While US debt climbs to incomprehensible heights, US banking authorities continue to pump new money into the economy. How can they do it? David Graeber sees a simple explanation:
There’s a reason why the wizard has such a strange capacity to create money out of nothing. Behind him, there’s a man with a gun.” (Debt: The First 5,000 Years, Melville House, 2013, pg 364)
In part one of this series, we looked at the extent of violence in the “American Century” – the period since World War II in which the US has been the number one superpower, and in which US garrisons have ringed the world. In part two we looked at the role of energy supplies in propelling the US to power, the rapid drawdown of energy supplies in the US post-WWII, and the more recent explosion of US debt.
In this concluding installment we’ll look at the links between military power and financial power.
A new set of financial institutions arose at the end of World War II, and for obvious reasons the US was ‘first among equals’ in setting the rules. Not only was the US in military occupation of Germany and Japan, but the US also had the financial capital to help shattered countries –whether on the war’s winning or losing sides – in reconstructing their infrastructures and restarting their economies.
The US was also able to offer military protection to many countries including previous mortal enemies. This meant that these countries could avoid large military outlays – but also that their elites were in no position to challenge US supremacy.
That being said, there were challenges both large and small in dozens of nations, particularly from the grass roots. The US exercised political power, both soft and hard, in attempts to influence the directions of scores of countries around the world. Planting of media reports, surreptitious aid to favoured electoral candidates, dirty tricks to discredit candidates seen as threatening, military aid and training to dictatorships and police forces who could put down movements for social justice, planning and helping to implement coups, and full-fledged military invasion – this range of intervention techniques resulted in hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of deaths. Cataloguing the bloody side of US “leadership of the free world” is the task taken on so ably by John Dower in The Violent American Century.
Dollars for oil
One of the rules of the game grew in importance with each passing decade. In Timothy Mitchell’s words,
Under the arrangements that governed the international oil trade, the commodity was sold in the currency not of the country where it was produced, nor of the place where it was consumed, but of the international companies that controlled production. ‘Sterling oil’, as it was known (principally oil from Iran), was traded in British pounds, but the bulk of global sales were in ‘dollar oil’.” (Carbon Democracy, Verso, 2013, pg 111)
As David Graeber’s Debt explains in detail, the ability to force people to acquire and use the ruler’s currency has, throughout history, been a key mechanism for extracting tribute from subject populations.
In today’s global economy, that is why the pricing of oil in dollars has been so important for the US. Again in Timothy Mitchell’s words:
Europe and other regions had to accumulate dollars, hold them and then return them to the United States in payment for oil. Inflation in the United States slowly eroded the value of the dollar, so that when these countries purchased oil, the dollars they used were worth less than their value when they acquired them. These seigniorage privileges, as they are called, enabled Washington to extract a tax from every other country in the world …. (Carbon Democracy, pg 120)
As Greg Grandin explains, the oil-US dollar relationship grew in importance even as OPEC countries were able to force big price increases:
With every rise in the price of oil, oil-importing countries had to borrow more to meet their energy needs. With every petrodollar placed in New York banks, the value of the US currency increased, and with it the value of the dollar-denominated debt that poor countries owed to those banks.” (“Down From The Mountain”, London Review of Books, June 19, 2017)
But the process did take on another important twist after US domestic oil production peaked and imports from Saudi Arabia soared in the 1970s. Although the oil trade continued to support the value of the US dollar, the US was now sending a lot more of those dollars to oil exporting countries. The Saudis, in particular, accumulated US dollars so fast there wasn’t a productive way for them to circulate these dollars back into the US by purchasing US-made goods. The burgeoning US exports of munitions provided a solution. Mitchell explains:
As the producer states gradually forced the major oil companies to share with them more of the profits from oil, increasing quantities of sterling and dollars flowed to the Middle East. To maintain the balance of payments and the viability of the international financial system, Britain and the United States needed a mechanism for these currency flows to be returned. … Arms were particularly suited to this task of financial recycling, for their acquisition was not limited by their usefulness. The dovetailing of the production of petroleum and the manufacture of arms made oil and militarism increasingly interdependent.” (Carbon Democracy, pg 155-156)
He adds, “The real value of US arms exports more than doubled between 1967 and 1975, with most of the new market in the Middle East.”
Fast forward to today. Imported oil is a critical factor in the US economy, in spite of a supply blip from fracking. US industry leads the world in the export of weapons; the top three buyers, and five of the top ten buyers, are in the Middle East. (Source: CNN, May 25, 2016) Yet US arms sales are dwarfed by US military expenditures, which are roughly double in real terms what they were in the 1960s. (Source: Time, July 16, 2013)
Finally, US national debt, in 1983 dollars, is about 10 times as high as it was from 1950 to 1980. In other words the US government, along with its banking and military complexes, has been living far beyond its means (making bankruptcy king Donald Trump a fitting figurehead). (Source: Stephen Bloch, Adelphi University)
Yet the game goes on. As David Graeber sees it,
American imperial power is based on a debt that will never – can never – be repaid. Its national debt has become a promise, not just to its own people, but to the nations of the entire world, that everyone knows will not be kept.
At the same time, U.S. policy was to insist that those countries relying on U.S. treasury bonds as their reserve currency behaved in exactly the opposite way: observing tight money policies and scrupulously repaying their debts ….” (Debt, pg 367)
We’ll close with two speculations on how the “American century” may come to an end.
US supremacy rests on interrelated dominance in military power, financial power, and influence over fossil fuel energy markets. At present the US financial system can create ever larger sums of money, and the rest of the world may have no immediately preferable options than to continue buying US debt. But just as you can’t eat money, you can’t burn it in an electricity generator, a diesel truck, or a bomber flying sorties to a distant land. So no amount of financial wizardry will sustain the current outsized industrial economy or its military subsection, once prime fossil fuel sources have been tapped out.
On the other hand, suppose low-carbon renewable energy technologies improve so rapidly that they can replace fossil fuels within a few decades. This would be a momentous energy transition, and might also lead to a momentous transition in geopolitics.
In recent years, and especially under the Trump administration, the US is ceding renewable energy technology leadership to other countries, especially China. If many countries free themselves from fossil-fuel dependence, and they no longer need US dollars to purchase their energy needs, a pillar of US supremacy will fall.
Top photo: Commemorative silver dollar sold by the US Mint, 2012.