Since the Bretton Woods Agreement in 1944 there has been one currency that eclipses all others for international trade: the U.S. dollar. The dollar dominates when it comes to reserves and the settlement of trades, a hegemony that affords U.S. foreign policy incredible strength on the world stage. However, the U.S. reliance on the strength of the dollar to pursue far-reaching sanctions is also beginning to cut at the roots of that strength, as allies and global trading partners simultaneously pursue their own economic agenda and react to perceived over-reach by U.S. policymaker.
A View from the Top
In 2019, the dollar comprised over 60% of global debt, more than 60% of global reserves for foreign exchange, and was the medium used in 40% of international payments, according to the European Central Bank (ECB). Despite the economic output of the Eurozone roughly matching that of the U.S., the euro accounted for only 20% of foreign exchange reserves and just over 20% of international debt (1).
This allows U.S. foreign policy a potency lacking in other international currencies. The Trump administration has relied heavily on this dynamic, imposing coercive economic measures on a wide spectrum of targets from Venezuela to North Korea and exponentially increasing the number of sanctioned entities. In fact, the U.S. sanctioned around 1,500 Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons (SDNs) in 2018 alone, almost 50 % greater than in any other single year.
Growing trends have become noticeable in the financial streams flowing between borders; a rise in the use of the euro, RMB and ruble as forex currencies, development of routes around the conventional financial sector, and flurry of interest surrounding the nascent potential of cryptocurrencies. The major drivers of these changes are unrelated to sanction policy and are more tied to the politicization of U.S. monetary policy or the inherent economic interests of other nations and trading blocs, including turning their own currencies into global standards. Regardless of the drivers, these developments suggest an international system ill-at-ease with the power of the dollar.
Secondary Nature, Primary Threat
The unrivaled strength of the U.S. dollar affords U.S. policymakers a weapon unavailable to any other nation. This is built on by the ‘secondary’ nature of U.S. sanctions – extending the impact of sanctions to non-U.S. entities who do business with sanctioned entities or individuals – that leaves few avenues to evade the regime.
As virtually all dollar-denominated transactions pass through the U.S. financial system, even if just momentarily when they are “cleared,” very few businesses are able to trade with the targets of primary sanctions without themselves falling under the secondary regime. Violators are potentially liable for sizeable fines or other punishments, including being locked out of the U.S. financial system themselves.
While this is a useful tool for closing down avenues of terrorism, crime or other illicit activity, it also means countries that disagree with the targets of U.S. sanctions must either comply or place their own industry at risk. The EU-U.S. divergence on the Iranian Nuclear deal, or on U.S. sanctions towards Cuba, are good example of this.
This increasing sanctions activity provides the seedlings that may undermine the dollar’s strength, as it prompts allies that disagree with sanctions regimes to develop alternatives to the dollar – such as the Euro, Chinese RMB or Russian ruble. Special Purpose Vehicles, such as the EU-Russian INSTEX, are created – albeit with difficulty – to provide routes around the conventional financial system.
Against this politicization of the dollar, various countries are developing alternatives. The euro is staking its claim with the development of the INSTEX vehicle and a declaration by Jean Claude Juncker, then-president of the European Commission, “to do more to allow our single currency to play its full role on the international sector” (2).
Similar gauntlets are being thrown by the ruble – Russia has been developing its own payments system since the Crimean sanctions in 2014 – and the RMB, with the Chinese Cross-Border Interbank Payment System (CIPS) launched in 2015. Given the size of the Chinese market and its growing world position, the RMB could theoretically pose a challenge to the dollar. However, the politicization of the RMB’s value – witnessed most recently in its rapid devaluation targeted at injuring the U.S. as part of the trade war – undermines its use as a global currency in the near to medium term.
Another potential pitfall for the dollar is the development of new financial technologies, including the much-discussed Blockchain and cryptocurrencies. Such systems allow for the circumvention of the U.S. financial system and enable payments in relation to sanctioned activities, and have already have been used to facilitate illicit payments in North Korea and Iran.
Mobile payments are also on the rise, further reducing global exposure to the dollar. However, as with other examples above, the use of some of these alternatives are being driven in significant part by illicit activity, which may lay the seeds of its own demise or limited adoption.
The dollar’s strength on the international stage is undeniable, affording U.S. foreign policy unparalleled reach and potency. However, increasing international attention is being given to the Trump Administration’s fondness for relying on coercive economic measures in foreign policy, including the imposition of sanctions, tariffs, export controls, and investment restrictions.
Each time a trading partner or ally objects to the U.S. policy goals but is forced to accept a new sanctions regime because of the dollar’s dominance, that dominance is eroded. While the dollar remains by far the best safe-haven for investments, backed as it is by a resilient economy and a history of stability, the potential corrosive effect of sanctions cannot be ignored. The future use of sanctions should factor in this unintended consequence and overall sanctions policy designed to ensure the long-term dominance of the U.S. dollar.
Matthew Oresman leads Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman’s International Public Policy practice, carrying out high-profile activities in many of the world’s capital cities. He principally advises governments, political leaders, businesses and NGOs on achieving their most important objectives. He regularly designs and implements legal and policy solutions, including managing integrated U.S. and Europe-based initiatives. He advises global businesses on entry into emerging markets and compliance with U.S. and international regulations.
(2) See Juncker, J.C. (2018), “The Hour of European Sovereignty”, State of the Union Address 2018 – https://ec.europa.eu/commission/sites/beta-political/files/soteu2018-speech_en_0.pdf