IMF, in a Quiet Slap to the US, Urges Non-Alignment in Second Cold War

Yves here. Even though the IMF policy recommendation may seem bland, the implications are important. The US has aggressively insisted that countries take sides as far as the Ukraine war is concerned, and even was so presumptuous as to try to muscle China into backing the US. China initially refused to condemn Russia without siding with it, but is now supporting Russia. Similarly, we have repeatedly brow-beaten India, a major power if not quite a superpower, for not falling into line. India’s foreign minister Jaishankar has repeatedly and patiently explained that it makes sense to maintain good relations with everybody.

The IMF is effectively repudiating what China has decried as a “bloc” mentality, of trying to pit various groups of countries against each other, militarily and economically. The IMF, operating out of what might depict as an economic realist school, points out that trade and supply chain fragmentation comes at a cost. Emerging economies are likely to bear a big share of it and should do what they can to avoid being forced to choose sides.

By Jomo Kwame Sundaram, former UN Assistant Secretary General for Economic Development. Originally published at Jomo’s website

The IMF no. 2 recommends non-alignment as the best option for developing countries in the second Cold War as geopolitics threatens already dismal prospects for the world economy and wellbeing.

IMF Warning

Ominously, International Monetary Fund (IMF) First Deputy Managing Director Gita Gopinath warns, “With the weakest world growth prospects in decades – and…the pandemic and war slowing income convergence between rich and poor nations – we can little afford another Cold War”.

While recognising globalisation is over, she appeals to governments to “preserve economic cooperation amid geoeconomic fragmentation” due to the second Cold War.

Growing US-China tensions, the pandemic and war have changed international relations. The US calls for ‘friend-shoring’ while its European allies claim they want to ‘de-risk’. While still pleading for ‘globalisation’, China realistically stresses ‘self-reliance’.

Multilateral rules were rarely designed to address such international conflicts as ostensible ‘national security’ concerns rewrite big powers’ economic policies. Hence, geoeconomic conflicts have few rules and no referee!

Historical Perspective

After the Second World War, the US and USSR soon led rival blocs in a new bipolar world. After Bandung (1955) and Belgrade (1961), non-aligned countries have rejected both camps. This era lasted four decades.

World trade-to-GDP rose with post-war recovery and, later, trade liberalisation. With the first Cold War, geopolitical considerations shaped trade and investment flows as economic relations between the blocs shrank.

According to her, such flows increased after the Cold War, “reaching almost a quarter of world trade” during the “hyper-globalization” of the 1990s and 2000s.

However, globalization has stagnated since 2008. Later, about “3,000 trade restricting measures were imposed” in 2022 – nearly thrice those imposed in 2019!

Cold War Economics

Gopinath sees “ideological and economic rivalry between two superpowers” as driving both Cold Wars. Now, China – not the Soviet Union – is the US rival, but things are different in other respects too.

In 1950, the two blocs accounted for 85% of world output. Now, the global North, China and Russia have 70% of world output but only a third of its population.

Economic interdependence grew among countries as they became “much more integrated”. International trade-to-output is now 60% compared to 24% during the Cold War. This inevitably raises the costs of what she terms economic ‘fragmentation’ due to geopolitics.

With the Ukraine war, trade between blocs fell from 3% pre-war to -1.9%! Even trade growth within blocs fell to 1.7% – from 2.2% pre-war. Similarly, FDI proposals “between blocs declined more than those within blocs…while FDI to non-aligned countries sharply increased.”

China is no longer the US’s largest trading partner, as “its share of US imports has fallen” from 22% in 2018 to 13% in early 2023. Trade restrictions since 2018 have cut “Chinese imports of tariffed products” as US FDI in China fell sharply.

However, indirect links are replacing direct ties between the US and China. “Countries that have gained the most in US import shares…have also gained more in China’s export shares” and FDI abroad.

BIS study found “supply chains have lengthened in the last two years”, especially between “Chinese suppliers and US customers”. Hopefully, Gopinath suggests, “despite efforts by the two biggest economies to cut ties, it is not yet clear how effective they will be”.

For Gopinath, trade restrictions “diminish the efficiency gains from specialisation, limit economies of scale due to smaller markets, and reduce competitive pressures.”

She reports IMF research suggesting “the economic costs of fragmentation… could be significant and weigh disproportionately on developing countries”, with losses around 2.5% of world output.

Losses could be as high as 7% of GDP depending on the economy’s resilience: “losses are especially large for lower income and emerging market economies.”

Much will depend on how things unfold. She warns, “Fragmentation would also inhibit our efforts to address other global challenges that demand international cooperation.”

Policy Options

Policymakers face difficult trade-offs between minimising the costs of fragmentation and vulnerabilities, and maximising security and resilience.

Gopinath recognises her ‘first best solution’ – to avoid geoeconomic hostilities – is remote at best, given current geopolitical hostilities and likely future trends. Instead, she urges avoiding “the worst-case scenario” and protecting “economic cooperation” despite polarisation.

She wants adversaries to “target only a narrow set of products and technologies that warrant intervention on economic security grounds”. Otherwise, she advocates a “non-discriminatory plurilateral approach” to “deepen integration, diversify, and mitigate resilience risks”.

Despite the odds, Gopinath appeals for a “multilateral approach…for areas of common interest” to “safeguard the global goals of averting climate change devastation, food insecurity and pandemic-related humanitarian disasters”.

Finally, she wants to restrict “unilateral policy actions – such as industrial policies”. They should only address “market failures while preserving market forces”, which she insists always “allocate resources most efficiently”.

Not recognising the double standards involved, she wants policymakers “to carefully evaluate industrial policies in terms of their effectiveness” But, she is less cautious and uncritical in insisting on neoliberal conventional wisdom despite its dubious track record.

Unsurprisingly, two IMF staffers felt compelled to write in 2019 of ‘The Return of the Policy That Shall Not Be Named’. Despite much earlier extensive European and Japanese use and US President Biden’s recent embrace of industrial policy, the Fund seems caught in an ideological trap and time warp of its own making.

While making excessive claims about gains from globalisation, Gopinath acknowledges “economic integration has not benefited everyone”.

Thankfully, she urges developing countries to remain non-aligned and “deploy their economic and diplomatic heft to keep the world integrated” as the new Cold War sets the world further back.

Pragmatically, Gopinath observes, “If some economies remain non-aligned and continue engaging with all partners, they could benefit from the diversion of trade and investment.”

By 2022, “more than half of global trade involved a non-aligned country…They can benefit directly from trade and investment diversion”, reducing the Cold War’s high costs.

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  1. zach

    I wonder if the lengthening of supply chains between China and US also serves to increase demand for USD?

  2. juno mas

    Of course the IMF is counselling developing nations to avoid non-alignment (with the BRICS). Now that the global South is part of the larger majority of global GDP it will have better options than the IMF ever offered.

    This IMF recommendation is simply the US and EU concerned about the concentration of economic power moving away from the dollar and euro’s. Soon enough no one will be willing to support dollar hegemony and the Fed printing more dollars will simply create inflation for both the US and Europe.

    The IMF is not offering sage advice, it is trying to cover its’ ass.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      Making Shit Up is a violation of written site Policies. It is the US that has been demanding alignment. BRICS despite the enthusiasm has little to align with as of now, institutionally and polcy-wise. It’s in the plan to have a plan stage.

  3. TimD

    As the US and Europe de-integrate from the global system – a system they cherished until they realized that it wasn’t all free money – they will find that it costs more to move from the lowest-cost producer. More inflation means higher interest rates and higher interest expense and more adjustments in the labour market. Undoing this is going to be a lot harder and more expensive than America’s politicians think, it is a lot easier to put dye in water than it is to take it out.

    1. Altandmain

      I suspect that because the ruling class has so financialized the US economy, they don’t understand. They don’t understand how manufacturing and supply chains work anymore.

      Certainly the inability to understand that the sanctions they waged against the Russians reflects very poorly on the competence of our elites.

      Any attempt to move production away from China would require a competent ruling class that could build a supply chain from ore and energy to finished goods. The Chinese may known how to do this, but our elites don’t.

      Like the sanctions against Russia ending up hurting Europe, I think our elites will be caught by surprise. The sad part is that ordinary people will suffer.

  4. CA

    “IMF is counselling developing nations to avoid non-alignment…”
    “As the US and Europe de-integrate from the global system ”

    Interesting comments, and I hope more will be added by the writers. I would like to find a pronounced move to the Belt and Road mechanism, movement is slow and deliberate, as with Honduras towards China or Bangladesh towards China, so I am not yet anticipating particular outcomes.

    1. Saffa

      Misquote. She is counseling developing nations to be non-aligned. (If my eyes do not betray me)

      1. CA

        1) “IMF is counselling developing nations to avoid non-alignment…”

        2) “She is counseling developing nations to be non-aligned…”

        Finally, I understand the passage. I am grateful, since I thought I had missed the objective of Gita Gopinath and wanted to learn how especially after reading:

        March 29, 2024

        Even as U.S. Beckons, European Leaders Head to Beijing
        China is trying to improve relations with the European Union just as the United States is pushing the bloc to pick sides.
        By Steven Erlanger and Matina Stevis-Gridneff

  5. HH

    U.S. arms makers are backing a new cold war that will disrupt supply chains and close large markets for the much bigger and more numerous non-defense U.S. corporations. Why the Apple and Walmart CEOs don’t put a stop to this is a profound mystery.

  6. Glen

    Maybe in ten years we will be able to say when the “Second Cold War” started (9/11? GFC? Syria? Ukraine 2014? Russia SMO? Gaza?), but surprisingly to me (having been a bit player in the “First Cold War”, it feels like the “Second Cold War” is in the last act, and the winner is not the West. Of course, the West may insist on one final act, but that would best be modeled by taking your little globe, dowsing it in lighter fluid, and burning it all up.

    I could be wrong. I really hope I’m wrong about that final act.

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