Economic policymakers seeking successful models to emulate apparently have an abundance of choices nowadays. Led by China, scores of emerging and developing countries have registered record-high growth rates over recent decades, setting precedents for others to follow. While advanced economies have performed far worse on average, there are notable exceptions, such as Germany and Sweden. “Do as we do,” these countries’ leaders often say, “and you will prosper, too.”

Look more closely, however, and you will discover that these countries’ vaunted growth models cannot possibly be replicated everywhere, because they rely on large external surpluses to stimulate the tradable sector and the rest of the economy. Sweden’s current-account surplus has averaged above a whopping 7% of GDP over the last decade; Germany’s has averaged close to 6% during the same period.

China’s large external surplus – above 10% of GDP in 2007 – has narrowed significantly in recent years, with the trade imbalance falling to about 2.5% of GDP. As the surplus came down, so did the economy’s growth rate – indeed, almost point for point. To be sure, China’s annual growth remains comparatively high, at above 7%. But growth at this level reflects an unprecedented – and unsustainable – rise in domestic investment to nearly 50% of GDP. When investment returns to normal levels, economic growth will slow further.

Obviously, not all countries can run trade surpluses at the same time. In fact, the successful economies’ superlative growth performance has been enabled by other countries’ choice not to emulate them.

But one would never know that from listening, for example, to Germany’s finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, extolling his country’s virtues. “In the late 1990’s, [Germany] was the undisputed ‘sick man’ of Europe,” Schäuble wrote recently. What turned the country around, he claims, was labor-market liberalization and restrained public spending.

In fact, while Germany did undertake some reforms, so did others, and its labor market does not look substantially more flexible than what one finds in other European economies. A big difference, however, was the turnaround in Germany’s external balance, with annual deficits in the 1990’s swinging to a substantial surplus in recent years, thanks to its trade partners in the eurozone and, more recently, the rest of the world. As the Financial Times’ Martin Wolf, among others, has pointed out, the German economy has been free-riding on global demand.

Other countries have grown rapidly in recent decades without relying on external surpluses. But most have suffered from the opposite syndrome: excessive reliance on capital inflows, which, by spurring domestic credit and consumption, generate temporary growth. But recipient economies are vulnerable to financial-market sentiment and sudden capital flight – as happened recently when investors anticipated monetary-policy tightening in the United States.

Consider India, until recently another much-celebrated success story. India’s growth during the past decade had much to do with loose macroeconomic policies and a deteriorating current account – which recorded a deficit of more than 5% of GDP in 2012, having been in surplus in the early 2000’s. Turkey, another country whose star has faded, also relied on large annual current-account deficits, reaching 10% of GDP in 2011.

Elsewhere, small, formerly socialist economies – Armenia, Belarus, Moldova, Georgia, Lithuania, and Kosovo – have grown very rapidly since the early 2000’s. But look at their average current-account deficits from 2000 to 2013 – which range from a low of 5.5% of GDP in Lithuania to a high of 13.4% in Kosovo – and it becomes evident that these are not countries to emulate.

The story is similar in Africa. The continent’s fastest-growing economies are those that have been willing and able to allow yawning external gaps from 2000 to 2013: 26% of GDP, on average, in Liberia, 17% in Mozambique, 14% in Chad, 11% in Sierra Leone, and 7% in Ghana. Rwanda’s current account has deteriorated steadily, with the deficit now exceeding 10% of GDP.

The world’s current-account balances must ultimately sum up to zero. In an optimal world, the surpluses of countries pursuing export-led growth would be willingly matched by the deficits of those pursuing debt-led growth. In the real world, there is no mechanism to ensure such an equilibrium on a continuous basis; national economic policies can be (and often are) mutually incompatible.

When some countries want to run smaller deficits without a corresponding desire by others to reduce surpluses, the result is the exportation of unemployment and a bias toward deflation (as is the case now). When some want to reduce their surpluses without a corresponding desire by others to reduce deficits, the result is a “sudden stop” in capital flows and financial crisis. As external imbalances grow larger, each phase of this cycle becomes more painful.

The real heroes of the world economy – the role models that others should emulate – are countries that have done relatively well while running only small external imbalances. Countries like Austria, Canada, the Philippines, Lesotho, and Uruguay cannot match the world’s growth champions, because they do not over-borrow or sustain a mercantilist economic model. Theirs are unremarkable economies that do not garner many headlines. But without them, the global economy would be even less manageable than it already is.

The opinions expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily those of the World Economic Forum. Published in collaboration with Project Syndicate.

Author: Dani Rodrik is Professor of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, New Jersey.

Image: Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann makes a speech at a trade union meeting in Vienna November 3, 2010. REUTERS/Herwig Prammer