Webinar Summary – The Contested World Economy: The Deep and Global Roots of International Political Economy

Photo by Anthony Delanoix via Unsplash.

By Mridhu Khanna

On November 9, 2023, the Boston University Global Development Policy Center (GDP Center) hosted Eric Helleiner, Professor of Political Science at the University of Waterloo, for the final installment of the Fall 2023 Global Economic Governance Initiative Book Talk Series. Helleiner spoke to the Boston University community about his latest book, The Contested World Economy: The Deep and Global Roots of International Political Economy, which provides readers with an expanded view of the international political economy (IPE) discipline and how these broader perspectives can inform contemporary challenges faced by the international community.

Helleiner began the conversation, moderated by GDP Center Director Kevin P. Gallagher, by taking a step back to share why he chose to dive into the project. As a professor, Helleiner explained that he was often searching for a resource for students to expand their learning beyond the post-1945 Western scholars and theories of IPE, but in finding none, he began exploring thinkers from around the globe and further back in history who developed independent theories and adapted popular theories to be more regionally relevant.

Neomercantilism, Marxism and liberalism have been the most popular theories of IPE following the Bretton Wood Conference in 1944, with scholars like Adam Smith and Karl Marx dominating the literature. Helleiner explained that he faced two frustrations in the saturation of these theories of IPE. First, there was a misconception that the Western writers were the only ones writing about IPE and second, that the disciple was limited to a “three-way debate.” He explained that this debate was not a representation of all perspectives; many others, including environmental, feminist and tributary theory, were present and provide unique perspectives to modern debates around development, climate and sustainability.

The first half of the book aims to highlight contributions to the three major theories from lesser-known scholars, whose contributions helped refine and enhance the theories, as well as make them more regionally relevant. Helleiner explained how Latin American scholars applied the free trade principles of liberalism differently between and within country borders, rather than across the board. In addition, some scholars outside of the West studying Lenin approached the analysis of imperialism by looking at the impact of imperialism, rather than just the cause, as many Western scholars were focused.

Helleiner also explained theories like those popularized in Europe and North America had been developed by thinkers in other parts of the world who not had contact with Western thinkers. Like liberal thinkers, Chinese scholars were advocating that free trade would generate mutual benefits and public goods and that contrary to popular beliefs, the Japanese neomercantilist camp had its own endogenous roots from 1830s thinkers. Notably, Sun Yat-sen, first provisional President of the Republic of China, first proposed the idea of a World Bank-like institution at the League of Nations well before the proposal received broader support at the Bretton Woods Conference in 1944.

The second half of the book moves beyond the “three-part” debate, exploring other schools of thought which have received less attention in the IPE space. One in direct opposition to the more liberal theories in the post-war era was autarky, a theory that valued national autonomy above all. Unlike neomercantilism, which maximizes the state wealth and power within an open economy, autarky preferred a closed economy even if meant the state would not be able to maximize its power and control.

Feminist thought was also featured in the discussion, as Helleiner explained that in the early 1900s, a Chinese thinker analyzed the impact of the country’s economic transformations, finding that the impact of these changes was gendered. She found that the shift from household production of textiles to more commercial operations was impacting the livelihoods of women who had traditionally engaged in this work.

In addition, Helleiner discussed the work that Indigenous thinkers had done on settler colonialism and its ecological impacts, theories of degrowth from Mahatma Gandhi, Stanely Jevins’ work on environmental degradation and economic growth in the late 19th century, and “Drain Theory” from Indian economist Dadabhai Naoroji on how British imperialism drained resources from India leading to continued impoverishment.

Helleiner’s overview of his findings provided a rich background for audience questions. Asked about the sourcing for the book, Helleiner explained that partnering with regional experts was key, and remarked that the recent global intellectual movement and abundance of translations allowed him to conduct research that would have been much harder 20 years ago. He added that, unfortunately, in some cases, he was still relying on secondary sources and other scholars’ interpretation of texts, rather than being able to analyze the writings firsthand, and he hoped to be able to add to the work in the future as texts become even more accessible.

The discussion provided an opportunity to dig deeper into the unique contributions from global scholars. Helleiner had previously discussed how East Asian scholars gave the state a more prominent role in their interpretation of neomercantilism, and audience members added insights about the “mashup” of theories present in Japan where ideas of total war mobilization, based partly on a military first theory, were advocated by scholars with heavily Marxists ideas. Helleiner also remarked that while Smith may have been the first globally renowned IPE scholar, the 14th century economist Ibn Kaldun would be cited by some as a pioneer of economic liberalism.

To wrap up the discussion, audience members also asked about the application of his findings, including how to use the lessons to address stalemates in the current global economic system, and how Western participants understanding non-Western thinking could help with global collaboration. As part of his opening remarks, Helleiner had explained that more and more contemporary leaders were citing pre-1945 thinkers on the global stage. He added in the Q&A that understanding the thinkers and theories behind these references can be very helpful in interpreting the world as new players join the discussions, and global collaboration becomes increasing critical to reaching shared international goals.


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