Cornell University Press

Global Inequality and American Foreign Policy in the 1970s

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In Global Inequality and American Foreign Policy in the 1970s, Michael Franczak demonstrates how Third World solidarity around the New International Economic Order (NIEO) forced US presidents from Richard Nixon to Ronald Reagan to consolidate American hegemony over an international economic order under attack abroad and lacking support at home. 

In this conversation, we explore some of the lessons learned from his research.

1. Do you have any favorite anecdotes from your research for this book? 

I learned several entertaining stories from my interviews with Henry Nau, who served in the Reagan Administration. My favorite is an old United Nations joke about the UN Conference on Trade and Development, where developing countries controlled the conversation, and the General Agreements on Tariffs and Trade, where developed countries called the shots. It was said that acronym for the former, UNCTAD, stood for, “Under No Circumstances Take Any Decisions,” while the latter, GATT, meant “General Agreement to Talk and Talk.” In a lighthearted way it captures the frustrations of earnest negotiators in both the Global North and South, where consensus is sometimes easier to create between parties than within them. Further, this joke nods toward the tactic of speaking at length in order to delay or even misdirect for political reasons.

2. What do you wish you had known when you started writing your book that you know now?

I wish I had a deeper understanding of the history of global environmental governance and climate change. At Penn, I was able to learn from a really smart group of policy experts the contours of global negotiations under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, or UNFCCC. I was amazed at the salience of North-South disagreements over trade, finance, and development in the process as well as the unity and power of the “Group of 77 + China” developing countries. So many of the unresolved debates of the 1970s that I describe in my book reappear in the 1990s, when the UNFCCC took off and the first global treaty, Kyoto, was negotiated. I was seeing excellent new scholarship from my colleagues in History andInternational Relations on the 1990s—NATO expansion, terrorism, migration—but nothing on this history. At the same time, I found tremendous support for the idea from folks involved in the process, who also wanted to know this history (and pre-history) better.

3. What do you hope students in this field gain from this book?

I like Geoffrey Barraclough’s definition of contemporary history, which he says begin when the problems which are in the world today first take their shape. For Global Inequality, I was trying to make sense of two big developments for the US: rising economic inequality at home and a “crisis of leadership” abroad. These were not new concerns, but when US leaders faced tough choices about what to do in the 1970s, they punted. For example, refusing to relinquish primacy in areas like global food distribution meant doubling down on corn and soybean production at home. In 1972, the global price of wheat quadrupled in a matter of months because the US liquidated its grain reserves in a deal with the Soviet Union. As recently as 2008, the global price of wheat quadrupled because the US liquidated a quarter of its crop yields for biofuels. The other side of primacy is dependency, which is something US leaders or grand strategists like to talk about less. I hope that Global Inequality encourages PhD students to take on today’s challenges in their projects, whether directly or indirectly.

Featured imageRichard Nixon (right) meets Leonid Brezhnev (left) June 19, 1973 during the Soviet Leader’s U.S. visit. The interpreter is Viktor Sukhodrev. Credit: Robert L. Knudsen, public domain.

Michael Franczak is a Postdoctoral Fellow in Global Order at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perry World House.

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