The Reign of the Dollar

Recent speculation in India about the collapse of the Saudi petro-dollar agreement with the U.S. proved false. Vijay Prashad considers three factors that can feed such a rumor.

Hung Liu, China, “Sisters,” 2000. (Via Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research)

By Vijay Prashad
Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research

In early June, a rumour began to circulate — which was widely reported in the Indian press as true — that the government of Saudi Arabia had allowed its petro-dollar agreement with the United States to lapse. 

This agreement, made in 1974, is quite straight-forward and fulfills various needs of the U.S. government: the U.S. purchases oil from Saudi Arabia, and Saudi Arabia uses that money to buy military equipment from U.S. arms manufacturers while holding the income from the oil sales in U.S. Treasury debt instruments and in the Western financial system.

This arrangement to recycle oil profits into the U.S. economy and the Western banking world is known as the petro-dollar system.

This non-exclusive arrangement between the two countries never required the Saudis to limit their oil sales to dollars or to recycle their oil profits exclusively in U.S. Treasury securities (of which it holds a considerable $135.9 billion) and Western banks. 

Indeed, the Saudis are free to sell oil in multiple currencies, such as the Euro, and participate in digital currency platforms such as mBridge, a trial initiative of the Bank of International Settlements and the central banks of China, Thailand, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Nonetheless, the rumour that this decades-long petrodollar agreement had come to an end reflects the widespread expectation that a seismic shift in the financial system will overturn the rule of the Dollar-Wall Street regime. It was a false rumour, but it carried within it a truth about the possibilities of a post-dollar or de-dollarised world.

BRICS Expansion

Xu Lei, China, “Map of the Mountains and Seas,” 2003.

The invitation extended to six countries to join the BRICS bloc last August was a further indication that such a shift is underway. Among these countries are Iran, Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E., although Saudi Arabia has yet to finalise its membership.

With its expanded membership, BRICS would include the two countries with the largest and second-largest gas reserves in the world (Russia and Iran, respectively) and the two countries that accounted for nearly a quarter of global oil production (Russia and Saudi Arabia, all figures as of 2022). 

The political opening between Iran and Saudi Arabia, brokered by Beijing in March 2023, as well as the signs that U.S. allies U.A.E. and Saudi Arabia seek to diversify their political linkages, demonstrate the possible end of the petrodollar system. That was at the heart of the rumour in early June.

[See: Seismic Iran-Saudi Rapprochement Isolates US]

However, this possibility should not be exaggerated, as the Dollar-Wall Street regime remains intact and significantly powerful. 

Data from the International Monetary Fund shows that, as of the last quarter of 2023, the U.S. dollar accounted for 58.41 percent of allocated currency reserves, which is far more than the reserves held in euros (19.98 percent), Japanese yen (5.7 percent), British pound sterling (4.8 percent), and Chinese renminbi (short of 3 percent).

Meanwhile, the U.S, dollar remains the main invoicing currency in global trade, with 40 percent of international trade transactions in goods invoiced in dollars despite the fact that the U.S. share of global trade is just 10 percent.

While the dollar remains the key currency, it nonetheless faces challenges around the world, with the share of the U.S. dollar in allocated currency reserves declining gradually but steadily over the last 20 years.

Three factors are driving de-dollarisation:

  • the U.S. economy’s lack of strength and potential that began with the Third Great Depression in 2008;
  • the aggressive use of illegal sanctions — especially financial sanctions — by the United States and its Global North allies against one quarter of the countries in the world;
  • and the development and strengthening of relations among countries of the Global South, especially through platforms such as BRICS.

In 2015, BRICS created the New Development Bank (NDB), also known as the BRICS Bank, to navigate a post-Dollar-Wall Street regime and to produce facilities to further development rather than austerity. 

The creation of these BRICS institutions and the increased use of local currencies to pay for cross-border trade created an expectation of hastened de-dollarisation.

At the 2023 BRICS summit in Johannesburg, Brazil’s President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva repeated the call to increase the use of local currencies and perhaps create a BRICS-denominated currency system.

There has been a vibrant debate about de-dollarisation amongst those who have worked in the BRICS institutions and in the large countries that are interested in de-dollarisation, such as China, about its necessity, prospects and the difficulties of finding new ways to hold currency reserves and invoice global trade.

The most recent issue of the international journal Wenhua Zongheng, a collaboration between Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research and Dongsheng, is dedicated to this topic.

In the introduction to “The BRICS and De-Dollarisation: Opportunities and Challenges” (volume 2, issue no. 1, May 2024), Paulo Nogueira Batista Jr., the first vice president of the NDB (2015–2017), summarises his considerable reflections on the importance of moving away from the Dollar-Wall Street regime and on the political and technical difficulties of such a transition. 

BRICS, he correctly asserts, is a diverse group of countries with very different political forces in charge of the different states. The political agendas of its members — even with the new mood in the Global South — are particularly diverse when it comes to economic theory, with many of the BRICS states remaining committed to neoliberal formulas while others seek new development models

One of the most important points raised by Nogueira is that the United States “will in all likelihood use all the many instruments at its disposal to struggle against any attempt to dethrone the dollar from its status as linchpin of the international monetary system.” 

These instruments would include sanctions and diplomatic threats, all of which would dampen the confidence of governments that have weaker political commitments and are not backed by popular movements committed to a new world order.

Jiang Tiefeng, China, “Stone Forest,” 1979.

De-dollarisation was moving at a very slow pace until 2022, when the Global North countries began to confiscate Russian assets held in the Dollar-Wall Street financial system and anxiety spread across many countries about the safety of their assets in North American and European banks.

Though this confiscation was not new (the United States has done this before to Cuba and Afghanistan, for instance), the scale and severity of these confiscations operated as a “confidence-destroying” measure, as Nogueira puts it.

Nogueira’s introduction is followed by three essays by leading Chinese analysts of the current shifts in the world order. In “What Is Driving the BRICS’ Debate on De-Dollarisation?”, Professor Ding Yifan (senior fellow at Beijing’s Taihe Institute) charts the reasons why many Global South countries now seek to trade in local currencies and to offload their reliance upon the Dollar-Wall Street regime. 

He emphasises two factors that put into question whether or not the dollar will be able to continue to serve as an anchor currency:

first, the weakness of the U.S. economy due to its reliance upon military spending over productive investment (the former of which accounts for 53.6 percent of total world military spending) and, second, the U.S.’ history of breach of contract.

At the close of his article, Ding reflects on the possibility of the Global South countries accepting the Chinese renminbi (RMB) as their reference currency, since China’s manufacturing capabilities make the RMB valuable as a way to buy Chinese goods.

Yet, in his essay “China’s Foreign Exchange Reserves: Past and Present Security Challenges,” Professor Yu Yongding (member of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences) is cautious about the possibility of the RMB supplanting the dollar.

For the RMB to become an international reserve currency, Yu argues, “China must fulfill a series of preconditions, including establishing a sound capital market (especially a deep and highly liquid treasury-bond market), a flexible exchange rate regime, free cross-border capital flows, and long-term credit in the market.”

This would mean that China would have to eschew its capital controls and begin to offer RMB treasury bonds for international buyers. 

RMB internationalisation, Yu argues, “is a goal worth pursuing,” but it is not something that can take place in the short run. “Distant water,” he writes poetically, “will not quench immediate thirst.”

The People’s Bank of China in Beijing. (Max12Max/Wikipedia)

So, where do we go from here? In his article “From De-Risking to De-Dollarisation: The BRICS Currency and the Future of the International Financial Order,” Professor Gao Bai, who teaches at Duke University in the United States, concurs that there is a pressing need to overcome the Dollar-Wall Street regime and that there is no easy way forward at this time.

Local currency use has expanded — such as between Russia and China as well as between Russia and India — but such bilateral arrangements are insufficient. 

Increasingly, as a recent report from the World Gold Council shows, central banks around the world have been buying up gold for their reserves and thereby driving up its price (the spot price for gold is over $2,300 per ounce, far above the $1,200 per ounce price where it hovered in 2015).

If no immediate currency is available to supplant the U.S. dollar, Gao argues, then the Global South countries should establish a “reference value for settlements in their local currencies and an exchange platform to support such settlements.  The great demand for such a valuation provides an opportunity for the creation of a BRICS currency.”

The new issue of Wenhua Zongheng provides a clear and thoughtful assessment of the problems with the Dollar-Wall Street regime and the need for an alternative. The wide array of ideas that are on the table reflect the diversity of discussions taking place within policy circles around the world. We are keen to summarise these ideas and test their technical feasibility and their political viability.

Irene Chou, China, “The Universe Is My Mind,” 2002.

It is important to note that two of the BRICS countries have elected new governments this year. 

In India, the far-right government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi returns to power, but with a much-reduced mandate. Given that the Modi government has put forward a policy of “national interest,” it is likely that it will continue to play a role in the BRICS process and to use local currencies to buy goods such as Russian oil.

Meanwhile, South Africa’s ruling alliance, led by the African National Congress (ANC), has formed a government with the right-wing Democratic Alliance, which is committed to U.S. imperialism and is not keen on the BRICS agenda. With the likely entry of Nigeria into BRICS, the bloc’s centre of gravity on the African continent might shift northward.

During the hard years of struggle against the apartheid government in South Africa, ANC member Lindiwe Mabuza (known as Sono Molefe) began to collect poems written by women in the ANC camps.

Guerrilla fighters, teachers, nurses and others sent in poems that she published in a volume called Malibongwe (Be Praised), which referred to the 1956 Women’s March in Pretoria. In her introductory essay, Mabuza (1938–2021) wrote that in struggle “there is no romance” … “only pounding reality.”

That phrase, “pounding reality,” merits reflection today. Nothing comes from nothing. You have to pound reality to make something, whether a new political opening in places such as India and South Africa or a new financial architecture beyond the Dollar-Wall Street regime.

Vijay Prashad is an Indian historian, editor and journalist. He is a writing fellow and chief correspondent at Globetrotter. He is an editor of LeftWord Books and the director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research. He is a senior non-resident fellow at Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies, Renmin University of China. He has written more than 20 books, including The Darker Nations and The Poorer Nations.  His latest books are Struggle Makes Us Human: Learning from Movements for Socialism and, with Noam Chomsky, The Withdrawal: Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan and the Fragility of U.S. Power.

This article is from Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research.

Views expressed in this article may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.

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7 comments for “The Reign of the Dollar

  1. June 25, 2024 at 17:17

    This could use a little translation for the layperson. For instance, a translation of “allocated reserves” in this and other paragraphs:

    “Data from the International Monetary Fund shows that, as of the last quarter of 2023, the U.S. dollar accounted for 58.41 percent of allocated currency reserves, which is far more than the reserves held in euros (19.98 percent), Japanese yen (5.7 percent), British pound sterling (4.8 percent), and Chinese renminbi (short of 3 percent).”

  2. Carl Zaisser
    June 24, 2024 at 14:12

    I guess a lot of those striving at the international level to push the de-dollarization movement are quite familiar with Michael Hudson’s “Super Imperialism: The Economic Strategy of American Empire”. The central banks of countries are trapped into investing their excess dollars back into US Treasury bills, and this finances US deficit spending. It’s a challenging book, but Hudson’s revelations are stunning in how they reveal US control over other countries’ economies, and thus political decisions as well.

  3. wildthange
    June 22, 2024 at 20:56

    The US may be selling more bads than goods and NATO more disservices than services. The world ecology and human civilization with sanctions warfare could move the world from inflated military egos to inflated economic disaster. We need more vision and less division for our global system.

  4. sisuforpeace
    June 22, 2024 at 20:18

    Thanks Vijay. Yet another well written and informative piece. I am just learning about BRICS and it’s impact on the Western hegemonic control of the international monetary system. It is inevitable that such a system of gross inequality and injustice will eventually lose its power and influence. I’m excited for BRICS mainly regarding the opportunities it offers the nations of the global south to finally be able to develop themselves and use their own currencies. I look forward to a multi polar world having been born and raised during the cold war 1.0 era and the overwhelming US domination.

  5. Selina
    June 22, 2024 at 17:29

    Thank you again for terrific art enhancing your piece. There’s subtlety to the art of the Chinese here….lovely.

  6. June 22, 2024 at 10:17

    Important and objective article concerning the United States dollar as the world’s reserve currency.

  7. Robert
    June 22, 2024 at 08:39

    “If something has to end, it will”. For Global South governments and the 80% of the worlds population they represent, that applies to US dominated western hegemony. It can’t continue, it won’t continue. Too many articles indicate that de-dollarization will be easy. this article is a sobering piece. The U.S. has too much to lose, so no form of resistance is off the table. D.C. already proved that it was willing to spill the blood and guts of 300,000 (and counting) Ukrainian men to try to save hegemony. The question is, will D.C. be willing to spill the same amount of American blood. Based on the majority of statements coming out, I fear that the answer is Yes.

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