So I see Paul Krugman has thrown his lot in with the neoconservatives who disdain multilateral institutions and prefer bellicose unilateralism when they confront a frustrating international situation.
His op-ed today is about China's currency manipulation. ... again. After explaining that China has less leverage than is commonly understood on the foreign economic policy front (gee, where have I heard that before), he closes with the following:
In 1971 the United States dealt with a similar but much less severe problem of foreign undervaluation by imposing a temporary 10 percent surcharge on imports, which was removed a few months later after Germany, Japan and other nations raised the dollar value of their currencies. At this point, it’s hard to see China changing its policies unless faced with the threat of similar action — except that this time the surcharge would have to be much larger, say 25 percent.
Whoa there, big fella!! That's a nice but very selective reading of international economic history you have there.
It's certainly true that the dollar was overvalued back in 1971. What Krugman forgets to mention -- and see if this sounds familiar -- is that the Johnson and Nixon administrations contributed to this problem via a guns-and-butter fiscal policy. They pursued the Vietnam War, approved massive increases in social spending, and refused to raise taxes to pay for it. This macroeconomic policy created inflationary expectations and a "dollar glut." Foreign exchange markets to expect the dollar to depreciate over time. Other countries intervened to maintain the dollar's value -- not because they wanted to, but because they were complying with the Bretton Woods system of fixed exchange rates. Nixon only went off the dollar after the British Treasury came to the U.S. and wanted to convert all their dollar holdings into gold.
In other words, the United States was the rogue economic actor in 1971 -- not Japan or Germany.
So, how about acting multilaterally first before engaging in unilateral action that alienates America's friends and allies alike?
To be fair to Krugman, many of the multilateral processes appear to be stymied, as Keith Bradsher explains in this NYT front-pager:
Beijing has worked to suppress a series of I.M.F. reports since 2007 documenting how the country has substantially undervalued its currency, the renminbi, said three people with detailed knowledge of China’s actions....
Last September, Presidennt Obama, President Hu Jintao of China and other leaders of the Group of 20 industrialized and developing countries agreed in Pittsburgh that all the G-20 countries would begin sharing their economic plans by November. The goal was to coordinate their exits from stimulus programs and prevent the world from lurching from recession straight into inflation.
The G-20 leaders agreed that the I.M.F. would act as intermediary.
But two people familiar with China’s response said that the Chinese government missed the November deadline and then submitted a vague document containing mostly historical data. These people said that China feared giving ammunition to critics of its currency policies at the monetary fund and beyond. Both people asked for anonymity because of China’s attitudes about its economic policies.
That last part oabout the G-20 process is particularly disturbing, given that this was supposed to be the venue through which macroeconomic imbalances were supposed to be addressed. So maybe Krugman is right and unilateral is the way to go?
I don't think so. The big difference between the end of the Bretton Woods era and the current Bretton Woods II situation is the distribution of interests. In 1971, everyone was opposed to a continuation of U.S. policies. This time around, there appears to be a growing consensus that China is the rogue economic actor.
If Krugman gets to repeat himself, then so do I:
[T]he United States is not the country that's hurt the most by this tactic. It's the rest of the world -- particularly Europe and the Pacific Rim -- that are getting royally screwed by China's policy. These countries are seeing their currencies appreciating against both the dollar and the renminbi, which means their products are less competitive in the U.S. market compared to domestic production and Chinese exports.
So why should the U.S. act unilaterally? Why not activate an international regime that does not include China but does include a lot of other actors hurt by China's currency policy?
Am I missing anything?
MIKE CLARKE/AFP/Getty Images
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.