Gal Luft — CNBC August 27, 2018
The United States is currently waging economic warfare against one-tenth of the world’s countries with cumulative population of nearly 2 billion people and combined gross domestic product (GDP) of more than $15 trillion.
These include Russia, Iran, Venezuela, Cuba, Sudan, Zimbabwe, Myanmar, the Democratic Republic of Congo, North Korea and others on which Washington has imposed sanctions over the years, but also countries like China, Pakistan and Turkey which are not under full sanctions but rather targets of other punitive economic measures.
In addition, thousands of individuals from scores of countries are included in the Treasury Department’s list of Specially Designated Nationals who are effectively blocked from the U.S.-dominated global financial system. Many of those designated are either part of or closely linked to their countries’ leadership.
From a U.S. perspective, each one of the economic entities is targeted for a good reason be it human rights violations, terrorism, crime, nuclear trade, corruption or in the case of China, unfair trade practices and intellectual property theft.
But in recent months it seems that America’s unwavering commitment to fight all of the world’s scourges has brought all those governments and the wealthy individuals who support them to a critical mass, joining forces to create a parallel financial system which would be out of reach of America’s long arm. Should they succeed, the impact on America’s global posture would be transformational.
America’s global supremacy has been made possible not only thanks to its military power and its alliance system but also due to its control over the plumbing of global finance and particularly the broad acceptance of the dollar as the world’s reserve currency. The unique status of the U.S. currency has anchored the global financial system since World War II.
Any transaction done in U.S. dollars or using a U.S. bank automatically brings the trading parties under American legal jurisdiction. When the U.S. decides to impose unilateral sanctions, as in the case of Iran, it essentially tells the world’s governments, corporations and individuals they must choose between halting business with the sanctioned country or be shut off from the world’s number one economy. This is a powerful stick.
Not many companies or banks can afford to give up on the U.S. market or be denied access to U.S. financial institutions.
Revisionist countries that wish to challenge the U.S.-led system see this as an affront to their economic sovereignty. Which is why both Russia and China have developed their own versions of the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT), the global network that allows cross-border financial transactions among thousands of banks. Both countries are also urging their trading partners to ditch the dollar in their bilateral trade in favor of indigenous currencies.
This month Russia was quick to recruit Turkey into the anti-dollar bloc, announcing it would back non-dollar trade with it, after a financial feud between Ankara and Washington broke out. China for its part is using its trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative as a tool to compel countries to transact in yuan terms instead of dollars. Pakistan, the number one recipient of Belt and Road money, and Iran have already announced their intention to do just that. Last month’s BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) summit in Johannesburg was a call to arms against the dollar hegemony with countries like Turkey, Jamaica, Indonesia, Argentina and Egypt invited to join in what is known as “BRICS plus” with the goal of creating a de-dollarized economy.
The main front where the future of the dollar will be decided is the global commodity market, especially the $1.7 trillion oil market. Ever since 1973, when President Richard Nixon unilaterally severed the U.S. dollar from the gold standard and convinced the Saudis and the rest of the OPEC countries to sell their oil only in dollars, the global oil trade has been linked to the American currency. This paved the way for the rest of the commodities to be traded in dollars as well. The arrangement served America well. It created an ever growing demand for the greenback, which in turn enabled consecutive U.S. governments to freely run their growing deficits.
Not anymore. Because so many of the members of the anti-dollar alliance are exporters of commodities they no longer feel that their products should be either priced by a dollar-denominated benchmark like WTI and Brent or be traded in a currency they no longer crave.
For example, when China buys oil from Angola, gas from Russia, coal from Mongolia or soybeans from Brazil it prefers to do so in its own currency and thereby avoid unwanted exchange rate fees on both sides of the transaction. This is already beginning to happen.
Russia and China have agreed to transact some of their traded energy in yuan. China is pushing its main oil suppliers Saudi Arabia, Angola and Iran to receive yuans for their oil. And last year China introduced gold-backed futures contracts, dubbed “petro-yuan” in the Shanghai International Energy Exchange – the first non-dollar crude benchmark in Asia.
The gradual acceptance of digital currencies, backed by blockchain technology offers another way for the revisionists to ditch the dollar in their trading. The Russian central bank indicated that it was considering launching a national cryptocurrency called “cryptoruble” and in the interim, it helped Venezuela’s launch of its own cryptocurrency, the “petro,” which is backed by the country’s vast oil reserves. Now BRICS members are discussing a BRICS-backed cryptocurrency.
All of those actions and others point to one direction: In the coming years, the dollar will be facing a barrage of attacks with the goal of eroding its hegemony and the energy trading market will be one of the main battlefields where the future of America’s economic dominance will be decided. Any successful attempt to delink commodity trading from the dollar will have a cascading impact not only on the global economic system as we know it but also on America’s posture abroad.
With the overall positive state of the U.S. economy and the remarkable strength of the dollar compared to the currencies of the dollar-busters including the Russian ruble, the yuan, the Turkish lira and the Iranian rial it may be easy to sink into complacency and dismiss the actions of the revisionists as mere pinpricks.
But ignoring the growing anti-dollar coalition would be to America’s detriment. Bull markets eventually come to an end and with a national debt of $21 trillion and growing at a rate of a trillion dollars a year, the awakening could be ruder and sooner than most economists predict.
In the midst of America’s economic euphoria, it is worth remembering that one of every four people on the planet lives today in a country whose government is committed to end the dollar hegemony. Thwarting their effort should be Washington’s top national priority.
Gal Luft is co-director of the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security and senior advisor to the United States Energy Security Council.
Courtesy Peter Myers, Australia