As much as people talk about economic “multilateralism,” it remains very much an elusive term, in part because it is used loosely to denote two similar though distinct concepts. At its simplest, multilateralism often is described as the cooperation between three or more countries. Still, most legal scholars tend to equate multilateralism with the forms of cooperation that have dominated the postwar story of international cooperation – highly ritualized “global” forums of cooperation where heads of state sign treaties that memorialize certain economic relationships, usually under the auspices of a formal international organization.
But before the mid seventeenth century, countries rarely cooperated in the sense in which we are familiar today. This is in part because the very idea of a “state” was very much under construction. Countries did not always have the sophisticated governmental infrastructure, or even the territorial integrity, that we know today. Moreover, with poor communication and limited interactions among emerging nations, sophisticated economic arrangements were not always feasible. Instead, they became more popular only over time, as countries came into closer and more sustained contact with one another.
That being said, rulers have for millennia sought to manage and promote core economic activities within their realms. Perhaps the earliest priority – after taxing and taking tribute from conquered peoples – has been, quite literally, to make currency that could be used by both citizens and subjects. Indeed, even when land and cattle were the primary signs of wealth, local strongmen have sought to create a means of exchange for their territories that would facilitate trade in contexts where goods to be exchanged possessed nonequivalent value. In most parts of the world, societies turned to commodities as the means of making such transactions work. Gold, silver, and, to a lesser extent, copper had qualities that were attractive to societies seeking a means of exchange, or what we now call money: they were rare, durable, and, for the most part, easily transportable. Finally – and just as important – they could be fashioned into different sizes and shapes to denote different values.
For most of the history of commodity money, the popularity or prevalence of any particular coin was rarely the product of a refined economic strategy or decision, even though smaller countries or principalities occasionally embraced the coinage of their larger neighbors to lower the transaction costs of trading with them. Instead, the most important factor was conquest. The power to coin was the power to rule. Once territories were conquered, the right of coinage was often brutally enforced. The great emperor Darius, for example, considered fifth-century-BC attempts by Persian satraps in Asia Minor to strike their own coins a capital offense. Similarly, Athenian measurements and coinage techniques were forced on tributary cities as improvements in minting techniques brought more regularity to its coins. And perhaps least surprisingly, as Rome came to dominate the Mediterranean in the hundred years prior to the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, it assumed absolute authority over mintage rights of precious metals in its territories. With a few notable exceptions like Egypt (whose separate currency nonetheless often sported Roman iconography) the empire generally imposed Roman weights, measures, and coins as the only enforceable legal tender.