PRINCETON – Everyone now knows that we are in the worst economic crisis since the 1930’s. The protectionist responses are sadly familiar: protests against foreign workers, demands for trade protection, and a financial nationalism that seeks to limit the flow of money across national frontiers.
In the 1930’s, however, economic nationalism was not the only show in town. Many people started to think of regional integration as the answer to depression.
But the sort of integration that occurs in times of economic crisis is often destructive. The most unattractive versions of 1930’s regionalism came from Germany and Japan, and represented nothing less than a practical extension of their power over vulnerable neighbors, which were forced into trade and financial dependence on the basis of Germany’s Grosswirtschaftsraum or its Japanese equivalent, the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. As a consequence of the horrors of the 1930’s, there remains substantial suspicion of concepts like “Greater East Asia.”
In the second half of the twentieth century, Europe had the chance to build a much more benevolent form of regionalism. But today, the European Union is stymied by having squandered the chance to build stronger institutions when times were better and tempers less strained.