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Just when I was all set to slam economists for advancing ditzy thinking re American foreign policy, Benn Steil undermined the stereotype – or at least demonstrated that he’s an exception.

My initial motivation came from Michael Spence’s recent essay on a “Global Security Deficit” that’s understandably on every thoughtful person’s mind nowadays. As the New York University Nobel Prize winner noted, a new outburst of “political insecurity, potential conflict, and deteriorating international relations” is casting a shadow not only on world peace, but on the future of the global economy’s highly uneven, uncertain recovery.

Spence continued, quite reasonably, “Failure to contain the impact of regional conflicts and bilateral frictions may lead to more than just supply shocks in areas like energy. The principal effect is likely to be a series of negative demand shocks: investors withdrawing, travelers staying home, and consumers closing their wallets. In a global economy in which aggregate demand is a key growth constraint, that is the last thing the system needs.”

Mores the pity, then, that at this point Spence decided to keep writing. “We have gone about as far as we can with a global system that is at best partly governed and regulated. As the global order defined by the Cold War (and then by a briefly dominant America) recedes into history, a new set of institutions and agreements must be developed to protect the core stability of the system.”

Spence presumably believes he shielded himself from charges of naivete by noting, “That is easier said than done.” But the mistake he makes is far more basic. I was planning a full-blown explanation of my own, but Steil’s op-ed in today’s Wall Street Journal on the creation of the early post-World War II international economic order has already provided a splendid description of how unrealistic it has always been to believe that form in international affairs ever has determined substance.

The author, who heads the Council on Foreign Relation’s international economics program, has written an acclaimed book on the birth of that Bretton Woods system. So he brings some serious chops to his argument that this supposedly quintessential example of “enlightened, cooperative globalization” (whose feasibility Spence so obviously believes in) was anything but.

In Steil’s words, the Bretton Woods accords did not result from a genuine worldwide consensus on achieving “the global good,” but from “contentious” negotiations between self-interested governments that ultimately bowed the overwhelming power of the United States – which could amply afford the inducements needed to convince Britain in particular to sign on. That is to say, the international institutions established in the late-1940s did not create new international realities on their own. They simply reflected the realities – created by international power balances – of the time.

In the security sphere today, the prospects for the effective new institutions sought by Spence are almost indescribably dimmer. The best evidence, of course, is the very international turmoil that worries Spence. It indisputably shows that the world’s major powers disagree fundamentally on what constitutes acceptable ways of advancing and defending their geopolitical interests. Nor is there any reason to expect these quarrels to subside, much less end, unless power of some kind is used either to compel or to entice.

Actually, however, Spence’s misconceptions are scarcely confined to economists who venture outside their profession. For most of the post-World War II period, historically unjustified faith in the autonomous power of organizations, treaties, and other formal constructs has been a hallmark of the internationalist ideology that’s shaped America’s official expectations of the world, and of the possibilities of foreign policymaking. When a predominant United States could often wield power almost effortlessly, it could afford to overlook its inescapable role and paramount value. Nowadays, with much of the gap closed through either natural postwar catch-up or U.S. carelessness, misunderstanding power by confusing form and substance could be costly and dangerous.