The best books to understand the politics that shaped eighty years of international economic order and disorder

Why am I passionate about this?

I was born in North Dakota and raised outside of Minneapolis in the 1980s and 1990s, a period marked by the ascendance of global trade and finance. I got hooked on reading, thinking, and talking about the politics of international economic relations in college. Sufficiently hooked, I guess, that I applied to graduate school to try and make it my vocation. My research and teaching to this point have focused on how key political and ideational forces in domestic and world politics – namely, international organizations, shared economic beliefs, social conventions, and material interests – shape the governance of globalized markets and the crafting of countries’ foreign economic policies.


I wrote...

The Currency of Confidence: How Economic Beliefs Shape the IMF's Relationship with Its Borrowers

By Stephen C. Nelson,

Book cover of The Currency of Confidence: How Economic Beliefs Shape the IMF's Relationship with Its Borrowers

What is my book about?

My book argues that the International Monetary Fund (IMF) plays favorites with its borrowers. The IMF treats countries differently depending on whether that staff trusts the country's top officials; that trust in turn depends on the educational credentials of the policy team that Fund officials face across the negotiating table. I show that the IMF has been the Johnny Appleseed of neoliberalism: neoliberal policymakers sprout and take root in countries that have spent recent decades living under the Fund’s conditional lending arrangements. I probe the argument in the book through quantitative measures and illustrate the dynamics of relations between the Fund and client countries in a detailed examination of four periods in Argentina’s long and often bitter relations with the IMF.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of National Power and the Structure of Foreign Trade

Stephen C. Nelson Why did I love this book?

Reading this book in graduate school was revelatory. It was mostly ignored upon publication. But in the subsequent eighty years Hirschman’s insights have become part of the bedrock of my field of international political economy.

The key idea is that countries seeking to enhance and expand their power can use “liberal” commercial strategies to induce economic and political dependency in smaller, weaker partners. It’s dangerous, in other words, to simply assume that more extensive trade and investment flows between countries will engender a more stable, peaceful international system.

Uncontrolled trade can aggravate tensions and facilitate international disorder. Hirschman arrives at a bold idea: surrendering national authority to follow global rules and institutions is the only way to counteract the harmful effects of massive power and wealth inequalities in world politics.

By Albert O. Hirschman,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked National Power and the Structure of Foreign Trade as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This study begins with a brief survey of economic thought on the relationship between foreign trade and national power, from the Mercantilists on. Chapter II attempts a systematic theoretical approach to the subject. It first makes clear the fundamental basis of the possible use of foreign trade as an instrument of national power policy. Using well-known concepts of economic analysis, it proceeds to show under what conditions and by means of what policies this instrument is likely to attain its highest efficiency. The principles of power policy thus deduced theoretically are then compared with the actual practices followed by German…


Book cover of Forgotten Foundations of Bretton Woods: International Development and the Making of the Postwar Order

Stephen C. Nelson Why did I love this book?

This book is about the planners who set about devising the rules and institutions of the post-WWII international economic order.

The conventional story is that institutions like the IMF and World Bank were mainly creations of American and British policymakers, and the rules enshrined in those institutions reflect narrowly Anglo-American ideas and interests. But Helleiner’s amazing historical research reveals that officials from countries in the so-called “periphery” of the world economy (like China, India, and Brazil) had much more influence in these negotiations than we realized.

Their courageous efforts ensured that some of their developmental ideas (aimed at reducing the massive global wealth and power imbalances) were, in fact, incorporated into the international rules that shaped the postwar economic order. The politics of economic ideas come to life in this book. 

By Eric Helleiner,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Forgotten Foundations of Bretton Woods as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"Forgotten Foundations is classic interdisciplinary history, drawing on literatures from political science and economics as well as primary sources.... Helleiner has made an important contribution that will permanently re-frame how scholars conceptualize Bretton Woods." Journal of Interdisciplinary History

Eric Helleiner's new book provides a powerful corrective to conventional accounts of the negotiations at Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, in 1944. These negotiations resulted in the creation of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank-the key international financial institutions of the postwar global economic order. Critics of Bretton Woods have argued that its architects devoted little attention to international development issues…


Book cover of Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism

Stephen C. Nelson Why did I love this book?

I was in my first year of college when I witnessed (via news reports) the “Battle of Seattle,” where anti-globalization protestors shut down a negotiating round of the World Trade Organization.

Watching the news from Seattle made me want to study the politics of the international economy. Seattle seems to have had a similarly big impact on Slobodian since it pops up in the introductory and concluding chapters of Globalists.

Slobodian’s book tells the story of how a group of dissident economists and lawyers, mainly centered in Geneva, rewrote the postwar international rules to legally “encase” market-based transactions. This effort, which included the creation of the WTO in 1995, made markets more seamlessly globalized. But it also put the increasingly powerful market forces beyond democratic mechanisms of regulation and control, spurring backlash. 

By Quinn Slobodian,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked Globalists as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

George Louis Beer Prize Winner
Wallace K. Ferguson Prize Finalist
A Marginal Revolution Book of the Year

"A groundbreaking contribution...Intellectual history at its best."
-Stephen Wertheim, Foreign Affairs

Neoliberals hate the state. Or do they? In the first intellectual history of neoliberal globalism, Quinn Slobodian follows a group of thinkers from the ashes of the Habsburg Empire to the creation of the World Trade Organization to show that neoliberalism emerged less to shrink government and abolish regulations than to redeploy them at a global level. It was a project that changed the world, but was also undermined time and again…


Book cover of The Code of Capital: How the Law Creates Wealth and Inequality

Stephen C. Nelson Why did I love this book?

Pistor’s book explains how global finance grew so large, powerful, and unstable. The short answer: elite lawyers did it.

Pistor argues that they did it by creatively devising legal instruments that could turn both tangible (land, for example) and intangible things (like intellectual property) into capital. When lawyers were able to make legal instruments enforceable around the world, capital could become truly global. Why did they do this? Simple: “minting” capital through creative lawyering is extraordinarily lucrative.

Before reading this book, I knew that elite contract lawyers were very well compensated, but I didn’t understand what they were doing and didn’t think of them as key players shaping the international economic order. Pistor’s book informed and corrected my thinking. 

By Katharina Pistor,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked The Code of Capital as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A compelling explanation of how the law shapes the distribution of wealth

What is it that transforms a simple object, an idea, or a promise to pay into an asset that creates wealth? Katharina Pistor explains how, behind closed doors in the offices of private attorneys, capital is created-and why this little-known activity is one of the biggest reasons for the widening wealth gap between the holders of capital and everybody else. A powerful new way of thinking about one of the most pernicious problems of our time, The Code of Capital explores the various ways that debt, complex financial…


Book cover of American Power after the Financial Crisis

Stephen C. Nelson Why did I love this book?

The name of the professor who assigned my first book recommendation in a graduate seminar: Jonathan Kirshner. Clearly, he’s had a big impact on my thinking.

In this book, Kirshner masterfully explains the ramifications of ungoverned (and crisis-prone) global finance. The 2008 financial crisis delegitimated American claims to responsible stewardship of the international economy, amplified the attractiveness of the model offered by a rising China, and eroded American material power.

In the book Kirshner did not anticipate the election of Trump or the outbreak of COVID-19 (who could have?) but the events of the last decade have, if anything, made Kirshner’s elucidation of the risks associated with a weakened U.S. at the helm of an unstable international economic order even more relevant. 

By Jonathan Kirshner,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked American Power after the Financial Crisis as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The global financial crisis of 2007-2008 was both an economic catastrophe and a watershed event in world politics. In American Power after the Financial Crisis, Jonathan Kirshner explains how the crisis altered the international balance of power, affecting the patterns and pulse of world politics. The crisis, Kirshner argues, brought about an end to what he identifies as the "second postwar American order" because it undermined the legitimacy of the economic ideas that underpinned that order-especially those that encouraged and even insisted upon uninhibited financial deregulation. The crisis also accelerated two existing trends: the relative erosion of the power and…


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