Thursday, October 6, 2011

The IMF as battering ram?

Observers of the IMF's actions in international financial crises are fond of quoting former U.S. Trade Representative Mickey Kantor as having said that the IMF serves as a "battering ram" for U.S. interests. Google "IMF battering ram US interests" (without the quotes) and you get almost 75,000 results.

Interestingly, it is very difficult to find the original source for this quotation. Most authors either don't bother offering a citation, or simply cite another secondary source. For instance, one of the sources cited most often (indeed, it is the number one hit on the above Google search) is a 1998 article by Devesh Kapur in Foreign Affairs magazine: "The IMF: A Cure or a Curse?" Kapur mentions "former U.S. trade representative Mickey Kantor's colorful rendering of the institution as a 'battering ram' for U.S. interests." He does not offer a source for this rendering, however.

A number of authors do offer a citation to the January 14, 1998 issue of the International Herald Tribune. This is the case, for example, with the third hit in the Google search: Paul Midford's article on Japan in the book Globalization and National Security (edited by Jonathan Kirshner). However, a Factiva search of the IHT for the term "battering ram" in January 1998 finds no article dated January 14. This suggests that people are simply copying citations from other secondary accounts without double-checking themselves.

The same Factiva (or Lexis/Nexis) search does find an IHT article dated January 26 (also published in the New York Times on the same date) by Philip Bowring, titled "Toward a different Asia and a less dominant dollar." This article features the line "The IMF, in the words of former U.S. trade representative Mickey Kantor, is a 'battering ram' to open up Asian markets to U.S. enterprise" but gives no indication when Kantor might have said this, or in what context.

Some additional digging turns up the original source of the quotation: an article in the Times of London, 5 Dec. 1997, in the commentary/opinion section, titled "America's new Asian model." Kantor, who at that point no longer was U.S. trade representative (nor Commerce Secretary, a post he also held in 1996-1997), spoke in personal capacity at a dinner of the Confederation of British Industry. The relevant quotation from the article is: "the former US Commerce Secretary said that the troubles of the tiger economies offered a golden opportunity for the West to reassert its commercial interests. When countries seek help from the International Monetary Fund, Europe and America should use the IMF as a battering ram to gain advantage."

Note that the article does not imply that those are Kantor's exact words, though it seems plausible that Kantor did indeed use the term "battering ram." As an indication of how few of those who cite Kantor's statement have actually dug down to the original source, a Google search on "the troubles of the tiger economies offered a golden opportunity" (with quotes) produces only about 8 hits. Note, too, that Kantor does not say that the IMF is a battering ram, contra Kapur and Bowring, but rather that he, speaking in his personal capacity, thinks it should be used as a battering ram. (The article does claim that Kantor "echoes views emanating from the IMF to the Federal Reserve" but offers no evidence for this.)

In sum, Kantor's statement was colorful, which explains its popularity, but since he was not speaking in any official capacity, nor claiming to describe an actual (as opposed to a desired) strategy, it is much less meaningful than most people (mis-)quoting it believe or imply.

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