Published by EH.NET (February 2008)
Donald Markwell, John Maynard Keynes and International Relations: Economic Paths to War and Peace. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. xv + 320 pp. $85 (hardcover), ISBN: 0-19-829236-8.
Reviewed for EH.Net by Michael S. Lawlor, Department of Economics, Wake Forest University.
This book will be of interest to economists in general, and to Keynes specialists in particular. It focuses on the topic of the international relations views expressed by Keynes over his long career, from his involvement in the First World War as a Treasury official and as Lloyd George’s economic advisor at the Paris Peace Conference; through his interwar position as a prominent analyst of international monetary problems; to the part he played in the British Treasury during the Second World War. There he was very influential on the policies of how Britain would pay for the war, the form that the post-war international payment systems would take under the Bretton Woods system, and the negotiation of the terms of the American post-war loan to Britain in 1946, shortly before his death.
The fact that this book solely focuses on this limited facet of Keynes’s multi-dimensional career, that Markwell is a political scientist and therefore uses much non-economic material, consisting mostly of primary internal memoranda from the Treasury office and other governmental units, and that he frames his arguments in terms of the secondary scholarship on international relations in political science ? both of which are unfamiliar territory for most economists ? adds to the freshness and usefulness of this study. It should also be added ? and I don’t think Markwell would disagree ? that some of the debates and contexts for Keynes’s activities in this regard have already been well discussed in both Robert Skidelsky’s (2000) and Donald Moggridge’s (1992) biographies of Keynes. These books provide a thorough background and context for the many issues, events and personalities surrounding Keynes’s involvement in international relations. I would suggest one of these volumes for further reading to those who find this to be an area of interest. Markwell’s book goes beyond them, and is a useful companion to them, in its bringing together the various strands of Keynes’s ideas, writings and activities with respect to international relations in one place. This treatment adds focus to the material in a way that Keynes’s biographers, necessarily more focused on the grand sweep of his career, were not able to do.
More broadly, this book is instructive to this reviewer for the opportunity it offers to ponder the importance of context for the application of some of the fundamental tenets of economic theory. Ironically, perhaps this is precisely because of Markwell’s lack of focus on economics and due to his use of the aforementioned wealth of policy evidence on Keynes’s extensive involvement in government and international affairs. Markwell’s analysis requires the economic reader to follow Keynes into the task of applying economic theory to knotty problems of international politics and thereby to think hard about the validity of the abstract nature of economic principles in various real geopolitical scenarios of great import (like the two World Wars), to consider what role economic factors may play in the development of hostilities between nations, and to consider seriously the compatibility of microeconomic truths with macroeconomic truths when their application is not just a hypothetical example, but a real live political circumstance.
To first take up the issue of the contextual nature of the application of economics to political situations consider the situation that Keynes, and all western economists and political analysts, faced in the period from the end of the First World War, through the slump and depression of the thirties. What concerned them most was the question of how to re-create the era of rising prosperity and smoothly functioning world trade that had characterized Europe and America in the period before 1914. From the end of the First World War and the Paris Peace Conference on, Keynes was one of the first and most prominent (but by no means the only) international figures who felt that this goal required a lasting peace that would allow Germany to regain its rightful place, for reasons of geography and size, as the economic engine of Europe.
This was Keynes’s message in the book that first made him internationally famous, The Economic Consequences of the Peace. This book, as Markwell shows, grew from Keynes’s fears that restoring prosperity to Europe was wholly lost sight of in the blind rush to revengefully heap reparations and crippling terms of defeat upon a prostrate Germany. Keynes’s sometimes over-the-top criticism of the principals at the conference ? with Lloyd George, George Clemenceau and Woodrow Wilson coming particularly under extensive personal attack, some thought bordering on ridicule ? stemmed from the fact that Keynes believed that their actions, as opposed to their hypocritical words, would lead to an unstable peace.
Thus, at some risk to his own influence and career, Keynes quit his role in the negotiation of the Paris peace treaty and returned to England to hastily write his reaction to that experience in the form of The Economic Consequences. It was a book that both criticized the leaders of England and France for cowardice, in being unwilling to challenge the popular clamor for revenge upon Germany, and that laid bare the flaws of the peace terms that the French and British political leaders had, Keynes thought, bamboozled President Wilson into signing. These plans, he felt, were counterproductive of a lasting peace and unrealizable to boot, because Germany could never meet its reparations obligations so long as its internal economy was crippled by the terms forced upon it by the treaty.
All this is well known to Keynes scholars and to students of the World War One period. What Markwell adds is context and detail to Keynes important role in the struggle to win both the war and the peace. What can be learned by all economists from his experience is that the dire nature of the post-war European economies, particularly those of the losing Axis powers, could not automatically be reversed unless attention was paid both to their immediate needs in the form of relief aid of one kind or another and also to their more long-term need to foster investment and trading institutions that would ensure the growth and permanence of economic prosperity. In asking how this would be achieved, Markwell classifies the nature of Keynes’s arguments at this crucial historical juncture as a species of a “liberal-idealist” one.
At the end of 1918, Keynes had a clear view of some of the elements of the post-war order he wished to see. His liberal-idealist faith in free trade, on which he had been brought up, was unshaken. He had urged the abandonment of inter-Allied debt and Britain’s forgoing her share of reparations, which he hoped would go to assist the new states. He had urged a moderate approach to reparations; and clearly wished the defeated powers to be treated so that they would not need assistance to avoid starvation, unemployment, anarchy, or perhaps Bolshevism. The fundamental views which underlay his action at the peace conference, and which were to be expounded in The Economic Consequences, were already formed and were shared by many others (p. 53).
Thus Keynes began his career, as many economists have before and since his time, as a solid proponent of free trade as the primary means to bring about international peace. This brings us to the second issue raised above: to what extent, and how, are economic factors causative of acrimony and war between nations? Any modern economist could profit by considering this question in light of Markwell’s book. Here, Markwell writes, Keynes’s view matured over the course of his career. The standard argument pits free trade against imperialism. Free trade, it is thought in the standard liberal argument, may have peaceful benefits as an unintended consequence, if it make customers out of potential enemies. Moreover, since mutually beneficial gains for any two countries can be shown (and this is one of the principle lessons of a liberal economics) to lead to rising prosperity for both trading partners, there is a potential for any two countries to both benefit from trade. Trade, so this argument goes, would make traders reluctant to upset trading by aggression and war, and so free trade may tend to reduce international aggression and war.
On the other side, the argument of imperialism starts from the premise that it is beneficial for a country to run a favorable balance of trade, and an expanding export market, in that this tends to keep manufacturers and producers of tradable goods and services at home in a prosperous and expanding state. By this argument developed countries (note not firms directly, but perhaps state action spurred by firms) will seek means to maximize export opportunities in particular and may also vie to receive exclusive preferences for their goods and services in these markets, as well as trying to ensure scarce inputs to the production process, such as raw materials and/or natural resources that are in short supply at home. How is this accomplished? By the argument of imperialism, it is accomplished by military and diplomatic maneuvers that allow powerful states to dominate weaker states and to assemble official or semi-official trading empires.
The economic analysts of the liberal tradition in England ? Smith, Ricardo, Burke, Mill, and Marshall ? can be identified as the major proponents of the former idea. Dissenters from this tradition both in England and on the continent ? like Hobson, Lenin and Luxembourg ? can be identified with various twists on the latter idea in Keynes’s time. Markwell makes it clear that Keynes early in his career came down exclusively on the side of the liberal conception of free trade ? hence his categorizing of Keynes’s earliest arguments into those of a “liberal-idealist” camp. He recognized and believed in the potential of free trade to promote peace and harmony among nations, and he thought that by reestablishing Germany’s power to participate in trade with it neighbors, a lasting peace could be established in Europe after World War One.
It must be said, though, that the history of Europe and the world in the nineteenth century and leading up to the war in 1914, offered evidence supportive to both sides of this debate. On the one hand Britain, France, Germany and in fact most of Europe, had all grown prosperous in this period by trading with other nations, particularly was this so in the case of Britain, a small island economy with vast global trading interests. But each had also sought to carve out for itself some exclusive markets for its exports, and some exclusive sources of raw material for it own producers, through the conquest of overseas empires. This vying for power internationally had become so commonplace among European governments that part of this activity became known in England by the playful title of the “The Great Game.”
But imperialism and empire were not topics that engaged Keynes, either by upbringing or by temperament. In order to reassert the classical liberal argument he had been brought up on in this context he, like many of his fellow British liberals, made a crucial distinction between empires and exclusive trading blocks. “Empires,” according to Keynes (in 1903), need not lead to exclusive trading blocks. An empire that was founded and run on proper political principles, as he thought was the case of the British Empire, could lead to a loose confederation of states for which association with Britain was “to provide facilities for the growth under freedom and justice without molestation from abroad of these young nations … [W]hen a country becomes part of the Empire it is free to pursue it own destiny, in its own way. Because our ideal is democratic” (p. 19).
This somewhat condescending (to the colonial countries) and benign view of empires was in sharp contrast to both the imperialism theorist’s view of empires, as well as to those of other English political and ideological leaders (of the so called “Round Table”) who, after World War One, wanted to work for the imperial unity and exclusivity of trade relations between the various members of the British Empire. Keynes criticized the notion that empires necessarily would form into exclusive trading blocks that excluded all others, and that empires should lead to this state of affairs. He excoriated the latter in particular, exemplified for Keynes by the “German dream of Mittel-Europa.” It was a conception of empire based on “exclusivity” and the attempt to “monopolize” for the home country producers’ markets for their exports and sources of food and raw materials. This, he lamented, led to new frontiers “between greedy, jealous, immature, and economically incomplete, nationalist states” (p. 20). Worse, competing for such imperial preferences by nation-states, such as the British Round Table thinkers advocated, could lead to conflict and war.
Thus, the question that formed the international relations context in which Keynes wrote during and immediately after the First World War, was whether war could only stem from a perverse international policy in pursuing the potential gains from free trade (what Markwell calls the liberal-idealist position) or whether war was a natural outcome that could be expected from an inevitable imperialist-capitalism by which states would naturally vie for national power by assembling competitive exclusionary trading blocks (what Markwell identifies as the “realist” view).. Keynes, at this stage, as we have seen, favored the first argument ? that free trade only caused war when it was perversely pursued along the lines of imperial, exclusive terms. If trade and empires could be based on openness of markets and democracy, such as British experience in the pre-war period showed to Keynes was possible, then empires could be a beneficial source of cosmopolitanism and peace.
So what did Keynes at this early stage in his development think were the economic causes of war? Wars could result, said the younger, classical liberal Keynes, from “impoverishment, population pressure, penetration by foreign capital and the ‘competitive struggle for markets'” (p. 3). Note this fits our conclusion in the previous paragraph, by carefully excluding free-trade from those causes, so long as it is not pursued in exclusionary terms. So the interesting questions for economists today ? trained to believe unreflectively and in the abstract in the eternal verity of the potential for mutual gains from trade ? to take from this study of Keynes are as follows: Are there some possible circumstances under which this gain will not automatically arise in the context of actual situations of international relations? Does economic theory itself suggest conditions in which we may want to abandon a dogmatic attachment to what seems like a species of economic Truth? It turns out that the historical analog to these questions in the present case is “how did Keynes’s view of the role of economics in international relations evolve over his career?”
One way to answer these questions is by following Markwell in identifying three further stages in Keynes’s evolution in this regard ? identified as his “early liberal institutional, protectionist and mature liberal institutionalist” (p. 3) positions. All three stages could be thought of as instances where Keynes did not so much abandon the above-listed catalogue of the potential economic causes of war, but rather thought of extensions to the first cause ? economic “impoverishment.” His extensions were of two varieties. First in the 1920’s, and again in the 1930’s, Keynes suggested extensions from the contextual perspective of then current national and international events. Later in the 1930’s, and from the theoretical perspective of his General Theory, he suggested further, more economically fundamental extensions to this factor. Put another way, as he matured in terms of both experience and theoretical framework, he added to this list of the potential economic causes of war the crucial factors of monetary disorder, trade imbalances and unemployment. Even later, with special reference to Hitler and Germany, he added that there is no proper economic cause that extended to a nation’s possible reaction to “impoverishment” by embracing what he called a “brigand.” That is to say, economics had no explanation or remedy for a nation that was led by “a madman or a gambler” that was willing to risk war for personal power (p. 198). (Markwell convincingly shows on pp. 197-203 that Keynes was never pro-German or an appeaser, as he has sometimes been accused.)
Let us take the first stage of the evolution of Keynes’s views to begin. As Britain suffered through the slump of the twenties and as most of the West similarly suffered though the worse experience of the Great Depression in the thirties, Keynes came to blame these continued difficulties in restoring prosperity on the lack of existence a of well-functioning international monetary order. In particular, he was convinced that the gold standard had become a shackle on Britain, and on western expansion in general, because it forced weakened economies, such as he identified Britain as being since the First World War, to run a high-interest-rate policy for international reasons (to protect its gold reserves) that was wholly inconsistent with a needed internal low-interest-rate policy to restore employment and prosperity. This again deviated from the belief that free trade would automatically restore prosperity in any political context. In this case, and barring international agreement on an alternative system that bitter experience had taught him was not likely, it would be better for Britain to unilaterally either peg its pound below its pre-war parity rate ? and by such a devaluation encourage the output of its exporters – or, as eventually transpired in 1931, to abandon the gold standard altogether.
Even as this was his best counsel on short-term policy, Markwell shows Keynes was continuously preoccupied in this period, roughly 1922-1932, with finding a solution to the question of what possible type of international arrangement could be agreed upon by many nations and managed with some high degree of efficiency that would not rely upon what Keynes considered the immiserating and trade-inhibiting policies of the gold standard .
So the second-stage of the development of Keynes’s views on international relations was that he came to feel strongly that a return to the pre-1914 prosperity in Europe required the adoption by international agreement of an alternative to the former gold standard that would attract wide participation. This could only happen, he thought, if there were strong international leadership (which he long looked for from the U.S., as far back as the end of the First World War, but did not actually witness until World War Two). Moreover, Markwell clearly shows that in all of his many writings and participation in conferences devoted to this topic, Keynes was very fluid and pragmatic about the form that such a system should take. He was willing to compromise his own vision of a U.S./British-led system of managed (flexible) fixed exchange rates and the form that a managed stock of international liquidity reserves and payment media would take, if it would encourage wider agreement. (He stressed that the search for unanimity was an evil to be avoided.)
This fluidity as to details was to serve him well when he was negotiating with America during the Second World War over Lend-Lease and especially the post-war monetary system in that the Americans had firmly held demands and alternative plans of their own, which when added to Britain’s weak financial position, meant that Keynes was forced to negotiate from a distinctly weak position. Thus, the 1923-30 period was the stage of Keynes’s developing international relations views that Markwell calls “early liberal institutionalist.” Free trade could be beneficial, he was saying, but only if a properly functioning international monetary institution was adopted.
Briefly, we proceed on to the third stage of Keynes’s views on the economic element in international relations. Here the question becomes more starkly the universal nature of the coincidence of free trade and peaceful international relations. This stage arose out of Keynes’s participation on the Macmillan Committee on Trade and Finance (1929-31), the Economic Advisory Council set up by Ramsey McDonald, and particularly its Committee of Economists (created in July 1930, and to which also belonged William Beveridge, A. C. Pigou and Lionel Robbins) and in the pages of the political affairs journal that he headed at the time, the New Statesman. All of this activity arose from the need to respond to the international crisis that arose from the Great Depression and its particular impact on Britain.
In this and the fourth stage of Keynes’s grappling with international relations questions, Markwell emphasizes continuity in Keynes’s evolving views. The economist in me wants to call the first issue one of political context and, therefore not economically fundamental. But Markwell makes a good case that the last two stages of Keynes’s thought in this regard should be seen as merging into, and reinforcing, one another. The fourth phase he identifies is the period after 1933, sometime between 1934 and 1936, depending on when one judges Keynes to have been in control of the central propositions of his General Theory.
To go back, we should start with describing the third stage of Keynes’s views that Markwell describes as his “protectionist” phase. This occurred when, in the early years of the Great Depression, 1929-33, and to quite a bit of controversy, Keynes advocated protectionist measures for Britain, especially higher tariff barriers, as a way of combating the British unemployment of that period. He contextualized this recommendation by arguing that this unemployment had unfortunately occurred within a world system where the gold standard made the pursuit of free trade for “creditor” countries (such as Britain was since 1914) a road to even higher domestic unemployment than it was already experiencing. This was because, in order to maintain its balance of payments, it was forced to run a high-interest rate policy and deflation to protect its reserves. In this circumstance, and again barring a better international monetary system that seemed so impossible to him at that dark stage in history, Keynes gave a limited endorsement to British protectionist policy in the then-current economic emergency and for the short term. One detects almost a reluctance on his part to do so. And, indeed, his about-face was controversial enough on the Economists Committee that Robbins found it necessary to both author a dissenting minority report, attack Keynes’s position in the press and later author, with Beveridge and other LSE economists, a book defending free trade even in this context (Beveridge et al. 1931). Consider Markwell’s comment on Keynes in this period: “Keynes’s renunciation of free trade came, hesitantly, and then boldly, in proposals, first, for emergency tariffs, and, secondly, for greater national self-sufficiency and economic isolation. Keynes moved from admitting that the classical connection between free trade and peace was an argument against a tariff, but one outweighed by the economic emergency; through saying that his proposed tariffs could also help international amity; to denying that free trade did in fact promote peace” (p. 153).
His argument in the context of such an economic emergency as the Great Depression seems to have been analogous to the old saw that “the patient cannot stand the cure.” He thought that Britain was in such a crisis with regard to unemployment, that her money wages were too rigid for deflation to work its classic role in bring down costs, that the gold standard had so limited the range within which domestic economic policy had to maneuver, and that so many other countries were reacting to this crises by erecting tariff barriers of their own (effectively exporting their unemployment problems to Britain), that he had become “reluctantly convinced” (p.154) that protectionism was the best temporary policy Britain could pursue in this circumstance.
Economists, and particularly specialists in macroeconomics and in Keynes’s thought, might immediately wonder if the drafting of the General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money did not have a profound effect on Keynes’s ideas on this question. Less historically minded economists might also wonder if, and how, the perspective of macroeconomics might alter one’s view of the universal argument for the benefits from trade. Again the history of Keynes’s own international relations positions offers examples of him facing exactly this question. Consequently, the fourth and last stage that Markwell identifies in Keynes’s evolving views on international relations ? what he calls the “mature liberal institutionalist” phase ? was based on just this issue. Again depending on when one judges the proposition of the General Theory to have been drafted, in some period during the middle part of the 1930s, Keynes developed a more fundamental economic theory framework in which to argue the point about protectionism that we have seen him making on pragmatic policy grounds in the early years of the Great Depression. In the General Theory and after, Keynes insisted that the question of the economic causes of war and the advisability of protectionist, anti-trade measures depended on how close the economy was to full employment ? and this extended to his advice to the government during the Second World War, when he judged the economy to have met this condition. Short of this internal goal, Keynes said that countries were unlikely to reap the potential benefits from free trade described by classic liberal economics. This was because the temptation was too strong for any one country to erect tariff barriers around itself to boost the demand for domestic producers. It was Keynes’s view that the policies of many nations since 1929 offered examples of this. Since competitive attempts to export domestic unemployment to another country eventually ended in lowering employment in them all, protectionist policies became a second best solution in this context. Better that each county should act in isolation from international forces to raise domestic employment to its full potential, by lowering interest rates and bolstering demand for domestic industry in any way possible. According to Keynes, “if our central controls succeed in establishing an aggregate volume of output corresponding to full employment as nearly as practicable, the classical theory comes into it own again from this point onwards” (p. 186).
Here we can quote Markwell to the effect that Keynes hereby modified his position on the economic causes of war in a fundamental way:
In short, Keynes’s argument was both that laissez-faire did not have the tendency to peace claimed for it, and that a reformed capitalism along the lines he advocated would much improve the prospects for peace. Keynes said that ‘the new system might be more favourable to peace than the old has been.’ It is not clear whether by this Keynes meant simply that past causes of war would be absent, or that with these gone and free trade, some of the mechanisms classical liberals claimed were the means by which free trade actively promoted peace would work again. Such mechanisms included the creation by trade of vested interests in peace, and the promotion of moral solidarity between nations trading with each other.
Here is the final issue that modern economists might profit from pondering as a result of reading this book. Keynes was saying in the 1930s that countries had first to ensure full employment before they could anticipate the mutual economic gains and the possible peace dividends that trade holds out. If the economic system of a free-market economy does not automatically tend toward full employment, but needs to be managed to attain this goal consistently through time (and surely this is the basic lesson of macroeconomics even to this day), then it is a mistake to think and preach that free trade is some sort of divinely given cure for all economic ills, in all contexts, domestic and foreign.
Keynes, of course, should not be looked on as an infallible guide in pondering this issue. He was fallible in judgment even within the field of international relations that Markwell surveys here. For one, his self confidence about his cleverness in designing policy fixes often led to disastrous negotiations on his part with his official American counterparts during the Second World War. Harry Hopkins, the special advisor to U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt, reportedly expressed this irritation in his comment that Keynes was “one of those fellows that just knows all the answers” (Chandavarkar, 2001).
Moreover he showed a complete lack of understanding of the American political process. Used to dealing exclusively with ministers and their Whitehall staff in the more centralized English system, he was dismayed by the power of individual Congressman. Also, not only was Keynes unnecessarily rude to these Congressman, who he often gave the impression that he considered them provincial and beneath him, but his haughty behavior was also unwise, in that those very Congressmen could hold up American aid for British needs. He similarly accused the White House and State Department of being too timid in its relations with Congress, not realizing that the American Constitution gave Congress control of appropriations, whatever the White House may have negotiated for with the British.
But Keynes’s faults were more than outweighed by his many talents. Keynes’s insight into how economies work, combined with his ability to understand and exert influence over the process of policy creation, is unlikely to be seen again in today’s era of extreme specialization. As such, modern economists, whether they agree with his judgments or not, can learn valuable lessons in the political economy of policy application from following his career in international relations in the context of numerous actual international crises. Markwell does a fine job in showing, over numerous issues, how difficult and how much skill is required to apply economic reasoning in the realm of international relations. Markwell’s greatest attraction for an economist is that he shows how Keynes pursued this activity with skill and subtlety in the context of many of the weightiest geopolitical issues to face the West in the twentieth century. It is one measure of Keynes’s and others’ ultimate success in this context that it is hard now to even imagine Germany and England at war. We, as economists, can learn a great deal from a recounting of his experiences in establishing this peaceful and prosperous state of affairs in Europe. Perhaps it might even make us a bit humble to contemplate that it may be in large part due to Keynes’s own work both in economics and politics, to the wisdom of the architecture and implementation of the Marshall Plan, which was surely in the spirit of Keynes’s ideas, and to the way in which economies have been managed since his time, that we have the luxury of not facing his unpalatable choice between free trade and full employment.
1. Also note that Keynes therefore wanted to destroy what he considered a “barbarous relic” of the nineteenth century, the belief that the gold standard operated “automatically” to restore international imbalances and that this meant it would encourage trade. Alternatively, a major message of Keynes throughout this period was that the gold standard was not, in fact, operating automatically by the pre-war rules of the game in the period after World War One because the U.S. and the Federal Reserve System refused to let its own eventual control of the majority of the world’s monetary gold cause U.S. prices to rise. Keynes thought this unfairly forced upon all other “creditor” nations the problems, noted above, of choosing to abandon international monetary arrangements, to competitively devalue its currency or to run a ruinous deflation.
2. It is instructive to modern economists that Robbins later, in his autobiography (Robbins, 1971), recanted his opposition to Keynes during those depression years.
Chandavarkar, A. 2001. “A Fresh Look at Keynes: Robert Skidelsky’s Trilogy.” Finance and Development, Vol. 38, no. 4, December.
Moggridge, Donald. 1992. Maynard Keynes: An Economist’s Biography, Routledge.
Robbins, Lionel C. 1971. Autobiography of an Economist, Macmillan.
Skidelsky, Robert. 2000. John Maynard Keynes: Fighting for Britain, Macmillan.
Michael S. Lawlor is Professor of Economics, Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem, North Carolina. His most recent publication on Keynes is The Economics of Keynes in Historical Context: An Intellectual History of the General Theory (2006).