Economic Multilateralism 80 Years After Bretton Woods



Maurice Obstfeld | Peterson Institute for International Economics

Eighty years ago, negotiators from 44 countries meeting at Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, devised multilateral institutions and rules that they hoped would steer the postwar world economy toward durable peace and prosperity. A key feature of the Bretton Woods rules was a global system of fixed but adjustable dollar exchange rate parities, which the advanced economies abandoned in 1973 after nearly three decades. In many ways, 1973 was a key moment in the transition from the post-World War II world economy to the modern world economy, far beyond the seemingly technical issue of the exchange rate regime. Contrary to forecasts that more variable exchange rates would fragment the international system, as during the period between the world wars, the decades after 1973 saw the world economy reach an unprecedented degree of economic integration. Economic multilateralism adapted and in some respects grew stronger.

Today, a new chapter may have opened. In the wake of financial crises unprecedented since the Great Depression, persistent economic inequality, migratory pressures on Europe and the United States intensifying in the mid-2010s, Brexit, the norm-breaking U.S. Trump administration of 2017-21, the first global pandemic in a century, an accelerating climate crisis, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and the newest Israel-Gaza war, the world looks to have moved into a distinct era echoing many of the interwar tensions that the post-World War II settlement sought to overcome. And unlike in the 1920s and 1930s when radio first became widely available, modern media display global stresses to everyone visually and in real time and amplify them in a way undreamed of then. How much reversion toward the troubled past is likely, and to what extent will that reversion undermine the global community’s ability to address common challenges, some inconceivable before World War II?

As an economist, I will focus mainly on issues related to commerce and finance, but the nature of the current malaise underscores the inherent inseparability of geopolitics, domestic politics, and economics. The destabilizing potential of this interplay was less salient for parts of the postwar period, especially in the quarter-century or so from the collapse of the Soviet bloc over 1989-91 to the mid-2010s. After that brief belle époque, however, history has indeed returned, with a vengeance.

In this paper, I start by briefly summarizing challenges the Bretton Woods system’s monetary, financial, and commercial arrangements were meant to overcome, and factors that led to the system’s unraveling by 1973. I then describe how economic globalization exploded under the newer floating exchange rate arrangements, and how the Global Financial Crisis years 2008-09 appear under various metrics to be a watershed for global economic integration. Geopolitical developments in recent years may have accentuated the disintegrative forces in the global economy—it is still early days. I therefore turn to the links between geopolitics, domestic politics, and economics and the prospects for future multilateral global cooperation on a range of macro-critical common threats.

Maurice Obstfeld, C. Fred Bergsten Senior Fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, is the Class of 1958 Professor of Economics emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, where he taught between 1991 and 2023.


To read the abstract published by the Peterson Institute for International Economics, click here.

To read the full working paper, click here.