A Roosevelt example to avoid

Posted Feb. 20, 2009, at 5:31 p.m.

On April 2, the Group of 20, a multilateral economic forum whose members (including the “rising” economies of China, Brazil and India) account for 90 percent of global gross national product, will meet in London. The purpose of the meeting is to seek agreement on common measures to stabilize the global economy, to create a basis for a renewal of growth while taking the imperatives of climate change and poverty reduction into account, and to strengthen international institutions essential to building a more secure global economy. Some have described the objective as “Bretton Woods II” to replace the international financial order put in place at the end of World War II.

Both the meeting’s London venue and its context — a severe global downturn and loss of public confidence in governments’ ability to understand, let alone solve, the underlying disruptions that undermined prosperity — are strikingly reminiscent of the International Monetary and Economic Conference convened by the League of Nations in mid-June 1933. Moreover, like its 2009 counterpart, it came in the initial months of a new Democratic administration pledged both to take dramatic action to deal with the domestic crisis and to work cooperatively with other nations to mitigate the collapse’s worldwide effects.

We need to pray that the similarities between the two meetings, separated by three-quarters of a century, end there. The 1933 London Economic Conference (as it came to be called) ended in collapse and rancor. Its failure did not come about gradually due to negotiators being unable to bridge differences, but to the United States, that is, Franklin Roosevelt, abruptly deciding to end participation in the process.

His bombshell message on July 3 asserted that the conference was based on a “specious fallacy” and that each nation should concentrate on getting its own economic house in order.

Roosevelt’s message stunned the American delegation, led by Secretary of State Cordell Hull and top Roosevelt advisor Raymond Moley, as much as it did the leaders of other participating counties. The British prime minister and other European leaders told Hull that they had been “double crossed.” The Manchester Guardian called the Roosevelt message a “manifesto of anarchy.”

In his account of the Roosevelt years, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David M. Kennedy sums up the longer-term impact of the London fiasco as follows: “Roosevelt’s message not only destroyed the London conference. It also definitively killed any further prospect of international cooperation in the fight against global depression. Among those who drew the lesson that the United States intended to play no consequential international role was Adolph Hitler. Here, five years before the … infamous capitulation at Munich, the Western powers had shown that they had little stomach for concerted action in the face of danger.”

The link between the Great Depression and the rise of violence and instability leading to World War II has been drawn by many historians. Any doubt that we are facing a similarly complex and dangerous challenge today should have been erased by the recent testimony of Dennis C. Blair, President Barack Obama’s director of national intelligence, before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. The nation’s senior intelligence official warned that “instability in countries around the world caused by the current global economic crisis, rather than terrorism, is the primary near term security threat to the United States.”

This is clearly not a threat the U.S. can deal with solely through actions to improve the domestic economy, important as these are. Let us hope that the Obama team learns from his illustrious predecessor’s mistakes, as well as his successes. Making this year’s London economic conference a success needs to be at the top of the President Obama’s agenda.

Bob Rackmales is a member of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations and a board and faculty member of Belfast Senior College. During his 32-year career in the foreign service he served in embassies in Belgrade, Rome, Lagos and Mogadishu and in senior positions in the State Department. He lives in Northport.

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