work of historians; I think it a shame that many historians do not make similar use of the analytical and empirical work of economists and political scientists. There are, of course, many exceptions. But I would not count most of the authors of chapters in this volume among the exceptions, and that is a shame.


Jeffry Frieden is Professor of Government at Harvard University. Most of his research is on the historical and contemporary politics of international economic relations.

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