Globalizing the foundations of political economy

Waterloo prof wins prestigious Killam Research Fellowship to expand understanding of the world economy beyond well-known ideas of figures like Adam Smith and Karl Marx

By Wendy Philpott

Faculty of Arts

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With the economic rise of countries such as China, India and Brazil, world leaders and scholars need to have a more global conversation about international political economy, says a Waterloo professor of political science.

We are in a “time of tectonic shifts in economic power” says Eric Helleiner, who just received a prestigious Killam Research Fellowship. Helleiner, an expert in international political economy (IPE), says researchers must do more to include non-Western ideas in foundational IPE thinking.

The Killam award, granted by the Canada Council for the Arts, supports outstanding Canadian academics with a two-year research leave. Helleiner, who has received several high honours and distinctions including fellowships from the Royal Society of Canada and the Trudeau Foundation, holds the Faculty of Arts Research Chair in IPE.

Professor Erik Helleiner

IPE is a multidisciplinary field that draws on political science, economics and history, as well as other disciplines such as sociology and geography. Experts in IPE analyze the relationship between political forces, including states and non-governmental institutions, and the international economy. While the term IPE was coined in the 1970s, the modern field draws on thinkers and ideas from well before that time. The foundations of IPE are important for the work of students, scholars and ultimately policy makers.

But there is a gap in the foundational history, Helleiner points out, which needs to be filled – especially at this time of shifting powers.

For his Killam project, Helleiner will research and write a book that reveals the ideas and influences of key thinkers about the politics of the world economy beyond well-known European figures such as Adam Smith and Karl Marx. “I’m really trying to understand the ideas from other parts of the world,” he says. “There are many fascinating thinkers who deserve to be part of the cannon.”

This wider historical lens can contribute to international understanding and contemporary economic policy debates quite directly, says Helleiner. China, for example, has recently promoted new international development banks, which are seen by some as a challenge to the World Bank, an international organization focused on assisting developing countries. “So people are asking, Why is China doing this exactly? And, How might these Chinese institutions work differently?”

History can shed some interesting light on current questions. Right after the First World War, the Chinese thinker Sun Yat-sen first proposed the idea of an international development bank. “China is actually the first place this idea surfaced. The Chinese today are drawing on their own tradition and ideas - which actually helped to shape subsequent Western international development initiatives. And the more Western policy makers understand these roots, the better they can engage with China on international economic issues.”

By highlighting the truly global story of international political economy, Helleiner is providing new perspective on the history of ideas that shape the contemporary world. “While globalization was widely endorsed 10 years ago, this project is contributing to a moment when there is a fair bit of disagreement about how the international economy should be organized. I want to say, here is the global history and the wealth of ideas we can learn from.”