This book has the shape of a mountain: you tramp up one side, looking at the preparation and run-up to the ‘battle’ for nearly two hundred pages, spend fewer than sixty on the Bretton Woods conference itself and then tramp down for another hundred, as Benn Steil considers the aftermath to the present. It could be seen as something of a policy-driven production, invoking history to provide a context for our current predicament (comparisons with today’s US–China relationship repeatedly appear). Yet this would be to underrate its interest and its quality, which are both considerable.
The title promises a battle of the titans: John Maynard Keynes and Harry Dexter White. Keynes needs little introduction: British, arrogant, self-regarding, brilliant, fluent, acerbic, wittily cruel, intellectually flexible and the most famous economist in the world. Steil displays an admiring dislike of the man and works to deflate him.