Workshop on the history of investment diplomacy

On Monday, 24 June, Lauge Poulsen (University College London) and Jason Yackee (University of Wisonsin) hosted an interdisciplinary workshop at Goodenough College focusing on the intersection between history, international law, and international political economy. The day started with a joint paper by Marcelo Bucheli and Stephanie Decker (i.e. me) comparing historical cases of expropriation in Latin America and Africa in the twentieth century.

We continued with Jason Yackee’s paper on French Investor Protection in Congo-Brazzaville during the Cold War, which demonstrated that political solutions to reconciling host and home country interest with investor interests after expropriations were sometimes effective (if slow), even in relatively complex cases such as the sugar industry.

After a morning focusing on historical cases of expropriation, the afternoon opened with an empirically rich paper on the role of US American interventions in Latin America in the early twentieth century, when the US took over customs houses in a number of South American countries, starting with the Dominican Republic. As a tool to engender peace, stability and better revenue collection, the outcomes were perhaps more mixed than what the US politicians and investors expected. While countries became less likely to experience violent conflict and regime change, trade did not increase and fiscal revenues actually declined.

The workshop concluded with Geoffrey Gertz’s (Brookings Institute) planned book on how the US diplomats learned to love commercial diplomacy after decades of considering it lowly and uninteresting work. However, whether this focus on supporting US business interests abroad will continue to be central to US American foreign policy is in question now, due to the high number of vacancies in the State Department in addition to funding cuts under the Trump administration, which has led to a hollowing out of capacity.

The workshop was a great example of how interdisciplinary and international research connects past and present issues in the international political economy.

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