Retiring the American dollar
Seventy years ago, to the very month, a man named Henry Morganthau celebrated the creation of a “dynamic world community in which the peoples of every nation will be able to realise their potentialities in peace”. It was the founding of what came to be called the Bretton Woods institutions (named after the venue for the meeting, in the USA) and these were the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development – better known as the World Bank – and the International Monetary Fund.
None of the lofty aims that seemed so apposite in the shattering aftermath of the Second World War have been achieved, although what has been written are libraries of counter-factual history that claim such achievements (and more besides) commissioned by both these institutions and their web of supporting establishments, financial, academic, political and otherwise. Instead, for the last two generations of victims of ‘structural adjustment’, and of ‘reform and austerity’ all that has become worthwhile in the poorer societies of the world has been achieved despite the Bretton Woods institutions, not because of them.
Now, seventy years after Morganthau (the then Treasury Secretary of the USA) and British economist John Maynard Keynes unveiled with a grey flourish a multi-lateral framework for international economic order, the Bretton Woods institutions are faced with a challenge, and the view from East and South Asia, from Latin America and from southern Africa is that this is a challenge that has been overdue for too long.
It has come in the form of the agreement between the leaders of five countries to form a development bank. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, China’s President Xi Jinping, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma made formal their intention during the sixth summit of their countries – together called ‘BRICS’, after the first letters of their countries’ names – held this month in Brazil.
What has been set in motion is the BRICS Development Bank and the BRICS Contingency Reserves Arrangement. Both the new institution and the new mechanism will counter the influence of Western-based lending institutions and the American dollar, which is the principal reserve currency used internationally and which is the currency that the IMF and the World Bank conduct their ruthless business in (and which formulate their policies around, policies that are too often designed to impoverish the working class and to cripple labour).
At one time or another, and not always at inter-governmental fora, the BRICS have objected to the American dollar continuing to be the world’s principal reserve currency, a position which amplifies the impact of policy decisions by the US Federal Reserve – the American central bank – on all countries that trade using dollars, and which seek capital denominated in dollars. These impacts are, not surprisingly, ignored by the Federal Reserve which looks after the interests of the American government of the day and US business (particularly Wall Street).
In the last two years particularly, non-dollar bilateral agreements have become more common as countries have looked for ways to free themselves from the crushing Bretton Woods yoke. Only this June, Russia’s finance minister said the central banks of Russia and China would discuss currency swaps for export payments in their respective national currencies, a direction that followed Putin’s visit to China the previous month to finalise the gigantic US$400 billion deal between Gazprom and China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC). It is still early, and the BRICS will favour caution over hyperbole, but when their bank opens for business, the sun will begin to set on the US dollar.