Mark Twain once said that “History never repeats itself, but it does often rhyme.” As heads of state gather in Paris this week to mark 100 years since the end of World War I, they should listen closely to the echoes of history and avoid replaying the discordant notes of the past.
For centuries, our global economic fortunes have been shaped by the twin forces of technological advancement and global integration. These forces have the prospect to drive prosperity across nations. But if mismanaged, they also have the potential to provoke calamity. World War I is a searing example of everything going wrong.
The 50 years leading up the to the Great War were a period of remarkable technological advances such as steamships, locomotion, electrification, and telecommunications. It was this period that shaped the contours of our modern world. It was also a period of previously unprecedented global integration—what many refer to as the first era of globalization, where goods, money, and people could move across borders with relatively minimal impediments. Between 1870 and 1913 we saw large gains in exports as a share of GDP in many economies—a sign of increasing openness.
All of this created great wealth. But it was not distributed evenly or fairly. This was the era of the dark and dangerous factories and the robber barons. It was an era of massively rising inequality. In 1910 in the United Kingdom the top 1% controlled nearly 70% of the nation’s wealth—a disparity never reached before or after.
"Today, we can find striking similarities with the period before the Great War."
Then, as now, rising inequality and the uneven gains from technological change and globalization contributed to a backlash. In the run-up to the war countries responded by scrambling for national advantage, forsaking the idea of mutual cooperation in favor of zero-sum dominance. The result was catastrophe—the full weight of modern technology deployed toward carnage and destruction.
And in 1918, when leaders surveyed the corpse-laden poppy fields, they failed to draw the correct lessons. They again put short-term advantage over long-term prosperity—retreating from trade, trying to recreate the gold standard, and eschewing the mechanisms of peaceful cooperation. As John Maynard Keynes—one of the IMF’s founding fathers—wrote in response to the Versailles Treaty, the insistence on imposing financial ruin on Germany would eventually lead to disaster. He was entirely correct.
It took the horrors of another war for world leaders to find more durable solutions to our shared problems. The United Nations, the World Bank, and of course the institution I now lead, the IMF, are a proud part of this legacy.
And the system created after World War II was always meant to be able to adapt. From the move to flexible exchange rates in the 1970s to the creation of the World Trade Organization, our predecessors recognized that global cooperation must evolve to survive.
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Today, we can find striking similarities with the period before the Great War—dizzying technological advances, deepening global integration, and growing prosperity, which has lifted vast numbers out of poverty, but unfortunately has also left many behind. Safety nets are better now and have helped, but in some places we are once again seeing rising anger and frustration combined with a backlash against globalization. And once again, we need to adapt.
That is why I have recently been calling for a new multilateralism, one that is more inclusive, more people-centered, and more accountable. This new multilateralism must reinvigorate the previous spirit of cooperation while also addressing a broader spectrum of challenges—from financial integration and fintech to the cost of corruption and climate change.
Each of us—every leader and every citizen—has a responsibility to contribute to this rebuilding.
After all, what was true in 1918 is still true today: The peaceful coexistence of nations and the economic prospects of millions depends squarely on our ability to discover the rhymes within our shared history.