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Robert Triffin: A Life

Author(s):Maes, Ivo
Pasotti, Ilaria
Reviewer(s):Dyson, Kenneth

Published by EH.Net (April 2022).

Ivo Maes with Ilaria Pasotti. Robert Triffin: A Life. New York: Oxford University Press, 2021. xxvi + 230 pp. $74 (hardcover), ISBN 978-0190081096.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Kenneth Dyson, Visiting Research Professor, School of Law and Politics at Cardiff University.


Robert Triffin figures as one of the leading characters in the history of postwar international economic and monetary integration. This remark applies with even more force in the case of European integration. The ‘Triffin dilemma’ and the ‘European Reserve Fund’ are standard features in the indexes of scholarly volume and testify respectively to Triffin’s powers of diagnosis and creative prescription. He remains widely admired both as an economist and as a policy adviser. In short, he is one of the leading postwar statesmen-economists. Triffin continues to be a standard reference point in policy debates on what constitutes a sustainable, productive, and humane international and European economic and financial system.

And yet Triffin has had to await a biography that would do him and his various roles justice. Ivo Maes’s new book with Ilaria Pasotti succeeds admirably in filling this gap. Maes is ideally suited to the task, having researched relevant archives and interviewed key figures over several years. The result is an outstanding book that will stand as a standard reference in the scholarly literature and attract a wider readership. I will note my connection to this work, though it is tangential. Ivo Maes and I edited Architects of the Euro (Oxford University Press, 2016), and he took on the task of writing the chapter on Triffin. Like many others I encouraged him (though encouragement was not needed) to write this book. The result is a book that is a pleasure to read, clearly written and therefore very accessible. It rests on rigorous research, meticulously conducted. The lists of archives consulted and interviewees are very impressive. As is clear from the above remarks, the book is a significant contribution to the literature on postwar international and European economic and monetary integration.

In addition to its other merits, the book provides fascinating insights into the development of academic economics in Belgium: the roles of the Catholic University of Louvain, the National Bank of Belgium, and the close intertwining with American academic economics after 1918. As early as 1937 he was writing on the theory of currency overvaluation and more specifically the Belgian devaluation of 1935. Though very much a product of the Belgian system, Triffin became the archetypal Belgian-American economist. His early connections to Harvard, where he produced his influential doctoral dissertation, were followed by his wartime work with the Federal Reserve and his Latin American missions. This section of the book charts the transition from his early academic work on monopolistic competition theory to the policy advisory role that was to become such a defining feature of his career. It was with respect to Latin America that he first emerged as a ‘money doctor.’ Here we learn a great deal about the formative contributions of Triffin, much of which will be new to those whose knowledge of him is confined to the later period of European integration.

The chapters on the postwar period deal with Triffin as an architect of the European Payments Union, including its relations with the International Monetary Fund and the German payments crisis; as a Bretton Woods Cassandra, notably the Triffin dilemma and the eventual demise of the Bretton Woods system; and as the monetary expert on Jean Monnet’s Action Committee for the United States of Europe, with particular attention to the Rome Treaty and the campaign for a European Reserve Fund. Finally, Triffin emerges as a champion of a voluntarist approach to European monetary union, placing faith in the development of the private ECU market.

What emerges is an economist driven by a powerful moral conviction, with Maes characterizing him as a ‘monk in economist’s clothing.’ He believed passionately in the virtues of promoting interdependence and practicing multilateralism as essential to creating a more prosperous and peaceful world. This outlook fitted with a systemic perspective and the idea of equitable burden sharing between deficit and surplus states. Triffin looked with disquiet at claims of national sovereignty and at resort to bilateralism. Maes deserves great credit for having brought back to life – in a full, rounded manner – the character of Triffin. He has written an essential read.


Kenneth Dyson is Visiting Research Professor in the School of Law and Politics at Cardiff University and a Fellow of the British Academy. His two most recent books are States, Debt, and Power: ‘Saints’ and ‘Sinners’ in European History and Integration (2016) and Conservative Liberalism, Ordo-liberalism, and the State: Disciplining Democracy and the Market (2021), both published by Oxford University Press.

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Subject(s):Economic Planning and Policy
Financial Markets, Financial Institutions, and Monetary History
History of Economic Thought; Methodology
International and Domestic Trade and Relations
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Latin America, incl. Mexico and the Caribbean
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII