Market Ideologies

What is the power that is transforming the world?

Author Oscar Sanchez-Sibony shares his views with the Phenomenal World: The Soviet Union’s construction of pipelines across Western Europe granted the superpower access to European markets—and capital. In his new book, The Soviet Union and the Construction of the Global Market, Oscar Sanchez-Sibony demonstrates how this move challenged American dominance of Bretton Woods institutions, ultimately provoking a broader rethinking of state-market relations.

The following conversation between Sanchez-Sibony and Jamie Martin unpacks the evolution of global finance, interrogating the making and unmaking of the twentieth-century world order. Sanchez-Sibony is Associate Professor of History at University of Hong Kong. He studies the overlapping infrastructures of global power, placing particular emphasis on how interactions within and between Soviet and Western spheres shaped the modern world. His latest book narrates the dissolution of Bretton Woods institutions through the lens of energy, finance, and great power conflict. Jamie Martin is Assistant Professor of History and of Social Studies at Harvard University. His research scrutinizes the institutional underpinnings of the global political economy, exposing their intricate ties to war, trade, and empire. His most recent book,The Meddlers: Sovereignty, Empire, and the Birth of Global Economic Governance, examines the origins of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Below, Sanchez-Sibony and Martin reflect on the inadvertent consequences of hegemonic struggle between the US and Soviet Union and the relationship between ideology and interest. They reveal the counterintuitive impacts of capital controls, oil markets, and trade liberalization for the global South and beyond.

JAMIE MARTIN: Your new book is quite a bracing and revisionist history of the international political economy of the Cold War from the Soviet point of view. Both here and in your 2014 book, Red Globalization, you offer a distinct view of the Soviet Union as deeply engaged in the world economy. This tells us something key about how the Soviets navigated the global capitalist system, both from within and from without. Your aim seems to be to get us to think anew and more broadly about the nature of the world economy and global capitalism itself.

OSCAR SANCHEZ-SIBONY: Definitely. One continuity between the two books is that I highlight the extent of Soviet integration and the ideologies that encouraged this integration. I try to reconsider the categories that we usually use to understand the Soviet Union, which are largely ideological. When we look at the way the Soviet Union acts in the world, it doesn’t align with the image of the Soviet Union we tend to have—as the advocate for state control over markets.

But you are right, the main aim of the new book is to focus specifically on the transformation of the world at the end of Bretton Woods, not so much to ask questions specific to the Soviet Union, but rather: What is the power that is transforming the world? Bringing the Soviet perspective into our understanding of this period is where I hope the book can make a new intervention. I argue that during this period, the Soviet Union—like many other countries on the periphery—was trying to break down the boundaries that kept it from accessing capital. Under Bretton Woods, this capital was tightly controlled by the United States, which was specifically prohibiting access to the Soviet Union.

In response, the Soviet Union began to trade with European countries that were also trying to break down certain kinds of US monopolies. Through the construction of energy infrastructure, i.e. a series of pipelines, the Soviet Union gained access to capital and promoted the breakdown of all sorts of compartmentalizations that Bretton Woods had imposed. Through pipeline construction, the USSR set up a sort of debt treadmill.

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