December 31, 2004
Despite the apparent swift U.S. military success in Iraq, the U.S. dollar has yet to benefit as safe haven currency. This is an unexpected development, as many currency traders had expected the dollar to strengthen on the news of a U.S. win. Capital is flowing out of the dollar, largely into the Euro. Many are beginning to ask whether the objective situation of the U.S. economy is far worse than the stock market would suggest. The future of the dollar is far from a minor issue of interest only to banks or currency traders. It stands at the heart of Pax Americana, or as it is called, The American Century, the system of arrangements on which Americaís role in the world rests.
Yet, even as the dollar is steadily dropping against the Euro after the end of fighting in Iraq, Washington appears to be deliberately worsening the dollar fall in public comments. What is taking place is a power game of the highest geopolitical significance, the most fateful perhaps, since the emergence of the United States in 1945 as the worldís leading economic power.
The coalition of interests which converged on war against Iraq as a strategic necessity for the United States, included not only the vocal and highly visible neo-conservative hawks around Defense Secretary Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz. It also included powerful permanent interests, on whose global role American economic influence depends, such as the influential energy sector around Halliburton, Exxon Mobil, ChevronTexaco and other giant multinationals. It also included the huge American defense industry interests around Boeing, Lockheed-Martin, Raytheon, Northrup-Grumman and others. The issue for these giant defense and energy conglomerates is not a few fat contracts from the Pentagon to rebuild Iraqi oil facilities and line the pockets of Dick Cheney or others. It is a game for the very continuance of American power in the coming decades of the new century. That is not to say that profits are made in the process, but it is purely a bypro-duct of the global strategic issue.
In this power game, least understood is the role of preserving the dollar as the world reserve currency, as a major driving factor contributing to Washingtonís power calculus over Iraq in the past months. American domination in the world ultimately rests on two pillars ó its overwhelming military superiority, especially on the seas; and its control of world economic flows through the role of the dollar as the worldís reserve currency. More and more it is clear that the Iraq war was more about preserving the second pillar ñ the dollar role ñ than the first, the military. In the dollar role, oil is a strategic factor.
American Century: the three phases
If we look back over the period since the end of World War II, we can identify several distinct phases of evolution of the American role in the world. The first phase, which began in the immediate postwar period 1945-1948 and the onset of Cold War, could be called the Bretton Woods Gold Exchange system.
Under the Bretton Woods system in the immediate aftermath of the World War, the order was relatively tranquil. The United States had emerged from the War clearly as the one sole superpower, with a strong industrial base and the largest gold reserves of any nation. The initial task was to rebuild Western Europe and to create a NATO Atlantic alliance against the Soviet Union. The role of the dollar was directly tied to that of gold. So long as America enjoyed the largest gold reserves, and the U.S. economy was far the most productive and efficient producer, the entire Bretton Woods currency structure from French Franc to British Pound Sterling and German Mark was stable. Dollar cre-dits were extended along with Marshall Plan assistance and credits to finance the rebuil-ding of war-torn Europe. American companies, among them oil multinationals, gained nicely from dominating the trade at the onset of the 1950ís. Washington even encouraged creation of the Treaty of Rome in 1958 in order to boost European economic stability and create larger U.S. export markets in the bargain. For the most part, this initial phase of what Time magazine publisher Henry Luce called "The American Century", in terms of economic gains, was relatively "benign" for both the U.S. and Europe. The United States still had the economic flexibility to move.
This was the era of American liberal fo-reign policy. The United States was the hegemonic power in the Western community of nations. As it commanded overwhelming gold and economic resources compared with Western Europe or Japan and South Korea, the United States could well afford to be open in its trade relations to European and Japanese exports. The tradeoff was European and Japanese support for the role of the United Sates during the Cold War. American leadership was based during the 1950's and early 1960's less on direct coercion and more on arriving at consensus, whether in GATT trade rounds or other issues. Organizations of elites, such as the Bilderberg meetings, were organized to share the evolving consensus between Europe and the United States.
This first, more benign phase of the Ameri-can Century came to an end by the early 1970's.
The Bretton Woods Gold Exchange began to break down, as Europe got on its feet economically and began to become a strong exporter by the mid-1960's. This growing economic strength in Western Europe coincided with soaring U.S. public deficits as Johnson escalated the tragic war in Vietnam. All during the 1960's, France's de Gaulle began to take its dollar export earnings and demand gold from the U.S. Federal Reserve, legal under Bretton Woods at that time. By November 1967 the drain of gold from U.S. and Bank of England vaults had become critical. The weak link in the Bretton Woods Gold Exchange arrangement was Britain, the "sick man of Europe". The link broke as Sterling was devalued in 1967. That merely accelerated the pressure on the U.S. dollar, as French and other central banks increased their call for U.S. gold in exchange for their dollar reserves. They calculated with the soaring war deficits from Vietnam, it was only a matter of months before the United States itself would be forced to devalue against gold, so better to get their gold out at a high price.
By May 1971 the drain of U.S. Federal Reserve gold had become alarming, and even the Bank of England joined the French in demanding U.S. gold for their dollars. That was the point where rather than risk a collapse of the gold reserves of the United States, the Nixon Administration opted to abandon gold entirely, going to a system of floating currencies in August 1971. The break with gold opened the door to an entirely new phase of the American Century. In this new phase, control over monetary policy was, in effect, privatized, with large international banks such as Citibank, Chase Manhattan or Barclays Bank assuming the role that central banks had in a gold system, but entirely without gold. "Market forces" now could determine the dollar. And they did with a vengeance.
The free floating of the dollar, combined with the 1973 rise in OPEC oil prices by 400% after the Yom Kippur War, created the basis for a second phase of the American Century, the Petrodollar phase.
Beginning the mid-1970ís the American Century system of global economic dominance underwent a dramatic change. An Anglo-American oil shock suddenly created enormous demand for the floating dollar. Oil importing countries from Germany to Argentina to Japan, all were faced with how to export in dollars to pay their expensive new oil import bills. OPEC oil countries were flooded with new oil dollars. A major share of these oil dollars came to London and New York banks where a new process was instituted. Henry Kissinger termed it, ërecycling petrodollarsí. The recycling strategy was discussed already in May 1971 at the Bilderberger meeting in Saltsjoebaden, Sweden. It was presented by American members of Bilderberg, as detailed in the book Mit der ÷lwaffe zur Weltmacht.
OPEC suddenly was choking on dollars it could not use. U.S. and UK banks took the OPEC dollars and relent them as Eurodollar bonds or loans, to countries of the Third World desperate to borrow dollars to finance oil imports. The buildup of these petrodollar debts by the late 1970's, laid the basis for the Third World debt crisis in the 1980's. Hundreds of billions of dollars were recycled between OPEC, the London and New York banks and back to Third World borrowing countries.
By August 1982 the chain finally broke and Mexico announced it would likely default on repaying Eurodollar loans. The Third World debt crisis began when Paul Volcker and the U.S. Federal Reserve had unilaterally hiked U.S. interest rates in late 1979 to try to save the failing dollar. After three years of record high U.S. interest rates, the dollar was ësavedí, but the entire developing sector was choking economically under usurious U.S. interest rates on their petrodollar loans. To enforce debt repayment to the London and New York banks, the banks brought the IMF in to act as ëdebt policemaní. Public spending for health, education, welfare was slashed on IMF orders to ensure the banks got timely debt service on their petrodollars.
The Petrodollar hegemony phase was an attempt by the United States establishment to slow down its geopolitical decline as the hegemonic center of the postwar system. The IMF ëWashington Consensusí was developed to enforce draconian debt collection on Third World countries, to force them to repay dollar debts, prevent any economic independence from the nations of the South, and keep the U.S. banks and the dollar afloat. The Trilateral Commission was created by David Rockefeller and others in 1973 in order to take account of the recent emergence of Japan as an industrial giant and try to bring Japan into the system. Japan, as a major industrial nation, was a major importer of oil. Japanese trade surpluses from export of cars and other goods was used to buy oil in dollars. The remaining surplus was invested in U.S. Treasury bonds to earn interest. The G-7 was founded to keep Japan and Western Europe inside the U.S. dollar system. From time to time into the 1980ís various voices in Japan would call for three currencies( dollar, German mark and yen ) to share the world reserve role. It never happened. The dollar remained dominant.
From a narrow standpoint, the Petrodollar phase of hegemony seemed to work. Underneath, it was based on ever-worsening economic decline in living standards across the world, as IMF policies destroyed national economic growth and broke open markets for globalizing multinationals seeking cheap production outsourcing in the 1980ís and especially into the 1990's.
Yet, even in the Petrodollar phase, American foreign economic policy and military policy was dominated by the voices of the traditional liberal consensus. American power depended on negotiating periodic new arrangements in trade or other issues with its allies in Europe, Japan and East Asia.
A Petro-euro rival?
The end of the Cold War and the emergence of a new Single Europe and the European Monetary Union in the early 1990's, began to present an entirely new challenge to the American Century. It took some years, more than a decade after the 1991 Gulf War, for this new challenge to emerge full-blown. The present Iraq war is only intelligible, as a major battle in the new, third phase of securing American dominance. This phase has already been called, ëdemocratic imperialismí, a favorite term of Max Boot and other neo-conservatives. As Iraq events suggest, it is not likely to be very democratic, but definitely likely to be imperialist.
Unlike the earlier periods after 1945, in the new era, the U.S. freedom to grant concessions to other members of the G-7 is gone. Now raw power is the only vehicle to maintain American long-term dominance. The best expression of this argument comes from the neo-conservative hawks around Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, William Kristol and others.
The point to stress, however, is that the neo-conservatives enjoy such influence since September 11 because a majority in the U.S. power establishment finds their views useful to advance a new aggressive U.S. role in the world.
Rather than work out areas of agreement with European partners, Washington increasingly sees Euroland as the major strategic threat to American hegemony, especially "Old Europe" of Germany and France. Just as Britain in decline after 1870 resorted to increasingly desperate imperial wars in South Africa and elsewhere, so the United States is using its military might to try to advance what it no longer can by economic means. Here the dollar is the achilles heel.
With creation of the Euro over the past five years, an entirely new element has been added to the global system, one which defines what we can call a third phase of the American Century. This phase, in which the latest Iraq war plays a major role, threatens to bring a new, malignant or imperial phase to replace the earlier phases of American hegemony. The neo-conservatives are open about their imperial agenda, while more traditional U.S. policy voices try to deny it. The economic reality faced by the dollar at the start of the new Century, defines this new phase in an ominous way.
There is a qualitative difference emerging between the two initial phases of the American Century - that of 1945-1973, and of 1973-1999 - and the new emerging phase of continued domination in the wake of the 9.11 attacks and the Iraq War. Post-1945 American power before now, was predominately that of a hegemon. While a hegemon is the dominant power, in an unequal distribution of power, its power is not generated by coercion alone, but also by consent among its allied powers. This is because the hegemon is compelled to perform certain services to the allies such as military security or regulating world markets for the benefit of the larger group, itself included. An imperial power has no such obligations to allies, and not the freedom for such, only the raw dictates of how to hold on to its declining power - what some call "imperial overstretch". This is the world which neo-conservative hawks around Rumsfeld and Cheney are suggesting America has to dominate, with a policy of pre-emptive war.
A hidden war between the dollar and the new Euro currency for global hegemony is at the heart of this new phase.
To understand the importance of this unspoken battle for currency hegemony, we first must understand that since the emergence of the United States as the dominant global superpower after 1945, U.S. hegemony has rested on two un-challengeable pillars. First, the overwhelming U.S. military superiority over all other rivals. The United States today spends on defense more than three times the total for the entire European Union, some $ 396 billion versus $118 billion last year, and more than the next 15 largest nations combined. Washington plans an added $ 2.1 trillion over the coming five years on defense. No nation or group of nations can come close in defense spending. China is at least 30 years away from becoming a serious military threat. No one is serious about taking on U.S. military might.
The second pillar of American dominance in the world is the dominant role of the U.S. dollar as reserve currency. Until the advent of the Euro in late 1999, there was no potential challenge to this dollar hegemony in world trade. The Petrodollar has been at the heart of the dollar hegemony since the 1970ís. The dollar hegemony is strategic to the future of American global pre-dominance, in many respects as important if not more so, than the overwhelming military power.
Dollar fiat money
The crucial shift took place when Nixon took the dollar off a fixed gold reserve to float against other currencies. This removed the restraints on printing new dollars. The limit was only how many dollars the rest of the world would take. By their firm agreement with Saudi Arabia, as the largest OPEC oil producer, the ëswing producerí Washington guaranteed that the worldís largest commodity, oil, the essential for every nationís economy, the basis of all transport and much of the industrial economy, that oil could only be purchased in world markets in dollars. The deal had been fixed in June 1974 by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, establishing the U.S.-Saudi Arabian Joint Commission on Economic Cooperation. The U.S. Treasury and the New York Federal Reserve would ëallowí the Saudi central bank, SAMA, to buy U.S. Treasury bonds with Saudi petrodollars. In 1975 OPEC officially agreed to sell its oil only for dollars. A secret U.S. military agreement to arm Saudi Arabia was the quid pro quo.
Until November 2000, no OPEC country dared violate the dollar price rule. So long as the dollar was the strongest currency, there was little reason to as well. But November was when French and other Euroland members finally convinced Saddam Hussein to defy the United States by selling Iraqís oil-for-food not in dollars, "the enemy currency" as Iraq named it, but only in euros. The euros were on deposit in a special UN account of the leading French bank, BNP Paribas. Radio Liberty of the U.S. State Department ran a short wire on the news and the story was quickly hushed.
This little-noted Iraq move to defy the dollar in favor of the euro, in itself, was insignificant. Yet, if it were to spread, especially at a point the dollar was already weakening, it could create a panic selloff of dollars by foreign central banks and OPEC oil producers. In the months before the latest Iraq war, hints in this direction were heard from Russia, Iran, Indonesia and even Venezuela. An Iranian OPEC official, Javad Yarjani, delivered a detailed analysis of how OPEC at some future point might sell its oil to the EU for euros not dollars. He spoke in April, 2002 in Oviedo Spain at the invitation of the EU. All indications are that the Iraq war was seized on as the easiest way to deliver a deadly pre-emptive warning to OPEC and others, not to flirt with abandoning the Petro-dollar system in favor of one based on the euro.
Informed banking circles in the City of London and elsewhere in Europe privately confirm the significance of that little-noted Iraq move from petro-dollar to petro-euro. "The Iraq move was a declaration of war against the dollar", one senior London banker told me recently. "As soon as it was clear that Britain and the U.S. had taken Iraq, a great sigh of relief was heard in London City banks. They said privately, 'now we don't have to worry about that damn euro threat'".
Why would something so small be such a strategic threat to London and New York, or to the United States that an American President would apparently risk fifty years of alliance relations globally, and more to make a military attack whose justification could not even be proved to the world?
The answer is the unique role of the petro-dollar to underpin American economic hegemony.
How does it work? So long as almost 70% of world trade is done in dollars, the dollar is the currency which central banks accumulate as reserves. But central banks, whether China or Japan or Brazil or Russia, do not simply stack dollars in their vaults. Currencies have one advantage over gold. A central bank can use it to buy the state bonds of the issuer, the United States. Most countries around the world are forced to control trade deficits or face currency collapse. Not the United States. This is because of the dollar reserve currency role. And the underpinning of the reserve role is the petrodollar. Every nation needs to get dollars to import oil, some more than others. This means their trade targets dollar countries, above all the U.S.
Because oil is an essential commodity for every nation, the Petrodollar system, which exists to the present, demands the buildup of huge trade surpluses in order to accumulate dollar surpluses. This is the case for every country but one ó the United States which controls the dollar and prints it at will or fiat. Because today the majority of all international trade is done in dollars, countries must go abroad to get the means of payment they cannot themselves issue. The entire global trade structure today works around this dynamic, from Russia to China, from Brazil to South Korea and Japan. Everyone aims to maximize dollar surpluses from their export trade.
To keep this process going, the United States has agreed to be ëimporter of last resortí because its entire monetary hegemony depends on this dollar recycling.
The central banks of Japan, China, South Korea, Russia and the rest all buy U.S. Treasury securities with their dollars. That in turn allows the United States to have a stable dollar, far lower interest rates, and run a $ 500 billion annual balance of payments deficit with the rest of the world. The Federal Reserve controls the dollar printing presses, and the world needs its dollars. It is as simple as that.