The End of Dollar Hegemony

Margaret Flowers: Michael Hudson is the president of the Institute for the Study of Long-term, Economic Trends, ISLET. He’s a Wall Street financial analyst and a distinguished research professor of Economics at the University of Missouri, in Kansas City. He’s also the author of numerous books and recently updated his book, “Super Imperialism: The economic strategy of American Empire.” Thank you for taking time to speak with me today, Michael.

Michael Hudson: Well, thanks for having me on Margaret.

MF: You’ve talked a lot and written a lot about dollar hegemony and what’s happening now with de-dollarization. Can you start out by explaining to my listeners what dollar hegemony is and how it has benefited the wealthy class in the United States?

MH: Dollar hegemony seems to be the position that has just ended as of this week very abruptly. Dollar hegemony was when America’s war in Vietnam and the military spending of the 1960s and 70s drove the United States off gold. The entire US balance of payments deficit was military spending, and it began to run down the gold supply. So, in 1971, President Nixon took the dollar off gold. Well, everybody thought America has been controlling the world economy since World War I by having most of the gold and by being the creditor to the world. And they thought what is going to happen now that the United States is running a deficit, instead of being a creditor.

Well, what happened was that, as I’ve described in Super Imperialism, when the United States went off gold, foreign central banks didn’t have anything to buy with their dollars that were flowing into their countries – again, mainly from the US military deficit but also from the investment takeovers. And they found that these dollars came in, the only thing they could do would be to recycle them to the United States. And what do central banks hold? They don’t buy property, usually, back then they didn’t. They buy Treasury bonds. And so, the United States would be spending dollars abroad and foreign central banks didn’t really have anything to do but send it right back to buy treasury bonds to finance not only the balance of payments deficit, but also the budget deficit that was largely military in character. So, dollar hegemony was the system where foreign central banks keep their monetary and international savings reserves in dollars and the dollars are used to finance the military bases around the world, almost eight hundred military bases surrounding them. So, basically central banks have to keep their savings by weaponizing them, by militarizing them, by lending them to the United States, to keep spending abroad.

This gave America a free ride. Imagine if you went to the grocery store and you just paid by giving them an IOU. And then the next week you want to buy more groceries and you give them another IOU. And they say, wait a minute, you have an IOU before and you say, well just use the IOU to pay the milk company that delivers, or the farmers that deliver. You can use this as your money and just you’ll as a customer, keep writing IOU’s and you never have to pay anything because your IOU is other people’s money. Well, that’s what dollar hegemony was, and it was a free ride. And it all ended last Wednesday when the United States grabbed Russia’s reserves having grabbed Afghanistan’s foreign reserves and Venezuela’s foreign reserves and those of other countries.

And all of a sudden, this means that other countries can no longer safely hold their reserves by sending their money back, depositing them in US banks or buying US Treasury Securities, or having other US investments because they could simply be grabbed as happened to Russia. So, all of a sudden this last week, you’re seeing the world economy fracture into two parts, a dollarized part and other countries that do not follow the neoliberal policies that the United States insists that its allies follow. We’re seeing the birth of a new dual World economy.

MF: Wow, there’s a lot to unpack there. So, are we seeing then other countries starting to disinvest in US dollars? You’ve written about how the treasury bonds that these central banks buy up have been basically funding our domestic economy. Are they starting to shed those bonds or what’s happening?

MH: No, they haven’t been funding our domestic economy because the Federal Reserve can create its own money to fund the domestic economy. We don’t need to borrow from foreign countries to fund our economy. We can print it ourselves. What the dollar hegemony does is fund the balance of payments deficit. It funds our spending in other economies, our spending abroad. It doesn’t help our economy, but it does help us get a free ride from other countries. The more dollars we spend in making a military base, all these military expenditures get turned over to the local Central Bank that turns and sends them back to the Federal Reserve or deposits them in US bank accounts. So, it’s the international free ride we get, not a domestic free ride.

MF: Okay. So are we seeing countries now, since this past week, starting to move their assets back to repatriate them because I know for Afghanistan, a big problem is that most of the government’s money was outside of the country and that has been used as a weapon against Afghanistan by seizing those assets and not allowing the Central Bank of Afghanistan to have them. Are we starting to see other countries repatriating their money and gold?

MH:  Well, figures are only available at the end of each month, reported at the end of each month and then there’s a two-month delay, so we don’t have any idea what’s happening. But I’ve been talking to people all over the world in the last few days and the consensus is that everybody is now deciding the only place, certainly if you’re China or Russia or Kazakhstan or you’re in the Eurasian orbit, South Asia, East Asia, you realize, wait a minute, if all we have to do is something like Allende did in Chile or all we have to do is refuse to sell off our industry to American investors and they can treat us like they’ve treated Venezuela. So you can imagine that everybody’s watching this and there’s an expectation that as a result of the war in Ukraine, that’s really America’s NATO war, that this is going to create a balance-of-payments crisis throughout the whole Global South as their energy prices go up, oil prices soar, food prices are going to soar and this is going to make it impossible for them to pay their foreign debts unless they go without food and energy. Obviously, this is a political crisis. That is, the only result can be to split the world in two.

MF: You’ve been writing about this happening. You’ve written that the de-dollarization has been happening relatively quickly in recent years. So, are we now we’re now just seeing the end result of that? I mean, people said it could happen quickly. Is that exactly what we’re seeing right now?

MH: Yes, and nobody expected that it would happen this quickly. Nobody expected that it would be the United States itself that ends de-dollarization. People thought that, well, most of the sales of my book describing this super imperialism were bought by the Defense Department and they looked at it as a how -to-do-it book. And I was brought down to the White House and the Defense Department to explain to them how imperialism works.

I had expected that maybe China, Russia, and other countries would say, “We don’t want to give America free rides.” And yet it was the United States itself that broke all of this, by grabbing Russia’s reserves right after it grabbed Afghanistan’s and Venezuela’s reserves.

Nothing like this has happened in modern history, even in the 19th century wars. In the Crimean War in the mid-19th century, Russia, England and Germany, everybody kept paying the debts to the countries they were fighting against because the idea is that debts were sacrosanct. And now, all of a sudden, not only are debts are not sacrosanct, but countries can just grab foreign savings. I guess the problem began after the Shah of Iran fell and the United States grabbed Iran’s money and refused to let it pay its bond holders and started the whole war against Iran for trying to take control of its own oil resources. So, all of a sudden, the United States grabbing this has ended what everybody thought was an immutable morality.

MF: So that was in 1979 that the Shah fell in Iran and, and over the last number of decades, the United States has been increasingly using economic warfare against countries through what people call sanctions, but they’re actually, illegal unilateral coercive measures, has that been kind of driving and setting the stage for what is happening today?

MH: Yes, the International Monetary Fund has operated, basically, as an arm of the Defense Department. It’s been bailing out dictatorships, bailing out Ukraine, lending money to countries whose client oligarchies America wants to support, and not lending any money to countries that America doesn’t want to support, like Venezuela. So, its job is basically to promote neoliberal policies, and to insist that other countries balance their payments by undergoing a class war against labor.

The conditionality that the IMF insists upon for foreign borrowing is that countries devalue their currency and lower their wage rates and pass anti-labor legislation. Well, when you lower the currency’s exchange rate, what do you really lower? Food prices are set in dollars internationally, raw materials prices are, and prices for machinery and many goods. The only economic variable devalued is domestic labor (and domestic rents). The IMF has been using this kind of junk-economic free-trade policy as a means of keeping the wage rates in the Global South down. You could say it’s a financialization of an ultimately military conflict to promote neoliberal ideology.

MF: And you mentioned the lowering wages and things like that. And this is actually done because it’s favorable to US investors and US business, right? I mean, the World Bank actually has an index, the cost of doing business index, that helps inform large corporations about laws that countries pass that make them more favorable to businesses to come in.

MH: It’s even worse than that. The central aim of the World Bank is to prevent other countries from growing their own food. That is the prime directive. It will only make loans for countries to earn foreign currency and it has insisted ever since about 1950 that countries that borrow from it must shift their agriculture to plantation export crops to grow tropical crops that cannot be grown in the United States for environmental and weather reasons. And the countries must not grow their own food and must not undertake Land Reform or small family-based farming. So, it insisted on foreign-owned agribusiness in large plantation agriculture. And what that means is that countries that have borrowed for agricultural loans have not been loans to produce their own food. It’s been to compete with each other producing tropical export crops while being increasingly dependent on the United States for their food supplies, and for their grain. And that’s part of the corner they painted them into that is going to be creating such a world famine this summer.

MF: I definitely want to get into that as well as the energy situation and the climate crisis, but before we do that, I just want you to comment quickly on how this has also been driving countries to seek alternatives. The United States removed Russia from the SWIFT system, which is the international mechanism for doing trading and finance. It threatened China if they didn’t denounce what was happening with Russia and Ukraine to kick them out of the SWIFT system. So, this hubris of the United States is also kind of driving countries away to seek other alternatives, right?

MH: That’s the whole point. Well, fortunately they’ve been threatening to kick Russia out of SWIFT for the last two years. And so, Russia and China have been putting in place an alternative system. So, they almost pretty smoothly are shifting over to using their own currency with each other instead of using the dollar. And that’s part of what has ended the dollar standard and ended dollar hegemony.

If the way you have dollar hegemony is to have other countries deposit your money in your banks and handle their oil trade with each other by financing it in dollars, but all of a sudden you grab all their dollars and you don’t let them use US banks to pay for their oil and their trade with each other, then they’re going to shift to a different system. And that’s exactly what has ended the dollar hegemony, as you just pointed out.

MF: So, let’s get a little bit into where things are headed with this new situation, a rapidly changing situation. It may be hard to say what’s happening, but you talked about a food crisis this summer. Can you talk a little bit about more about that and does the conflict in Ukraine feed into that?

MH: Well, as President Putin and Lavrov have said, the fighting in Ukraine isn’t really over Ukraine at all. It’s a fight over what shape the world will take and whether the world will be unipolar or, as it now appears, multipolar. The US, for the last year before it began to escalate attacks on the Russian-speaking Ukraine, was trying to block Europe from, and especially Germany, from buying Russia gas and oil.

There are three pillars of American foreign policy that base American power. The first pillar is the oil industry. That’s the most powerful industry next to banking in the United States. And United States throughout the 20th century, along with Britain and France, have controlled the world oil trade.

That has benefited the United States in two ways. Number one, we are a major oil exporter because we have a big oil and gas industry. But, number two, our US companies control the foreign oil trade. So that if some country, say Chile or Venezuela, does something that the United States doesn’t like, like growing their own food or pursuing a socialist policy, the United States can simply cut off their oil and sanction them. Without oil, they don’t have energy to drive the cars or power their factories or drive their GDP.

So, the American war in Ukraine is really a war against Germany. Russia is not the enemy. Germany and Europe are the enemy and the United States made it very clear. This is a war to lock in our allies so they cannot trade with Russia. They cannot buy Russian oil. They must be dependent on American oil for which they will have to pay three or four times as much. They will have to be dependent on American liquefied natural gas for fertilizer. If they don’t buy American gas for fertilizer, and we don’t let them buy from Russia, then they cannot put fertilizer on the land and the crop yield will fall by about 50% without fertilizer.

So, the, the war in Ukraine was to make Russia look so bad by defending itself against the attacks by the Ukrainian right wing in the Russian-speaking areas that the US has said, look at how bad Russia is. You’ve got to forego buying oil and gas or grain or titanium or palladium or anything else from Russia.

And so, the effect of this war has been to lock the NATO countries into dependency on the United States because the great fear of the United States in the last few years is that as America is de-industrializing, these countries are looking to the part of the world that’s growing, China, Central Asia, Russia, South Asia. And the United States feared losing control of its satellites mainly in NATO, but also in South America. So, it sanctioned and blocked their ability to buy non-US energy. They’re blocking their ability to buy non-US food, blocking their ability to invest in or use their surplus to get prosperous by investing in China, Russia, or Eurasia.

So, this is basically a war of America to lock in its allies. Well, the result is that oil prices, now that you can’t get Russian oil, are going to go way, way up, and that is going to create a crisis for many of the Global South countries that are oil deficit countries. The fertilizer companies in Germany have already been closing down because they say, without Russian gas, we make our fertilizer out of gas, and if we can’t get Russian gas, we can’t produce the fertilizer that. So, world fertilizer prices are going way up.

Russia is the largest grain exporter. And now that grain exports are being blocked by the sanctions, the question is, what are North Africa and the Near East going to do that have been depending very largely on Russian grain exports? Their food prices are going to go way up.

You can imagine just from seeing what’s happening in the United States when gas prices go up here, food prices go up here, not only does it put a squeeze on individual family budgets, but throughout the world, it puts the squeeze on the balance of payments of other countries. And so, they’re desperate. How are they going to pay the higher prices unless they borrow even more money from US banks? And of course, that’s another arm of US policy. The US banks hope to make a killing in making loans at rising interest rates to third world countries.

And of course, arms exports. NATO in the last few days has agreed to make American arms exports to increase their purchase of arms. So, the stock market has been soaring in the last few days. They say this, the world famine, the world crisis is a bonanza for Wall Street. The oil company stocks are going way up, the military, industrial stocks, Boeing Raytheon way up, the bank stocks. This is America’s great power grab, and it realizes, when it can create a crisis and tell the Global South or poor countries your money or your life. This is how most of the great property grabs and conquests have been made throughout history.

MF: And just this week at the NATO meetings, President Biden basically said food prices are going to go up in the United States and Europe as a result of what’s happening. And that’s just the price we have to pay.

MH: Well, what he should have said, this is the price they have to pay us. That’s how the stock market took it. When he said this is the price we have to pay, this is the price consumers have to pay to the American oil companies, to the American Agricultural food distribution companies. It’s the price other countries have to pay to the United States.

This is to say to the rest of the world, you know, we’ve got you completely, I don’t know how to put it, what phrase to use, but you don’t have any choice, your money or your life. We’ve got you trapped. And he’s crowing over the fact that this resulting inflation is exactly what was intended by the war in Ukraine that has led to the isolation of Russia and other countries following a non-US policy.

MF: But more and more countries in Latin America, in Africa, are turning to countries like China for partnerships, for investment. Do you see a point coming where there is just this real shunning of the United States and turning to these alternatives?

MH: That is exactly what’s going to happen. What’s going to happen is, China’s investment is very different from US investment. US and European investment will give financial investments to countries at interest that the whole country is liable for to repay. China’s investment is taking place by means of the Belt and Road Initiative and direct capital investment in developing ports, infrastructure and railways. And instead of having a general financial claim against these countries, China has an equity claim, a property claim backed by the physical means of production that it puts in place.

Well, this summer, when countries say they cannot afford to pay their foreign debts, the United States has as a backup plan, okay, let’s write down everybody’s debts, government debts, to each other so that governments can pay the private bond holders and the banks. And they’re going to try to, essentially the US will forgive its debts so that Latin America can pay Chase Manhattan Bank and Citibank and the bondholders. And China is going to say, wait a minute, we don’t have any financial claim against these countries. We didn’t lend them dollars. We didn’t lend them our foreign currency at all. We built assets there and the assets are still in place. There’s no problem there.

So, the question is, whose debts are going to be written down to whom? And all of this is going to lead to, as you can imagine, destabilization. The United States is probably going to try to push regime change on countries that try to trade with China as it’s already threatened China with.  And the more sanctions the United States imposes on Latin America, Africa and the Near East and South Asia, they will be creating a crisis, but the crisis will lead the rest of the world to treat the United States in the same way that Russia and China are treating the United States as just the enemy threatening the entire world with their neoliberal power grab. So, the United States in a way is isolating itself from the rest of the world by declaring war on it.

MF: And I think that’s not going to be good for us here at home in the United States. You’ve talked about the way that the current economy has been structured. You’ve also raised a lot of concern about the climate crisis. And of course, we have the recent IPCC report basically saying that we’re way behind in taking action to even adapt to the climate crisis or the warming that we’re going to be experiencing. So now in this new situation, how do you see that impacting the climate crisis?

MH: Here’s what Biden said, in effect: “We’re way behind in the pace of global warming.” American policy is based on increasing and accelerating global warming. That has been a central point of US policy ever since I joined the Hudson Institute in the 1970s. The United States is opposing any attempt at trying to prevent global warming because you can imagine what would happen if other countries go to solar energy and renewable energy. That will reduce their dependency on the US oil industry. If you look at American policy, it is being run basically by the oil industry to establish dependence of other countries on oil. Then obviously the last thing the United States is ever going to do is prevent global warming. So, if we’re behind in global warming, it’s that the sea level is not rising fast enough. The world is not getting hot fast enough not to lock in foreign reliance on America’s oil.

And I think you’ve seen what in the last few weeks, what President Biden has said, the fuel of the future is coal and oil. Right now, he’s in Poland. I think he’s suggesting that Polish coal, which is one of its major products, should be used in Europe instead of Russian gas. So, American foreign policy is based on the accelerated use of coal and oil, not renewable energy.

Now, that’s why I think the environmental movement should become an anti-war movement and the movement against this neoliberal dollar hegemony. You’re not going to avoid global warming unless you stop the dominance of American foreign policy by the oil industry.

MF: I think we’ve been seeing that shift over the last few years where the climate movement is starting to understand we can’t address this crisis without addressing the US military. So just in the last minutes that I have with you, what do you have to say to the listeners about where this is going for us materially as people living in the United States, a country that has been showing itself to be a failing state? The Covid-19 pandemic, I think, has really exposed that in so many ways, the financial insecurity that people are facing, housing, education, health care, all of the failures of the government to meet the basic needs of the people. How do you think that’s going to change with this new situation?

MH: Well, the United States has been getting a free ride internationally. So, much of the prosperity here has been the result of our not having to pay for our own military spending, not having to pay for many of the foreign investments that we’ve got that supply the US with low priced foreign raw materials. All that is being ended by President Biden’s policy, which, of course, the Republicans support just as much as the Democrats.

So, there’s really a political movement that is ending up impoverishing, I’d say, 99% of Americans. While the Federal Reserve saves the stock and bond market for the 1%, there’s going to be a huge squeeze that’s going to force, I think, most American families into debt leading to probably a close down of a lot of businesses just as you had the Covid crisis closing down a lot of businesses. You’re going to have the rising fuel prices, the rising food prices utterly force families into default and an inability to be self-supporting without either running into debt or selling their homes and becoming renters.

MF: And that’s a whole other problem with the buying up of the housing in the United States by these investment corporations so that they can then control those rent prices. It sounds like difficult days are ahead.

MH: Yes. Well, and nobody can really, it’s really Uncharted Territory because nobody thought there was an alternative. The economic view was as Margaret Thatcher said, “There is no alternative.” Well, now, America’s forced the world to find its own alternative.

This is a transcript of Michael Hudson’s interview with Margaret flowers on Clearing the Fog, March 29, 2022. 

Michael Hudson is the author of Killing the Host (published in e-format by CounterPunch Books and in print by Islet). His new book is J is For Junk Economics.  He can be reached at mh@michael-hudson.com