International political economy studies problems that arise from or are affected by the interaction of international politics, international economics, and different social systems (e.g., capitalism and socialism) and societal groups (e.g., farmers at the local level, different ethnic groups in a country, immigrants in a region such as the European Union, and the poor who exist transnationally in all countries). It explores a set of related questions (“problematique”) that arise from issues such as international trade, international finance, relations between wealthier and poorer countries, the role of multinational corporations, and the problems of hegemony (the dominance, either physical or cultural, of one country over part or all of the world), along with the consequences of economic globalization.
Analytic approaches to international political economy tend to vary with the problem being examined. Issues can be viewed from several different theoretical perspectives, including the mercantilist, liberal, and structuralist (Marxist or neo-Marxist) perspectives. Mercantilists are closely related to realists, focusing on competing interests and capabilities of nation-states in a competitive struggle to achieve power and security. Liberals are optimistic about the ability of humans and states to construct peaceful relations and world order. Economic liberals, in particular, would limit the role of the state in the economy in order to let market forces decide political and social outcomes. Structuralist ideas are rooted in Marxist analysis and focus on how the dominant economic structures of society affect (i.e., exploit) class interests and relations. Each of these perspectives is often applied to problems at several different levels of analysis that point to complex root causes of conflict traced to human nature (the individual level), national interests (the national level), and the structure of the international system (which lacks a single sovereign to prevent war). For example, analysis of U.S. policy regarding migrants from Mexico must take into consideration patterns of trade and investment between the two countries and the domestic interests on both sides of the border. Similarly, domestic and international interests are linked by trade, finance, and other factors in the case of financial crises in developing countries such as Thailand and Argentina. The distinction between foreign and domestic becomes as uncertain as the distinction between economics and politics in a world where foreign economic crises affect domestic political and economic interests through trade and financial linkages or through changes in security arrangements or migrant flows.
Contemporary international political economy appeared as a subfield of the study of international relations during the era of Cold War rivalry between the Soviet Union and the United States (1945–91). Analyses initially focused largely on international security but later came to include economic security and the role of market actors—including multinational corporations, international banks, cartels (e.g., OPEC), and international organizations (e.g., the IMF)—in national and international security strategies. International political economy grew in importance as a result of various dramatic international economic events, such as the collapse of the Bretton Woods international monetary system in 1971 and the oil crisis of 1973–74.
During the early period of the Cold War, political scientists emphasized the realist, or power politics, dimension of U.S.–Soviet relations, while economists tended to focus on the Bretton Woods system of the international economy—that is, the institutions and rules that beginning in 1945 governed much of the international economy. During the Vietnam War, however, a growing decrease in the value of the U.S. dollar and large deficits for the United States in its balance of trade and payments weakened the ability of the United States to conduct and pay for the war, which thereby undermined its relationship to its North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies. During the OPEC oil crisis, the realist-oriented U.S. Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger found himself unable to understand the issues without the assistance of an economist. These events led to a search for a multidisciplinary approach or outlook that borrowed different theories, concepts, and ideas from political science and international relations—as well as from economics and sociology—to explain a variety of complicated international problems and issues. It did not so much result in the development of a new school of political economy as emphasize the continued relevance of the older, more-integrated type of analysis, which explicitly sought to trace the connections between political and economic factors.
Following the end of the Cold War, international political economy became focused on issues raised by economic globalization, including the viability of the state in an increasingly globalized international economy, the role of multinational corporations in generating conflict as well as growth in the “new global economy,” and various problems related to equity, justice, and fairness (e.g., low wage rates in developing countries and the dependency of these countries on markets in wealthier countries). In the 1950s and ’60s, American economist W.W. Rostow and other experts on Western economic development made popular the argument that after a period of tension, disorder, and even chaos within a developing country that had been exposed to the West, that country would eventually “take off,” and development would occur. In the late 1960s and continuing into the 1990s, many development experts from a structuralist point of view (including many Marxists and neo-Marxists) posited a variety of explanations as to why many developing countries did not seem to develop or change much. For example, the German-born economist Andre Gunder Frank made popular the idea that, when developing countries connect to the West, they become underdeveloped. Social theorist and economist Immanuel Wallerstein, whose works have made a lasting impact on the study of the historical development of the world capitalist system, argued that development does occur but only for a small number of semiperipheral states and not for those peripheral states that remain the providers of natural resources and raw materials to the developed industrial core states.
Such themes were evident in the 1990s and the early 21st century when a number of politically and economically powerful (and mostly Western) multinational corporations were accused of exploiting women and children in unsanitary and unsafe working conditions in their factories in developing countries. These cases and others like them were seen by some structuralists as evidence of a “race to the bottom” in which, in order to attract investment by international businesses, many developing countries relaxed or eliminated worker-protection laws and environmental standards.