Final Public Oral Exam: Robert Konkel

Final Public Oral Examination
Event date: 
August 1, 2022 - 10:00am
Seminar Series: 
Final Public Oral Exam

Building Blocs: Raw Materials and the Global Economy in the Age of Disequilibrium


Jeremy Adelman, adviser
Stephen Kotkin
Harold James
Patricia Clavin, University of Oxford


Building Blocs charts a global history of the last great crisis of globalization—the transwar decades from the 1880s through the 1940s—centering strategic minerals needed to make steel. Little-studied, but critically important, alloying minerals like tungsten and manganese were only needed in small amounts, but they were essential to the very foundations of national prosperity and security—steel and military production. Herein lay a fundamental problem: none of the industrial powers possessed adequate domestic deposits of these minerals, which were concentrated in remote locations—like central India, the Caucasus, southern China, Brazilian jungles, the Australian outback, and southern Africa. In a world in which steel was power, I show how resource anxieties motivated interwar quests for autarky and autonomy in the form of self-contained blocs. The scramble for strategic minerals escalated tensions and put rivals on the road to war, while reshaping the forms and structures of geopolitical entities and international institutions throughout the transwar period.

The dissertation’s narrative arc begins with the Age of Alloy Steel in the late-nineteenth century, which intensified the inter-imperial competition for mineral supplies. Economic warfare during the First World War cemented the reality—and dangers—of resource interdependence, prompting new modes of “bloc thinking”—strategies dreamed up to organize and consolidate self-contained, self-sufficient blocs. Despite internationalist efforts to restore liberal capitalism, interwar economic and political disequilibria pushed state and market interests to extricate themselves from the webs of globality, through mechanisms like protectionism, cartelization, or outright imperial expansion. The Great Depression radicalized these bids at autonomy and autarky, as resource interdependence spurred illiberal modes of governance and modernity. During the Second World War, US experts and policymakers drew lessons from interwar economic nationalism to forge a plan in which a permeable US sphere of influence would span the hemispheres, securing access to territories producing strategic raw materials.

A copy of the dissertation will be available for review two weeks before the exam. Contact Lee Horinko for a copy of the dissertation and the Zoom meeting link and password.

All are welcome and encouraged to attend.