Rob Konkel

National Archives of Australia/Australian Historical Association postgraduate scholar, 2018-19


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

Biographical note

Rob Konkel is a PhD candidate in the history department at Princeton University. His dissertation, supervised by Professor Jeremy Adelman, examines the significance of raw materials to the interwar global economy. Prior to beginning his PhD, Rob completed a B.A. in history at the University of Saskatchewan, and an M.Sc. in economic and social history at Oxford University where he was supervised by Professor Deborah Oxley. His master's thesis, a history of the World Bank's conceptualization of poverty, was published by The Journal of Global History as "The Monetization of Global Poverty: the Concept of Poverty in World Bank History, 1944-90." Rob has also spent several years with the Saskatchewan Teachers' Federation as a Research and Policy Analyst.

Project summary

Rob's dissertation charts a global history of the interwar period by putting trade, finance, and geopolitics at the centre of a story about rivalries over strategic raw materials, especially metallic minerals. Modern industry required steady supplies of tungsten, manganese, bauxite, and other minerals but deposits were scattered around the world and no state or empire was fully self-sufficient. The First World War had underscored the importance of securing access to metallic minerals and highlighted the threat of resource scarcity. Indeed, the dangers of resource exhaustion weighted heavily on state officials and industrial interests alike, and material difficulties contributed to German, Italian, and Japanese expansionism. This scramble for raw materials links together questions about imperialism, tariffs and quotas, cartelisation, the gold standard, and the splintering of the world into hostile trading blocs.

The world of the interwar years was instable, polycentric, and rife with economic imbalances. While the League of Nations and the nexus of international institutions clustered around Geneva created an image of a seamlessly integrated global economy tethered together by trade and finance, this image was at odds with the reality of war debts, reparations, plunging commodity prices, and trade imbalances. Citizens and business interests alike called for less global economic integration, and states carved out spheres of influence to secure access to scarce resources. This research will focus primarily upon the British and American cases, comparing the British preferential trading system with its dominions and the American proclivity toward internal commodity chains. Rob will also pay attention to producers of primary products like China, Canada, and Australia, which had to navigate the volatility of global markets and rising geopolitical tension.

Australia was a significant international player during this time, but its role is understated in the extant historical literature. Australia occupied a key position in the Anglo-American world due to its production of scarce strategic minerals and foodstuffs, and its geostrategic position in the Pacific. Both Great Britain and the United States lacked domestic deposits of key metallic minerals, making the mineral potential of Australia of paramount importance. By 1930, exploration was well underway in Australia, and investment was directed toward extraction. Rob will examine these issues using records in the collection of the National Archives of Australia, particularly records of the Department of External Affairs, the Prime Minister's Department, the Department of Trade and Commerce, the Mines Branch, Lands and Mines Department, and those related to the exploitation of Aboriginal lands.

Copyright National Archives of Australia 2019