Wednesday 21 May 2003

America first

Last autumn, Gordon Brown and his fellow finance ministers told the International Monetary Fund to draw up a plan that would give bankruptcy protection to countries. The idea was to give states the same rights as companies if they went belly-up, avoiding the expensive bail-outs that have accompanied the big financial crises of the past decade.

The IMF was given six months to come up with a blueprint, but when it reported back last month the idea was dead in the water. Billions of dollars from the bail-outs ended up in the coffers of the big finance houses of New York and George Bush was told not to meddle with welfare for Wall Street. The message was understood: the US used its voting power at the IMF to strangle the bankruptcy code at birth.

So much, so familiar. The US has wielded clout at the IMF and its sister organisation, the World Bank, since they were created at the Bretton Woods conference in 1944. Add in the World Trade Organisation, seen by its critics as the epitome ofUS corporate capitalism and you have the unholy trinity of globalisation.

The reality is somewhat more complex than this caricature would suggest. There is indeed a crisis looming in the global economic institutions but the problem is less that the Bush administration is seeking to carpet bomb the World Bank, the IMF and the WTO with neo-liberal ideas - rather that the US shows signs of giving up on multilateralism in favour of cutting bilateral deals with willing (and weaker) partners.

First, some background. The Bretton Woods institutions were the economic arm of the new world order designed to ensure there was no repetition of the Great Depression. Collective action at the economic level was seen as just as important as collective action in the political sphere. But over the years, the IMF changed. Set up to combat global market failure, it saw free markets as the solution to every problem in every country, every time. The IMF (and the World Bank) reflected the economic orthodoxy, championing privatisation, liberalisation and tough anti-inflation strategies when they became fashionable in the west.

Europe has more votes than the US, but has rarely dissented from Washington's world view. To complete the picture of a rich-country stitch-up, a European was always appointed to head the IMF, while the US picked the president of the World Bank.

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