From Great Depression to Great Recession

Chapter 6. Forgotten Foundations of Bretton Woods

Atish Ghosh, and Mahvash Qureshi
Published Date:
March 2017
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Eric Helleiner

It has become commonplace to hear predictions that the rising influence of countries such as Brazil, China, and India will undermine the post–World War II international financial system centered around the Bretton Woods institutions. Policymakers in these emerging powers are said to be frustrated by a number of aspects of the Bretton Woods system, including the fact that it was designed by Anglo-American officials without their input and without regard to the kinds of development issues that concern them.

The frustrations are certainly very real, but that historical narrative about the origins of Bretton Woods needs to be corrected. Far from ignoring international development issues, the Bretton Woods architects in fact pioneered the incorporation of development issues into the international financial architecture in some innovative ways. Moreover, those architects included representatives not just from the Anglo-American powers but also from many developing countries, including Brazil, China, and India. These are the forgotten foundations of Bretton Woods, discussed here, which may serve as an inspiration for those seeking to reform the international financial system in the context of new political realities.

Emerging Powers at Bretton Woods

Conventional histories of the origins of the Bretton Woods system focus primarily on the role of Anglo-American negotiations during the early 1940s, led by Harry Dexter White representing the United States and John Maynard Keynes from Great Britain. But the Bretton Woods negotiations also involved 42 other governments, many of which contributed actively to the discussions. Among the latter were today’s emerging powers Brazil, China, and India.

China had a prominent role in postwar international monetary planning because US President Franklin Roosevelt considered it to be one of the four great powers that would govern the postwar world (alongside Great Britain, the United States, and the USSR). When US officials chose an inner circle of countries to consult on White’s initial plans for the international monetary system in 1942, China was included (the others were Australia, Brazil, Canada, Great Britain, Mexico, and the USSR—Helleiner 2014, 157). White and other US officials consulted actively with Chinese officials during the long negotiations that led to the July 1944 conference in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire. At the conference itself, US officials also made sure that China received the fourth largest quota and voting share in the Bretton Woods institutions (after the United States, Great Britain, and the USSR), thereby guaranteeing it a seat on the executive boards of these bodies (Helleiner 2014, 186–200).

Chinese officials used the opportunities they were given to contribute to the design of the Bretton Woods system. The US archives contain records of various episodes in which Chinese policymakers lobbied for specific issues during the preconference negotiations. After the publication of the initial White and Keynes plans in the spring of 1943, the Chinese government prepared a detailed, full-fledged alternative plan that was sent to the other great powers in the fall of 1943. Chinese officials also took the Bretton Woods Conference itself very seriously, contributing actively to the debates and bringing a delegation that was more than twice as large (33 members) as the British delegation (15) and second in size only to that of the host country (45; Helleiner 2014).

Indians were also deeply engaged in the debates about Bretton Woods. India was a British colony at the time and was represented at the Bretton Woods Conference by the British-run government of India. Because of the fragile nature of their rule over the subcontinent, British officials recognized the political need to involve Indians in the negotiations. In advance of the conference, the government of India solicited and received detailed comments on the White and Keynes plans from Indian experts as well as officials working for the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), including its Indian governor, Chintaman Deshmukh. After the publication of the Anglo-American Joint Statement in April 1944 (which outlined areas of common agreement), the government of India sent the document for comment to all provincial governments and chambers of commerce in India. Few other governments involved in the Bretton Woods negotiations engaged in this kind of extensive consultation of public opinion in advance of the July conference (Helleiner 2014, 245–56; Helleiner 2015).

When choosing the government of India’s representation at the Bretton Woods Conference, British officials decided to include four Indians among the eight-member delegation. These included not just Deshmukh and the RBI’s director of research, B. K. Madan, but also two “nonofficial delegates”: economist R. K. Shanmukhan Chetty and nationalist businessman Ardeshir Darabshaw Shroff. The British head of the delegation went out of his way at the conference to make sure that these Indians played a major role in representing the views of the delegation. The delegates took on the role with great energy and made a very good impression on other delegations; for example, Brazil’s finance minister told a Brazilian audience after the conference that India had “brilliant representation” at the meeting (quoted in Helleiner 2014, 250).

The Brazilian government was also actively involved in the negotiations. As noted earlier, the United States considered it to be one of an inner circle of countries to be initially consulted on White’s plans. In fact, Brazil—along with other Latin American countries—was told about White’s initial plans at an inter-American meeting in January 1942, even before the British were informed (Helleiner 2014, 107). Some of the core features of the plans were already quite familiar to Latin American officials, who had worked with White and other US officials since the late 1930s, pioneering inter-American financial initiatives that foreshadowed a number of the features of White’s initial plans. One of the most important initiatives had been negotiations in 1939–40 on the establishment of an Inter-American Bank, an institution that was never created because of US congressional opposition but which served as a template for White’s Bretton Woods plans (Helleiner 2014, Chapters 12).

Like their Chinese and Indian counterparts, Brazilian officials were keenly interested in commenting on the White and Keynes plans after the latter were published in spring 1943. They offered detailed suggestions in meetings with US officials and in written analyses in advance of the Bretton Woods Conference. The Brazilian government sent a 13-member delegation to the July 1944 meeting (which was the fifth largest delegation, along with that of Canada, after those of the four great powers), and its members made many contributions to the discussions. Brazilian officials worked particularly closely with delegates from other Latin American countries to coordinate positions. Because 19 of the 44 delegations came from Latin America and the conference operated on a one-country-one-vote decision-making rule, the region had considerable influence when it voted as a bloc. The US and British officials were very aware of the need to cultivate the support of Latin America, especially of regional leaders such as Brazil and Mexico. It was no coincidence that US officials gave Brazil a formal speaking role in both the opening and closing sessions of the conference, and that the Mexican finance minister was made chair of one of the three commissions around which the conference was organized (White and Keynes chaired the other two) (Helleiner 2014, 157–72). Latin America was also guaranteed two of the 12 seats on the IMF’s executive board, a form of guaranteed representation offered to no other region.

The active involvement of Brazil, China, and India (as well as other countries) shows that the Bretton Woods negotiations were much more than simply a bilateral Anglo-American affair. US policymakers were in fact deeply committed to an inclusive “procedural multilateralism” that gave a formal voice in the negotiations to all the United Nations, as well as to what were called the Associated Nations, which were neutral in the war but had broken diplomatic relations with the Axis powers.1 This US commitment was associated partly with American efforts to strengthen the anti-Axis wartime alliance and build the foundations for the postwar United Nations system. Also significant was the preference of some New Dealers for a more “democratic procedure” in global financial negotiations than had existed in the past.2 In addition, White made the case forcefully in his first drafts in early 1942 that rich and powerful countries that ignored the interests of poorer or weaker countries would “only imperil the future and reduce the potential of their own level of prosperity” (Helleiner 2014, 103). Privately, White also told a Canadian colleague that he favored wide consultation because “all the brains were not concentrated in two great powers and that many of the smaller countries might have an important contribution to a discussion of the type.”3

Finally, US support for inclusive multilateralism also had an important strategic goal: it helped dilute the British influence. Not surprisingly, Keynes and other British officials resisted the US approach for this same reason. In his first plans, Keynes had proposed that other countries would join postwar international financial institutions only after Great Britain and the United States had designed them. As he put it, “This approach has the great advantage that the United States and the United Kingdom (the latter in consultation with the other members of the British Commonwealth) could settle the charter and the main details of the new body without being subjected to the delays and confused counsels of an international conference. . . . I conceive of the management and the effective voting power as being permanently Anglo-American” (Johnson and Moggridge 1980, 54–55). During the lead-up to the Bretton Woods meeting, Keynes continued to complain about the number of countries involved, arguing that many of them “have nothing to contribute and will merely encumber the ground” (quoted in Helleiner 2014, 223). But White and other US officials insisted on a more inclusive multilateral negotiations process that gave voice to many other countries.

What did the Emerging Powers Want?

What kind of international financial order did the Brazilians, Chinese, and Indians want to see established after the war? At the top of their agenda was the goal of creating an order that was supportive of their national economic development objectives. Before Bretton Woods, this kind of international development focus had never been part of the mandate of an international institution. Representatives from Brazil, China, and India (and from other countries, as noted later) now pushed for this innovation in world politics during the Bretton Woods negotiations.

The Chinese authorities made this preference clear very early in the negotiations. China’s ruling party, the Kuomintang (KMT), was committed to launching an ambitious program of state-led industrialization and modernization after the war. In commenting on the first public White plan for a Stabilization Fund and the Keynes plan for an International Clearing Union, the Chinese Ministry of Finance noted, “neither plan gives sufficient consideration to the development of industrially weak nations.” In fact, one of the motivations for the Chinese government to develop its own plan at this time was to encourage a greater focus on development issues and the concerns of poorer countries. As one official said in mid-1943, “it may be necessary for China, as one of the four great powers, to be the leader of the undeveloped countries.”4

The Chinese government was particularly keen to see a new kind of international financial institution that would support development lending to poorer countries. For this reason, it strongly backed the creation of the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD). Indeed, China saw the IBRD’s establishment as bringing to fruition a highly innovative proposal that had been put forward in 1918 by the KMT’s founder, Sun Yat-sen, for the creation of an “International Development Organization” with this mandate. Although Sun’s proposal was ignored by the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, the head Chinese delegate at Bretton Woods, H. H. Kung (who was also Sun’s brother- in-law), invoked it as a source of inspiration in his speech at the start of the 1944 conference:

China is looking forward to a period of great economic development and expansion after the war. This includes a large-scale program of industrialization, besides the development and modernization of agriculture. It is my firm conviction that an economically strong China is an indispensable condition to the maintenance of peace and the improvement of well-being of the world. . . . After the first World War, Dr. Sun Yat-sen proposed a plan for what he termed “the international development of China.” He emphasized the principle of cooperation with friendly nations and utilization of foreign capital for the development of China’s resources. Dr. Sun’s teaching constituted the basis of China’s national policy. America and others of the United Nations, I hope, will take an active part in aiding the post-war development of China. (US State Department 1948, 1156)5

It is interesting to note that the views of KMT officials on this issue were not all that different from those of the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party at the time. When US officials talked with Mao Tse-tung in August 1944, they reported that he was very supportive of postwar economic cooperation with the United States aimed at promoting Chinese economic development. He reportedly told them, “China must industrialize. This can be done—in China—only by free enterprise and with the aid of foreign capital. Chinese and American interests are correlated and similar. . . . We can and must work together.” Three months later, Mao’s colleague Zhou En-lai reportedly told another US official that China’s “greatest economic need would be for foreign capital. . . . China had to participate in international financial organizations if she was to overcome her present backward state.”6

Indian delegates at the Bretton Woods Conference also stressed the importance of international development goals. Like many other Indian nationalists at the time, they were committed to the goal of raising Indian standards of living through state-led industrialization. (Gandhi, who was skeptical of industrialism and who favored a more decentralized, village-centered economy, was an important exception.) The businessman Shroff had in fact been one of the authors of the highly publicized 1944 Bombay Plan, which outlined an ambitious approach of this kind. In consultations in India before the Bretton Woods Conference, Shroff had argued forcefully that any international monetary plan should be judged according to “whether it would be possible for India to raise the standard of living of her people within the next 10 to 15 years to something like double the existing standard.” Chetty, the other “nonofficial” Indian delegate to Bretton Woods, had expressed similar views before the conference: “in evaluating these schemes, the main consideration to be kept in mind was how far they would enable us to raise the standard of life of our own people in India by increasing employment and by increasing the national wealth of the country” (quoted in Helleiner 2014, 250–51).

On the official side, Deshmukh was also strongly supportive of state-led industrialization strategies for India, and he evaluated the Bretton Woods plans in this light. As he said a few months before the July 1944 conference, “no international economic cooperation worth the name will succeed and lay the foundations for enduring international peace and prosperity unless the retarded development of important units like India and China receive special recognition and treatment” (quoted in Helleiner 2014, 251). Not surprisingly, he and other Indian delegates strongly supported the IBRD’s development lending role at the conference. They even tried to add explicit development goals to the IMF’s formal purposes, an initiative that resulted in wording (much less strong than India wanted) that referred to the IMF’s role of contributing “to the development of the productive resources of all members” (Article 1(ii)). This initiative also had the effect of encouraging delegates to strengthen the IBRD’s development mandate to make explicit reference to “the encouragement of the development of productive facilities and resources in less developed countries” (Article 1(i)) (Helleiner 2015).

Brazilian officials also prioritized international development goals at Bretton Woods. Brazil’s president, Getúlio Vargas, had committed to increasingly ambitious state-led industrialization and development goals for his country after the late 1930s. As part of his plans, Vargas had accepted US financial and technical assistance, including a high-profile US offer in 1940 to help build a massive steel mill at Volta Redonda, the first in Latin America. In 1939–40, the Brazilian government had also supported the negotiations to create an Inter-American Bank, whose mandate included long-term public development lending. After the US Congress failed to support the bank, officials from Brazil and other Latin American countries looked to the Bretton Woods negotiations as a second opportunity to create this kind of an international development lending organization. Like China and India, they were very supportive of the IBRD’s creation, and they pushed successfully at the conference to strengthen its development mandate (Helleiner 2014, 38, 162–65).

Brazilian officials were also very supportive of the IMF’s lending role, which they saw as useful in offsetting the kinds of seasonal and cyclical balance of payments problems experienced by commodity-exporting countries. They applauded the fact that, with the IMF in place, Brazil would no longer need to maintain large gold reserves; as one official put it in August 1943, “the conservation of such reserves has been onerous, since it may be likened to an insurance maintained exclusively by the insured” (quoted in Helleiner 2014, 166). The Brazilian delegation took a lead role at the conference in successfully pressing for a waiver clause that allowed the IMF to overrule its regular lending limits in cases that could include commodity-exporting countries. In addition, Brazil lobbied the other Bretton Woods delegates to pass a resolution endorsing a future conference to create an international organization dedicated to commodity price stabilization. Although the Brazilian officials failed to get support for that specific idea, their initiative helped generate the passage of a resolution at the conference that called on governments to seek agreement on ways and means to “bring about the orderly marketing of staple commodities at prices fair to the producer and consumer alike” (Helleiner 2014, 166, 170).

Although not all the proposals of Brazil, China, and India were endorsed, the Bretton Woods Conference did pioneer the incorporation of international development goals into global financial governance. It did so in innovative ways, not least of which involved the creation of a new kind of intergovernmental international financial institution—the IBRD—with an explicit mandate to encourage development lending. This outcome had been sought by delegates not just from these three countries but also from other less industrialized regions, such as eastern Europe (for example, Poland and Czechoslovakia) and Africa (for example, Ethiopia and Egypt—Helleiner 2014, 227, 235–45).

Us Priorities During and After the Bretton Woods Negotiations

It was particularly important that the United States, as the dominant power at the conference, backed the prioritization of international development goals during the negotiations. This aspect of US postwar planning has often been neglected by historians, perhaps because it was downplayed by US policymakers themselves after the war. But it is important to recognize the depth of the commitment of many leading US policymakers at the time to the goal of raising living standards in poorer regions of the world.

This commitment began at the top, as President Franklin Roosevelt had declared his goal of securing “freedom from want … everywhere in the world” in his famous “Four Freedoms” speech of January 1941 (Helleiner 2014, 120). With this commitment, Roosevelt sought to internationalize the New Deal and its goal of providing greater economic security for individuals (Borgwardt 2005). As part of his Good Neighbor policy, he had already backed US initiatives in the late 1930s to support Latin American economic development; these initiatives represented the first US aid program. Roosevelt saw the promotion of higher living standards worldwide as a key foundation for global political stability (Helleiner 2014, Chapter 1, 119–23; Borgwardt 2005).

Many of the US officials working on the plans for Bretton Woods had been deeply involved in the US initiatives to support Latin American economic development during the late 1930s and early 1940s. They brought this experience, and a commitment to international development, with them to the Bretton Woods negotiations. This was particularly true of White, who had played the central role in designing both the Inter-American Bank and new kinds of short-term balance of payments financial assistance to Latin American governments. White’s early drafts of the Bretton Woods institutions drew directly on those initiatives and demonstrated the depth of his commitment to international development (Helleiner 2014, Chapters 14).

White incorporated international development goals into his initial Bretton Woods plans in a number of ways; in fact, he referred to his plans as proposals for a “New Deal in international economics” (quoted in Helleiner 2014, 121):7

  • Building on the Inter-American Bank model, White’s proposed IBRD had a mandate from the beginning to support long-term development lending to poorer countries.
  • The IMF’s short-term lending role built directly on the loans to Latin America for balance of payments purposes that he had pioneered in the late 1930s.
  • The IMF’s rules allowing capital controls and adjustable exchange rate pegs were designed to provide policy space for poorer countries to pursue state-led development strategies. This link was made clear in foreign advising activities of White and other US officials in the early to mid-1940s to countries as diverse as Cuba, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Paraguay, and the Philippines. In his initial plans, White also made explicit reference to the role that capital controls could play in curtailing capital flight from poorer countries.
  • White empowered both the IMF and the IBRD to facilitate international debt restructuring, an issue that had plagued Latin American countries throughout the 1930s.
  • In his initial plans, White discussed two trade issues of interest to poorer countries. First, he defended the use of infant-industry tariffs, arguing that assumptions underlying free trade theory were “not valid” and “unsound.” (quoted in Helleiner 2014, 113). Second, White’s IBRD was to organize and finance the creation of an international body to stabilize international commodity prices.
  • As discussed already, White was strongly committed to inclusive multilateralism that gave voice to poorer and weaker states, both in the Bretton Woods negotiations and in the membership of his proposed bank and fund.

Between White’s initial plans and the Bretton Woods Conference, some of these provisions disappeared, notably those relating to debt restructuring and the two trade issues, primarily because of domestic opposition (Helleiner 2014, 115–16). But the other provisions remained, and some—such as the IBRD’s development mandate, the IMF’s “waiver” clause, and rules allowing capital controls and adjustable pegs as a means to protect national policy space—were even strengthened during the negotiations with the support of poorer countries. At the Bretton Woods Conference itself, US Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau used his opening speech to emphasize the international development content of Bretton Woods: “Prosperity, like peace, is indivisible. We cannot afford to have it scattered here and there among the fortunate or to enjoy it at the expense of others. Poverty, wherever it exists, is menacing to us all and undermines the well-being of each of us” (quoted in Helleiner 2014, 122). In an article defending the Bretton Woods agreements in early 1945, Morgenthau (1945, 188) reiterated the message: “The Bretton Woods approach is based on the realization that it is to the economic and political advantage of countries such as India and China, and also of countries such as England and the United States, that the industrialization and betterment of living conditions in the former be achieved with the aid and encouragement of the latter.”

Given this history, it is interesting that so many scholars have downplayed the international development content of Bretton Woods. The neglect is more understandable, however, when we recognize how this content was dramatically watered down after the war in the context of changing US priorities.8 In the wake of Roosevelt’s death in April 1945, many of the US architects of the development provisions of Bretton Woods lost influence in the new Truman administration, including both Morgenthau (who resigned in July 1945) and White (who left government service in March 1947). Those who assumed more prominent positions in US foreign economic policymaking were figures close to the New York financial community who were more skeptical of the international development goals and of the Bretton Woods plans in general. Under their influence, the Bretton Woods institutions embraced more conservative policies, and the US government scaled back its bilateral public development lending program to Latin America and urged free trade and the acceptance of private foreign investment in the region.

The onset of the Cold War in the late 1940s renewed US interest in international development somewhat, as evidenced by President Harry Truman’s well-publicized commitment in January 1949 to combat “underdevelopment” as part of the struggle against communism. But his Point Four program was very limited in scale, focusing primarily on the provision of technical advice in contrast to the broader vision of the Bretton Woods architects. Bilateral US financial assistance came to focus primarily on countries on the front line of the Cold War, and US policymakers were less supportive of state-led development strategies in Latin America and elsewhere during this period than they had been during the Bretton Woods negotiations. In a political context in which economic policy debates were increasingly cast as a struggle between capitalism and communism, prominent advocates of import-substitution industrialization—such as Raúl Prebisch, who had worked closely with US officials at the time of Bretton Woods and earned their respect—were now suspect (Dosman 2008).

The Push for Reform: Challenging Bretton Woods or Reviving the Original Vision?

In this context, many policymakers from Latin America and India expressed strong frustration with the lack of international development content in the existing Bretton Woods system (mainland Chinese officials ceased to participate in the system after the 1949 revolution). They soon gained new allies from African and Asian countries that became independent during the 1950s and 1960s. By the early 1970s, a broad-based coalition of developing countries was demanding a full-fledged New International Economic Order (NIEO) that would better support their development goals.

The NIEO proposal was often portrayed by both its supporters and opponents as a challenge to an Anglo-American-dominated Bretton Woods system. But many of its provisions simply resurrected priorities outlined by the Bretton Woods architects, many of whom had been representatives of developing countries. These priorities included greater long-term international development finance, more generous short-term lending for balance of payments support, strengthened policy space to pursue national development strategies, and inclusive multilateral governance practices. Some of the demands of developing countries in the 1970s even revived, unknowingly, neglected features of White’s initial plans, such as proposals for an international debt restructuring mechanism, commodity price stabilization, and backing for infant-industry trade protection.

When the push for an NIEO collapsed in the context of the debt crises of the early 1980s, the original international development content of Bretton Woods unraveled further: developing countries lost policy space, state-led development policies were dismantled, money flowed from South to North, and multilateral financial governance became more narrowly centered around the G7 countries (Canada, France, Germany, Japan, Italy, the United States, and the United Kingdom). In more recent years, however, support for many of the issues promoted at Bretton Woods has begun to rebuild with the rising economic power of countries such as Brazil, China, and India. Their governments have been pushing for reforms to global financial governance that will give their countries more voice and better reflect their development priorities.

Once again, these calls for reform are frequently portrayed as challenges to the Bretton Woods system, but they are more accurately viewed as criticisms of the Bretton Woods system as it actually existed than of the original vision of the Bretton Woods architects themselves. With many of their proposals, Brazilian, Chinese, and Indian policymakers today are often simply reviving international development priorities that were shared by the Bretton Woods architects, some of whom were from the same countries.

If the Bretton Woods system is to survive and flourish in the context of contemporary power shifts in the world economy, reforms that rejuvenate the international development content of the vision of its founders may be more important than ever. The costs of not supporting this vision were well expressed by US Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau in a Foreign Affairs article he published in early 1945, during the US debates about ratifying Bretton Woods. Discussing the future of the relationship between rich and poor countries, Morgenthau (1945, 190) warned,

Unless some framework which will make the desires of both sets of countries mutually compatible is established, economic and monetary conflicts between the less and more developed countries will almost certainly ensue. Nothing would be more menacing to have than to have the less developed countries, comprising more than half the population of the world, ranged in economic battle against the less populous but industrially more advanced nations of the west.


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1The phrase “procedural multilateralism” is from Toye and Toye (2004, 18).
2Quote from Adolfe Berle’s comments in 1943, in Helleiner (2014, 131).
3W. C. Clark summarizing White’s comments, in Wardhaugh (2010, 242).
4Quotes from Helleiner 2014, 192.
5For Sun’s ideas, see Helleiner 2014, 187–90.
6Quotes from US officials summarizing their views in Helleiner 2014, 200.
7For the following provisions, see Helleiner, Chapter 4; for details of US foreign advising in support of policy space, see Helleiner 2014, Chapter 3, 172–82, 200–06, 227–33.
8For further details (and references) on the history in the following five paragraphs, see Helleiner 2014, Conclusion.

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