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Departures Podcast with Jamie Martin, author of ‘The Meddlers’

“If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em,” is often a colloquial proverb tossed around to express a reluctant surrender to whatever dominant force one may be facing – but it might also be a decent way to express how many states have found their domestic political options increasingly constrained by in the age of globalization, whereby participation in international commerce binds a national government to the rules and norms of powerful institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

But the question of who gets to set those rules and whose interests the norms favor has continued to be a sore point of contention. In his latest book, “The Meddlers: Sovereignty, Empire, and the Birth of Global Economic Governance,” Harvard historian Jamie Martin examines the birth of the global economic order, and traces back many of its foundational assumptions and ideologies to earlier imperial political conflicts.

Martin’s book takes a close look at the major players who shaped the Bretton Woods conference, how they evolved from the post WWI institutions like the League of Nations and Bank for International Settlements, and why they thought it necessary to create rules that could reach over national boundaries to enforce austerity, coordinate the central bank policy, oversee development programs, and regulate commodity prices. This effort to govern capitalism on a global level is fraught with problems common to most attempts to govern, including aspects of racism, colonialism, and the hubris of empires who believed they were in the best position to dictate decisions on behalf of other nations.