The construction of an international order in the work of Jan Tinbergen
Dr. Erwin Dekker, Erasmus University Rotterdam
This paper analyzes the reasons why Jan Tinbergen was initially hostile to the idea of European
integration, which he regarded as a poor substitute for an international order. The paper argues that
Tinbergen's thought on the international order was crucially shaped by two influences, his thinking
about economic order at the national level and his experiences at the League of Nations. His views
on economic order on the national level were based on the idea of peaceful co-existence between
the different social classes along corporatist lines, supplemented with economic expertise. When he
imagined an international order, these elements were again recognizable, but the class-division had
now been replaced with a North-South and East-West division. His work at the League of Nations,
supported by his earlier pacifism, had convinced him that any postwar order had to be truly
international and not Western, and therefore he promoted global institutions rather than regional
ones. When global economic integration failed to make the desired progress, he started to
reconsider his views on Europe and became convinced that European integration could be a
stepping stone towards more international integration.
Keywords: European integration, League of Nations, international order, Jan Tinbergen, free trade.
This chapter is forthcoming in Political Economy and International Order in Interwar Europe, edited
by Alexandre Mendes Cunha and Carlos Eduardo Suprinyak. Palgrave, 2020.
The construction of an international order in the work of Jan Tinbergen
Erwin Dekker, Erasmus University Rotterdam, email@example.com
The European Union is now an essential element of the international order. Other contributions to
this volume trace the roots of the European Union to ideas of economic integration from the
interwar period. But this chapter demonstrates that there was also a vision of international order
that was at odds with the formation of a European political and economic unit. Through the study of
the work of Jan Tinbergen this alternative vision will be explored. This vision does not eschew
supranational economic integration, in fact it regards that as the crucial way forward after the
nationalistic 1930s. But Tinbergen’s vision of international order suggested that European
integration might be an obstacle rather than a stepping stone toward international, or rather global,
In this chapter I investigate the sources for his suspicion of European regional integration. Three of
which stand out in particular: he came from a small open (Protestant) economy, he was influenced
by both pacifism and anti-colonialism, and thirdly he was deeply influenced by the League of Nations
perspective of a global order. But most importantly Tinbergen drew parallels between the ways in
which the national economy was integrated and made more just, and how this could be achieved for
the international economy.
Exploring Tinbergen’s resistance to the idea of European economic integration helps us, through a
method of contrast, better understand what was distinct about those in favor of European
integration. And it also helps us understand why other small open economies, including the
Scandinavian countries shared a reluctance to the European project. This chapter intends to show at
least two competing models of international integration which both came out of different
understandings of the interwar experience. The first model sees the interwar period as a period of
conflict between the major powers on the European continent, and therefore primarily as a problem
of in the power balance between the major forces. The other model sees the interwar period as a
period in which the dangers of (economic) nationalism of any kind are exposed, and therefore seeks
a global order which keeps national policies in check. This latter model has recently been associated
to the neoliberals in the work of Quinn Slobodian (Slobodian 2018), but in this chapter I show that it
was a vision shared across the political spectrum. The internationalists, or globalist as Slobodian calls
them, who tended to come from smaller countries sought to undo the nineteenth-century model of
power balance more deeply.
The chapter will proceed as follows. In the first section we will provide a brief sketch of Jan
Tinbergen and his work in economics, particularly as it relates to the creation of an economic order.
In the second section we will study his work at the League of Nations to highlight the way in which
his vision was shaped there. Section three will demonstrate the elements of the international order
for him, and the extent to which he reconsidered the value of the European Union in this order in
later years. We will highlight how he sought to convince his fellow economist the Norwegian Ragnar
Frisch that the Scandinavian countries should join the European Union.
1. The Hague and an International Order
Jan Tinbergen was born in 1903 in The Hague into an upper middle-class family. The Hague was
around that time in the process becoming a hub of international diplomacy. The crowning
achievement, after several peace conferences in the city, was the construction of the Peace Palace.
The building which housed an international court and a library of international was made possible
through a generous gift by Andrew Carnegie. The Peace Palace, a project of the modern peace
movement which sought to organize peace through law, made an explicit connection between this
new project and the older project of Hugo Grotius: international law. The Peace Palace was
constructed only a stone’s throw away from Tinbergen’s parental home (Eyffinger and Hengst 1988).
The young Tinbergen was deeply influenced by the peace movement that had supported these
initiatives. Such a movement was at home in a neutral country like the Netherlands, which as a naval
trading nation had much to gain from peaceful economic relationships. On a personal level the
young Tinbergen was faced with the dilemma of whether he should refuse the military draft,
something that just a few years earlier would have resulted in a prison sentence. But in the early
1920s things were changing. The social-democratic movement of which he was part, at least
temporarily was successful in blocking a new military naval act through a popular petition, and
around the same time conscientious objectors could apply for social rather than military service.
Tinbergen was one of the first to apply for this alternative to the military draft, and his request was
granted. This strategy of civil resistance was promoted in Christian socialist circles in which
Tinbergen moved. These movements occupied a curious position in the intellectual landscape. They
were more international in outlook than mainstream political parties, including the social-
democratic parties. As such they were often perceived to be close to the communists. But in
contrast to the Communists they rejected any violent or revolutionary measures, and instead sought
peaceful change from within. From this angle they were much closer to the bourgeois political
middle than the social-democratic party which had not shed all its revolutionary aspirations yet. of
the early 1920s.
Unlike most of the socialist movement, these Christian and cultural socialists strongly believed that
the emancipation of the working class could and should be achieved within the current society. They
were much more optimistic that an enlightened rationalism could overcome class differences than
many other socialists. With this aim in mind many new organizations and magazines were founded
which sought to promote this emancipation of the working classes and in particular the youth.
The leading light of these movements in the Netherlands, but more widely on the Continent was
Hendrik de Man. He developed important cultural critiques of Marx and the social-democratic
movement of his time. Most importantly he argued that a culturally impoverished proletariat could
never possibly form the basis for a new society. So, the most urgent task was to combat the cultural
degeneration of the working class. De Man, who worked briefly in Frankfurt, was a pioneer in the
combination of psychology and Marxism. It was his cultural socialism that inspired the Workers
Youth Movement (AJC) of which Tinbergen was a very active member. De Man believed that through
incremental change in the order of society social peace could be maintained while socialism could be
achieved (De Man 1927). He attempted to transform socialism into a mainly idealistic movement.
A similar idealism, which believed in the power of moral ideals, was found in the pacifist movement.
In that movement the ongoing class struggle was frequently compared to war on the international
stage. By analogy the pacifism pursued on the international level was translated into a peaceful
idealism in the national class struggle. The same way that improved laws and better institutional
representation of the suppressed classes could lead to social peace so, so international law, the end
of colonialism, and a new international order could lead to international peace. It was therefore that
the international Court founded in The Hague was of such great symbolic value, it represented the
first step in the direction of this new international legal order (Sluga 2013). Although the pacifists
were at the same time deeply disappointed that not more was achieved, and that the Court
remained relatively powerless in the first decades of the twentieth century. Nonetheless it was in
this perspective that the newly established League of Nations could be the next step forward in what
would be a long process of internationalization.
But although he was active in these internationalist circles Tinbergen’s early career was dominated
by domestic concerns. In the late 1920’s he modernized the collection and analysis of statistics at
the Bureau of Statistics, and the early years of the 1930s were completely dominated by research
into the business cycle. When Tinbergen started working on that subject it was still predominantly
theoretical and involved the investigation of potential theoretical explanations of the cycle. But a
new generation of ambitious young econometricians sought to overturn this theoretical focus and
combine the new tools of mathematics and statistics to revolutionize the way economics was done.
They included Tinbergen, Ragnar Frisch and Francois Divisia on the continent, and they received
support from Charles Roos, Irving Fischer and Alfred Cowles, who funded much of this new
Many important steps in econometrics followed each other in quick succession around 1930.
Inspired by Frisch it was Tinbergen who in a 1935 article Tinbergen for the first time developed a
model that incorporated the dynamics of the business cycle within a model of the whole economy
(Tinbergen 1935). A year later he would apply a similar model to the Dutch economy (Tinbergen
1936b). In this groundbreaking model the various parameters were estimated statistically and as
such it was the first macro-econometric model of an economy. Developed in the midst of the
economic crisis, Tinbergen immediately put it to use to investigate the effects of various proposed
policies, in the short- and somewhat longer-run.
One of the proposed policies was a set of public works and social legislation known as the Plan of
Labor. The plan was modelled after the example set in Belgium by the Plan of Henri de Man (Pels
1985; Dodge 1979). It was part of a wider movement in the mid-1930s in which various reformers in
the social-democratic movement across Europe sought to provide a way out of the crisis. The
traditional answer to the recent crisis from the socialists had been that little could be done about it,
after all crises were endemic to the capitalist system. But those associated with the Plan movement
believed not only that the crisis was so urgent that something had to be done right away, but also
that reform from within was possible.
The Plan de Man from Belgium was the result of a relatively quick politicization of Hendrik de Man,
who had left some of the emphasis on cultural idealism behind and now presented a political action
plan. The Dutch Plan of Labor was not merely action plan, but also a document of vision and
reorientation of the social-democratic party (Commissie uit N.V.V. en S.D.A.P. 1936). One of the
central suggestions of the Plan was that the economic system could be re-ordered, and it contained
an entire chapter about Ordening (Ordnung). This reordering related to the industrial structure
which, they argued, had led to harmful types of competition and waste. But this reordering of the
economy was also proposed at the level of national politics, and in particular in relation to economic
policy. The Dutch plan suggested that the response to the crisis had in part been so poor because
the contemporary political system was not at all equipped to deal with a complex crisis like this one.
Members of parliament were anything but economically literate and the government lacked many of
the relevant instruments to counter the crisis. The Plan of Labor, although it is very much a crisis
document, in the long term became an important manifesto for embedding economic expertise into
the national political structure.
At home this Plan of Labor which was written in close cooperation between Hein Vos and Jan
Tinbergen, received a fair deal of criticism. Some of his more cautious academic friends such as Ed
van Cleeff was concerned that the Plan was too political, and not sufficiently grounded in an
overarching vision of the desirable socio-economic order
. But it was also criticized from the side of
the internationalists who critiqued the narrow national nature of the Plan. Was it not foolish to
believe that a small economy like the Netherlands could do much to combat a crisis that was in
origin and essence international? They wondered (Verwey-Jonker 1936). Tinbergen was sensitive to
both types of criticism.
Although he agreed in spirit with both the academic caution and the internationalist critique, he
argued that the present situation was so urgent that something had to be done, and the plan offered
such a way forward. Important in the urgency was that he feared fascism would quickly rise in the
Netherlands like it had done abroad. As early as 1929 he signed a petition of the anti-fascist society
on Hungary, and in the mid-1930s he became involved in various anti-fascist organizations including
the committee of vigilance (Tinbergen 1936a). The effects of the Plan on the social-democratic
movement, however, were much along the lines the critics suggested. It established a national-
oriented course, and the Plan itself quickly became partisan, despite the hope of Tinbergen and
other that it could appeal to constructive forces in all democratic parties (Jansen van Galen 1985).
Perhaps nothing more should have been expected in the turbulent second half of the 1930s. But the
legacy of the Plan was much longer. After the war partisan concerns had faded into the background.
The postwar order in the Netherlands was shaped much along the lines that Tinbergen and Vos had
envisioned in their Plan of Labor. New economic institutions were founded which supplemented or
even supplanted traditional ways of making economic policy (den Butter 2011). Hein Vos who
became minister in the first post-war cabinet asked Jan Tinbergen to head the Central Planning
Bureau which would become the main organization for economic expertise in the economic order of
the Netherlands. Initially it was primarily concerned with the post-war reconstruction but over time
it developed, under Tinbergen’s lead, policy-models which were based on his famous methodology
of targets and instruments. To this day the organization plays a crucial role in formation of economic
policy in the Netherlands.
Van Cleeff to Tinbergen 24 August 1935, Tinbergen Letters, see https://tinbergenletters.eur.nl/theletters/.
Here we will not go into the details of this approach policymaking, but rather focus on some of the
other organizations which became crucial after the war. The most important of these is the more
corporatist socio-economic council. This socio-economic council, sometimes referred to as the
‘second parliament’, consisted of 30 representatives, 10 each from labor, capital and government
experts. It became the primary organ for socio-economic policy making and the creation of
legitimacy of this policy toward both the business community and the unions (Don 2019). There
were further steps in a corporatist direction, supported by Tinbergen or those affiliated with him,
most notably the public-private industry organizations (PBO). The PBO’s looked from most outside
perspectives very much like government approved cartels, but officially were meant to foster
cooperation and orderly competition. As industry organizations they were meant to create stability,
and coordination between different producers.
Such organizations, or rather the re-ordering of the Dutch economy, was crucial to Tinbergen
because he believed that the system of the 1930s was inherently unstable. He even was skeptical of
the very modelling techniques that made him famous in economics, as he repeatedly argued: “it is of
little use to predict the course of an essentially unstable system”. This instability for him was not
merely economic, although it was that also. It was also political, because parliament lacked the
necessary knowledge and instruments to conduct good economic policy. The expert and policy
institutions of the post-war period were expressly founded with the goal in mind of providing the
relevant knowledge and instruments to conduct rational economic policy. But most of all the
stability of an economic system was an institutional question.
If encased with the right set of (expert) institutions and legal framework the economy could be
stable, but that was not naturally so. He explicitly presented that view as a break with the older 19th-
century perspective on the economy, as a system of natural harmony. And although these ideas
were all present in the Plan of Labor it took the formative League of Nations experience for
Tinbergen to develop them further into concrete plans and methods.
2. At the League of Nations
Tinbergen was a somewhat unlikely candidate as leading expert for the second report on business
cycles at the Economic and Financial Section of the League of Nations. His predecessor Gottfried von
Haberler came out of the theoretically minded Austrian School and had inventoried the various
‘verbal’ theories of the business cycle, and attempted to arise at a kind of synthesis (Haberler 1937).
Tinbergen knew about these theories, but his work in the early 1930s on business-cycle theories had
taken a rather different approach. Whereas the verbal theorists, as he called them, had sought to
arrive at a theoretically feasible theory of the cycle, Tinbergen instead had been analyzing a few
possible mechanisms which could explain cyclical behavior.
There was an important similarity between the two endeavors. Both sought to analyze the dynamics
of modern economies endogenously: as a dynamic internal to the system. But whereas much of the
theorists were concerned with conceptual analysis of natural and market interest rates, length of
production and degree of roundaboutedness, as well as new concepts such as effective demand,
Tinbergen was primarily looking for the types of mechanisms that could generate a cycle. Here he
was inspired by his training in physics, and the initial mechanism he proposed were often analogies
with physical mechanisms.
And unlike Haberler, and even more so the more famous business cycle theorists of the age such as
Keynes, Hayek, Gunnar Myrdal and Bertil Ohlin, Tinbergen had no ‘horse in the race’. He held no
strong opinion whether the cycle was caused by malinvestment, by a lack of effective demand, or
other particular factors. Perhaps that was why the choice fell on him to engage in the project of
testing the business cycle theories that Haberler had collected (Haberler 1937). But the way
Tinbergen conducted the ‘test’ received criticism from virtually every angle. Keynes critical reviews
of the volumes are notorious, he compared Tinbergen’s methods to black magic and alchemy
(Keynes 1939; Boumans 2019). Internally there were fierce debates about Tinbergen’s approach, and
it was only through the mediation of Dennis Robertson that Loveday was calmed down enough to let
This had much to do with the approach that Tinbergen took. Rather than testing individual business
cycle theories against a dataset, he constructed a model of the U.S. economy and sought to describe
its dynamics. Although he had pioneered a similar model for the Netherlands, the approach was new
to most of the economists who formed the expert oversight committee (Boianovsky and Trautwein
2006). This method did not at all directly confront the business cycle theories of the age with the
data. Rather it sought to describe the dynamics of the U.S. economy since 1920. Although this led to
the refutation of some theoretical suggestions because they did not provide a mechanism that could
explain both an upswing and/or a downswing, Tinbergen’s study confirmed most theories of the
cycle. Tinbergen explicitly hoped to change the terms of the debate. Not whether malinvestment or
a lack of effective demand caused the crisis was the right framing, instead how much each of these
factors contributed was the correct way of understanding the problem. The econometricians like
him sought to overcome dogmatic disputes and turn them into quantitative disagreements.
But even on his own methodological ground, there was dissatisfaction with his approach. Frisch, who
pioneered the modelling approach right alongside him argued that Tinbergen had not made clear
why the particular quantitative relationships he found would be stable over time, or whether the
same relations would hold in other countries. It was not at all clear how general the relations were,
or whether they were purely contingent relationship specific to time and place.
But despite the contested reception of his report, the League of Nations experience was formative
for Tinbergen. The report was a collaborative effort, most directly with his assistants Polak (later
research director at the IMF) and Tjalling Koopmans (later Nobel Prize winner in economics). But also
with the team of experts which reported at various stages on the draft report, which included
Ragnar Frisch, Dennis Robertson, Otto Anderson, John Maurice Clark, Leon Dupriez, Alvin Hansen,
Oskar Morgenstern, Bertil Ohlin, Charles Rist, Lionel Robbins and Wilhelm Röpke (Boianovsky and
Trautwein 2006). As such the internationalist outlook of the League was reflected in the make-up of
its economic expert team. And what made the period unique is that the League managed to attract
some of the foremost economic thinkers of the age to work on problems that were directly relevant
to the age.
This was, however, not without difficulties. The most important of which was that the League of
Nations was officially only permitted to provide ‘technical’ advice, and not political advice (Clavin
and Wessels 2005; Clavin 2015). As such it could inventory the various theories of the business cycle,
and at least according to Loveday it also allowed for the ‘testing’ of these theories. But what it
certainly could not do is advice on the best way to get out of the crisis. This was made very directly
clear when Tinbergen investigated the effects of the New Deal policies. He wanted to include this
more practical study in his report to show how the dynamics of the U.S. economy were altered by
the more structural policies of the New Deal. But this third part never appeared, and Tinbergen was
even forbidden to report on the results of the study at talks he gave around the time
At that point Tinbergen thus had a dual experience. In the Netherlands he had been active in a plan
which directly combatted the crisis, but which was deeply caught up in partisan politics. At the
League of Nations, he had worked on a report that was supposed to represent the scientific
consensus view of the economists of the age who worked on the business cycle, but it was politically
completely without consequence. In fact, in retrospect the reports by both Haberler and Tinbergen
are remembered for their academic significance and not their policy relevance. In some ways that
Correspondence with Loveday, and draft Report of the ‘third volume’, League of Nations Archives, Geneva.
was the opposite of the ambition of Loveday, who wanted to create an expertise relevant for
creating economic stability
It is strikingly this vision that has the longest effect on the work of Tinbergen. And not just for him.
His assistant Polak stayed at the League of Nations and contributed to the two war-time volumes on
the link between the creation of economic stability, peaceful relations and economic expertise is
explicitly developed (League of Nations 1943, 1945). The business-cycle problem is presented as an
international problem, in need not just of international expertise, but also of international politically
coordinated policy efforts. The wartime emergency, or perhaps lack of direct supervision, embolden
Loveday to push for these more policy relevant studies. And as such these volumes sketch a clear
vision of a new international economic order (De Marchi 1991).
It is striking that quite apart from the League of Nations studies Tinbergen wrote a book along the
same lines International Economic Co-Operation (Tinbergen 1945). During the War he resumed his
work for the Bureau of Statistics in the Netherlands and was largely disconnected from the
international developments. But just like the reports of the League he argued that the international
economy had to be made stable through new organizations, and rules. Tinbergen listed a few
organizations which could do so. They included a continuation of the expertise as it was practiced at
the League of Nations, and an international monetary policy. Written quite independent of the
Bretton-Woods negotiations Tinbergen proposed an international commodity standard, for which
his friend Jan Goudriaan, had developed proposals in the 1930s.
In the proposals we find the same combination of expertise and development of instruments
through which rational policy could be organized, as he had proposed on the national level. Like the
national economy needed additional features of economic organization, so this was true for the
international economy. Tinbergen proposed, before they come into existence, an International
Equalization Fund for the settlement of international payments, a Bank for Reconstruction and
Development, and a continuation of both the Secretariat of the League of Nations and the
International Labor Office (ILO), the two Geneva institutions. These are to be the expert institutions,
like he had proposed them in the institutional part of the Plan of Labor: “It must be observed that
expert knowledge for this work is essential and must not be subordinated to the representation of
special interests” (Tinbergen 1945, 170). But pure expertise was not enough. The ILO had a structure
like the socio-economic council in Netherlands. This structure was famously symbolized by the gate
It might also explain some of the dissatisfaction of the more politically minded economists of the time.
Keynes wrote highly critical reviews not just of the Tinbergen volume, but also of the preceding Haberler
of the ILO building which required three keys to be opened: one of the workers, one of the
employers, and one for the governments. So even in terms of the creation of legitimacy there was
3. A Globalist of the Left?
Perhaps the overarching metaphor in Tinbergen’s thought is peace. That he had been able to ‘pacify’
the social conflict in the socio-economic council was of crucial importance to him. But even before
he had been inspired by the pacificist movement at home in The Hague. That same pacifist spirit was
vividly present in Geneva, another governmental town in a small country with a history of neutrality.
Pacification had also been the solution to the long-standing school struggle in the Netherlands which
dated back to the Napoleonic period. It should there not come as a surprise that this is also what he
sought to bring about in international relations after 1945.
Then again who was not in 1945? But to understand how the international was shaped, and what
was believed to help bring about peace it is of great importance to know how thinkers like Jan
Tinbergen, thought peace could be brought about. For him it meant strengthening the weaker
parties after which they could be peacefully integrated into the institutional fabric of society. He
believed that this had been the great success of the labor movement (and associated movements). It
had strengthened the relative position of an underprivileged group (the workers) and only
afterwards was it possible to set-up institutions which would generate a more just order. Creating a
stable economy was thus a combination of balancing the relative power of entities and setting up
institutions for joint decision-making.
Internationally this means for Tinbergen several things. First, it means decolonization for all the
colonial powers. This would achieve two things at once, it would strengthen the relative position of
the previously colonized countries, and of course it would weaken the relative position of the
(former) colonial powers. Over time it would also mean that the new ‘nations could integrate and
form more regional powers: he supported the efforts of regional integration in South America, Africa
and Asia. But more importantly he considered European integration as a backward step in the
process toward a more just international order. He argues that such a collaboration would be purely
defensive: “only a substitute for what they really want: an ordered world economy” (Tinbergen
He (rightly) feared that European integration would lead to a strong continent which would raise
important barriers in trade, and tight border controls. Although Tinbergen was not very explicit in his
arguments, it is amply clear that European integration in his vision would undo much if not all the
beneficial effects of decolonization. It is important to emphasize that it is also a difficult argument to
make at the time. The European powers had not yet accepted decolonization, including the
Netherlands. It failed to let go of Indonesia and would be engaged in a backwards and lengthy war
from 1945-1949, and it did not give up Surinam until 1975. But the idea of restricting European
integration and further limiting the influence of Great Britain and France was even more unlikely.
Whereas the U.S. pushed for decolonization, it also pushed for more European integration. And of
course, Western integration through the NATO. It was the latter alliance which both for exclusive
and militaristic character would never be supported by Tinbergen. He instead favored the United
Nations, as a continuation of the internationalist project of the League of Nations.
Tinbergen’s own stance on decolonization was not always principled. In 1945 he calculated the total
contribution of Indonesia to the Dutch economy, and he kept emphasizing in the Reconstruction
years, that the Netherlands faced a particularly difficult challenge because it lost its colony in the
East (Derksen and Tinbergen 1945; Tinbergen 1950). And he preferred to not explicitly engage with
the question of colonialism. But in between the lines it is clear that his concern with smaller
countries and underdeveloped areas lacking capital, represents an argument in favor of the (former)
colonies (Tinbergen 1945). This concern was not a break, but rather a continuation of the interwar
years, much like Hansen and Jonsson have suggested for the European ideal (Hansen and Jonsson
Building on the cultural socialism of his youth, Tinbergen hoped to spread a kind of rationalization
around the world. And he did so as part of an ethic of responsibility, which believed that a cultural
elite could help spread this rationalization. When he was involved with the founding of the
development aid organization NOVIB (later part of Oxfam-NOVIB), he did so explicitly from a
perspective of Christian and Western responsibility (Tinbergen 1966). The former colonies were now
independent, but they still required ‘our’ assistance. In line with an emancipatory ideal of education
he held, it was hoped that over time this assistance was no longer required and the countries could
be fully independent (Tinbergen 1963a). This continuation was nicely reflected in the chair he
occupied from 1956 onwards. That chair was formerly for Colonial Economics now it was a chair for
Development Economics, or more precisely Development Planning.
Although he was involved in some of the early exploratory studies of European integration in his role
as one of the premier economic policy experts in the Netherlands, he kept opposing the idea. In the
1950s he worked on a model of international trade in which he investigated the effect of economic
integration on so-called ‘third countries’ (Tinbergen 1960). The results are telling, the third country is
most likely hurt by this type of economic integration. It is a thinly veiled criticism of the European
Economic Community. More importantly because Tinbergen demonstrated that such harmful effects
are even more severe in the case of labor-intensive industries, the type of industry most typically
found outside of the European area around that time. It is important to realize that this is in no way
an argument against integrated trade more generally, in fact the investigation is premised on the
idea that global free trade is the first-best option (Tinbergen 1968).
His opposition to European integration, therefore, did not mean that he was not a great proponent
of international economic integration. In the GATT report which features crucially in the Slobodian’s
(2018) narrative about the construction of a postwar international order Tinbergen is one of the
authors. And so is James Meade, another Geneva luminary and man of the left, he has a similarly
internationalist outlook (Haberler et al. 1958). For these economic thinkers a global economic
integration is a superior form of creating a more just international economic order. The GATT is
precisely a step in the direction of a globally order international market and is now typically viewed
as a steppingstone toward the international trade organization (ITO) and the later WTO. The goal of
international free trade was shared by many of the Geneva experts, not just among the neoliberals.
But there was also a sense in Tinbergen that things were moving slowly, or even in the wrong
direction. The Cold War is heating up in middle of the 1950s, and he expressed his discontent that
the social-democratic movement in Europe is more focused on national than international issues
(Tinbergen 1957). It is for this reason that Tinbergen increasingly placed his hopes elsewhere. If the
West was unwilling to create a more balanced international order, this had to been done by
strengthening the less developed countries. And after 1955 his career is mostly devoted to the fate
of the underdeveloped countries, and attempts to strengthen international institutions, most
prominently the United Nations.
Tinbergen decided that the only way to strengthen the relative position of the underdeveloped
nations is by strengthening their internal constitution. Much like the social-democratic movements
had succeeded in strengthening the national position of the workers, after which a peaceful
integrative solution was possible, so the developing countries now had to be strengthened. During
his work on development economics he kept appealing to the developed world for development
assistance, and his models inevitably pointed out that part of the development plan had to be
financed externally. But development economics was crucially a national project in its execution (if
clearly not in its near universal reach). It thus put him in the same difficult position as the Plan of
Labor had done before. The danger of economic nationalism was lurking and would indeed plague
many approaches in development economics. Elsewhere I have studied in detail his work in Turkey
(Dekker 2020, chap. 12). Tinbergen also worked in Egypt, Venezuela, Surinam, Indonesia and about a
dozen other countries. His students served as economic experts in many of them. And the United
Nations development decades were clear evidence that this was an international policy concern, but
solutions were sought at the national level. In other words, much like the Great Depression of the
1930s, the problem was international, but the solution was primarily sought at a national level.
The goal, however, remained similar in Tinbergen’s vision. The individual units of the international
order had to be strengthened so that a more just overall order could be created. A clear outcome of
this development is the Group of 77 (G77), an organization which sought to further the interests of
the developing countries within international politics. It was symbolically housed in Geneva but drew
members mostly from the ‘Global South’. It was this type of integration that Tinbergen fostered first
in his Shaping the World Economy (Tinbergen 1962) and later in his book written in alignment with
the goal of an alternative economic order of the G77 in his Reshaping the International Order
(Tinbergen 1976). It was also evident in his support for the movement of non-aligned countries,
headed by India. These countries sought a development path that was not capitalist or communist
but represented a kind of third way. It was here that Tinbergen identified a new role for Europe.
4. Second thoughts about Europe
At that point Tinbergen’s view of Europe is also changing significantly. Whereas in the first decade
after WWI it was clear to him that an economically integrated Europe would be an obstacle to global
economic integration, rather than a stepping stone he is not so sure anymore. He started to suggest
that some level of integration between the global and the national might be useful and perhaps
even necessary. This is directly linked to this theory of the optimal level of decision-making, or as he
sometimes puts it the optimal level of centralization (Tinbergen 1954). But more importantly he
rethought the role of Europe in the global economy.
Amid the Cold War, which facilitated dichotomous thinking about East and West, communist and
capitalist, he suggested that Europe might offer a third way between the two. Theoretically
Tinbergen links this to his theory of the optimal economic order, a conception of the optimal
institutional decision-making structure in the economy. This optimum is neither socialist, nor
capitalist, but rather a pragmatic combination of both, based on their relative strengths (Tinbergen
1959). Tinbergen argued that the post-war economies in Europe were closer to this optimum than
the regimes of the United States or the USSR. This would become a hallmark of his thought in his
theory of convergence (Tinbergen, Linneman, and Pronk 1966; Linneman, Pronk, and Tinbergen
This idea came to prominence in the context of a debate over the so-called undecided or
‘uncommitted’ countries. These countries were not formally in the capitalist (U.S.) or the communist
(U.S.S.R.) camp yet, and hence were believed to be able to choose an optimal path toward
development, independent of dogma and ideology. It is particularly for this group that Tinbergen
believed that Europe could function as an alternative model. He often framed the argument in an
idealistic manner, as if Europe presented a clear unified alternative economic model, but it should
also certainly be read in the context of spheres of influence and power politics.
This becomes all the more clear in a lecture Tinbergen gives in Sweden, in the Wicksell lecture series,
in 1963 (Tinbergen 1963b). He was invited to deliver this lecture series by his good friend, and later
co-recipient of the first Nobel Prize in economics, Ragnar Frisch. Frisch was a committed opponent of
the European Union, who valued the relatively young independence of Norway (in 1905), but also
argued that Scandinavian countries more generally might credibly live out this alternative third way
independent of the great powers. Tinbergen’s lecture is thus best read as an explicit argument to
convince Frisch, and other Scandinavians like him, to join the European Community. That context is
all interesting because much like the Netherlands the Scandinavian countries have always been
somewhat peripheral to the major European conflicts and are all small open economies. In other
words, arguments that should compel the Netherlands to join, should be roughly convincing to
Initially the lectures focused on economic factors. Tinbergen defined the essence of the European
Economic Community to be the elimination of national trade borders, which could over time come
to include the harmonization of tax regimes and the integration of currencies. But on that front is
not where the underlying difference of opinion lies between Tinbergen and Frisch. The contested
issue is the extent to which the EEC is a democratic entity, and even more so whether the
progressive and protestant forces will win out from the more conservative catholic forces, what
Tinbergen in the lecture called the ‘black forces’. Tinbergen tried to identify as many progressive
trends in the social policies, a rather heroic given the fact that De Gaulle at that moment
represented the clear antithesis of such modern social policy to both Tinbergen and Frisch: “all of us
hope that France will soon again show it real face- which, by democratic measures, is federalist”
(Tinbergen 1963b, 38). De Gaulle was a kind of anti-thesis of the progressive democratic future that
Tinbergen and Frisch envisioned. De Gaulle, a general, represented militarism and conservative
social policy from the top, rather than the democratic, and progressive social policy and awareness
that Tinbergen and Frisch favored. But most importantly De Gaulle represented French nationalism,
rather than a unifying European or internationalist spirit.
At the heart of the disagreement between Frisch and Tinbergen is the fact whether the EEC can
provide a credible alternative, and exemplar for the non-committed countries. Frisch remained
unconvinced and believed that Norway and Sweden as such represented more of an exemplar than
the EEC could ever be. He actively contributed to the political debate surrounding this issue and
rejoiced when the Norwegians rejected membership in the 1972 referendum. For Tinbergen small
countries, however, could hardly represent a viable alternative. Given his recent work in India, and
involvement with the United Nations he was looking for bigger exemplars than some small Northern
European countries. The EEC was therefore of key importance, to demonstrate the viability of an
international Third Way.
The idealist socialism and pacificism of his youth, had always made Tinbergen sympathetic to the
idea that one should lead by example. It was something he practiced in everyday life, and it was
something that Frisch was equally sympathetic to. But what that entailed had become unclear. For
Frisch a small but pure example set by Norway or another small country could be enough. Tinbergen
had become convinced that to truly compete with the models of the United States and the USSR,
Europe needed to set a credible, imperfect, large-scale example. For this it was essential for the
Scandinavian countries to join, for only that way Europe might be steered in a credibly progressive
In some sense Tinbergen’s initial fears about economic integration materialized. The initial set-up of
the EEC which included three small countries (and economies), the Netherlands, Belgium and
Luxemburg, and three larger one’s France, Germany and Italy proved to be unbalanced. The drive to
expand the European Union on the side of Tinbergen and the smaller countries more generally
should be read as similar in spirit to Tinbergen’s initial plea for decolonization. An integrated global
order was only possible if the underlying units were of somewhat comparable strength and size.
Since further breaking up France or Germany was not feasible the solution was to attempt to enlarge
the number of smaller partners to create a better underlying structure.
His vision in development economics was undergirded by the same idea. It was only through the
strengthening of the constitutive parts that a more balanced and just international order could be
created. This vision of the global economy thus sought to break radically with the ideas about global
order from before. It was no longer a balance between great colonial powers, keeping each other in
check, but rather an order of small relatively powerless units who had much to gain from
international economic integration, and which would ultimately be willing to accept a form of world
government. But before that was feasible one could already start with the design of global policy
institutes which should prevent economic crises from happening: the spread of business cycles
(instability) from one country to another, as well as the return of economic nationalism through
raising tariffs. These were existential fears for Tinbergen, aspects of the 1930s which had to be
avoided at all costs.
The 1930s were a formative decade for thinking about international order, because many of the
aspect of the international order which had been taken for granted, or which had been regarded as
natural, broke down. This has been well recognized on the level of economic ideologies, liberalism
lost terrain to both socialism and fascism, but it has been much less studied what this meant for
thinking about international economic order. The great merit of Slobodian’s work as well as that of
others on the League of Nations during the interwar period is that is has put concerns about
international economic order back on the research agenda. And while Slobodian’s story about the
neoliberals who had seen the Habsburg Empire wither and therefore sought to secure international
order on a higher level is correct it is also incomplete. From the internationalist left, which was
equally present in Geneva, came similar impulses, especially from the smaller countries in Europe.
They equally believed that an integrated, stable and just economic order could only be achieved at
the international, and perhaps the global level.
Tinbergen is one thinker who fits this profile well, and this chapter has sought to analyze the view of
international order which was underlying his work on economic integration. It has been
demonstrated that he regarded large powerful nations as the most important obstacle toward such
international economic integration, and he worried that an integrated Europe would pose a
formidable obstacle of precisely this kind.
That also explains why at the same time he favored regional economic integration in other parts of
the world. These parts were comparatively weaker and therefore strengthening their relative
economic position would be a stepping stone toward an international economic order. The
underlying model in his thought was that of an international order made up of economic units of
relatively comparable size and strength, this would create the most solid support for an integrated
world economy and an optimal international division of labor (Tinbergen 1968).
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