Walter Russell Mead Warns That Stimulus Plan Could Undermine U.S. Foreign Policy

Historians in the News

Walter Russell Mead, an award-winning historian, says the backlash against free-market capitalism being embraced in the United States and elsewhere right now endangers America's standing in the world. He says these protectionist fears are most significant in relation to China: "The key political question of the twenty-first century is, 'How does the U.S.-China relationship develop?'" Relations with China have steadily improved, Mead says, but if China thinks the United States is shutting its doors to Chinese exports, the potential for bitterness and rivalry could dog this planet for decades to come.

[QUESTION] In the Great Depression, most countries looked inward to solve their economic ailments, and at the same time, there was very little worldwide cooperation to stem the growth of fascism and Nazism. What's the outlook today? There's clearly much greater worldwide cooperation in economic affairs than there ever was before, but countries, including the United States, are beginning to look inward and are inclining toward protectionism. In the United States, can the Obama administration handle its rather far-reaching foreign policy goals and also deal with the economic problems at home?

[ANSWER] Economic cooperation didn't collapse in 1929. In fact, from 1929 through most of the first four years of the Depression, there were a lot of efforts which ended up not being successful. There were strong efforts to try to put together some kind of a united front on economic issues. Unfortunately, in some ways, protectionism on trade undermined everything else. And when Franklin Roosevelt came in [in 1933], he torpedoed the London Economic Conference, which was portrayed as the last grand effort to get some kind of currency agreement, because he wanted the freedom to try to raise U.S. prices without regard for other countries. So, what happened really was that economic cooperation was the first thing that people looked to as the Depression began to break out, because it was obviously an international crisis in many respects. But the long, grinding pressure of the downturn drove countries more and more inward. So, if you wanted to be a pessimist, what you would say is, at this stage we're all still talking very brightly about the need for cooperation and so on, but if things continue to worsen, you might well see, as you did before, an erosion of the cooperation, which would then deepen the depression and which would then lead to further erosion in international relations and cooperation. That for me is the nightmare scenario....
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