In my last article (Sticking the arson charge on a couple of patsies) I questioned why North Korea’s nuclear program was attracting such attention from the United States. North Korea is a very poor and backwards country whose bellicosity reflects the regime’s need for an external enemy like the United States to galvanize domestic support.
– Bryce McBride
Attacking America and its allies in the region is the last thing North Korea’s leaders would want to do as such an attack would guarantee an American response that would be sure to destroy their lives, their government and the lives of millions of innocent Korean civilians.
However, this month I was made aware of another possible reason for the attention being paid to North Korea and its nuclear program. What if the escalating tensions over Korea are just a smokescreen intended to legitimize an American military buildup in the region aimed at intimidating China?
In 2011, former U.S. President Barack Obama announced a change in U.S. foreign policy that was termed a ‘Pivot to Asia.’ The official thinking was that as China and the emerging countries of South-East Asia gained in economic importance, it made sense to devote more military and diplomatic attention to the region while reducing the attention paid to Europe and the Middle East.
Of course, observers also saw the pivot as a response to the rising economic, political and military power of a resurgent China. Just as the U.S. sought to contain the Soviet Union during the Cold War with a string of encircling alliances and economic agreements, so America today seeks to keep China in check through military alliances with East Asian countries like Japan, South Korea and Taiwan and trade agreements such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).
Chinese leaders acutely resent continued American dominance in a region they consider their own backyard. However, they are not reckless and do not seek to engage in a potentially catastrophic military confrontation. Instead, they have spent the past few years establishing institutions and agreements which, taken together, will displace the U.S. dollar from the centre of the global financial system. Empire is expensive. Just as the British were forced to decolonize in the 1960s once the pound lost its reserve currency status in the years following World War II, so too will the demise of the dollar force American retreat from global (and, most importantly for the Chinese, East Asian) hegemony.
At this point, it is worthwhile to recall how the U.S. dollar became (and remains) the world’s reserve currency in the first place. At the Bretton Woods conference in 1944, it was agreed that all currencies would have a fixed exchange rate with the U.S. dollar, which itself would have a fixed value in terms of gold. From 1945 until 1971, foreign central banks were allowed to exchange their accumulated dollars for gold at a price of $35/ounce. As the U.S. dollar was literally ‘as good as gold,’ commodities were priced in dollars and foreign governments found it desirable to accumulate and hold dollars in order to purchase imports.
However, by the late 1960s the system was coming under stress. The value of the U.S. dollars in circulation abroad was far greater than the value of the 8000 tons of gold held by the U.S. Treasury in Fort Knox, Kentucky. In order to stop foreign governments stripping the U.S. of its gold reserves, in 1971 U.S. President Richard Nixon ‘temporarily suspended’ the convertibility of dollars for gold. Predictably, while a dollar bought 1/35th of an ounce of gold in 1971, by 1980 it only bought 1/850th of an ounce.
To try to arrest the decline in the value of the U.S. dollar Richard Nixon, in one of the last acts of his presidency, sent newly-appointed Treasury Secretary William Simon to Saudi Arabia in 1974. The agreement he came away with reinforced the dollar’s position as the global reserve currency by replacing gold convertibility with oil convertibility. In exchange for agreeing to price and sell oil in dollars and to lend their newly-acquired oil wealth to the U.S. by purchasing U.S. government Treasury bonds, the U.S. agreed to provide military aid and equipment to the Saudis.
To this day, oil continues to be priced and sold in dollars. As everyone therefore needs U.S. dollars (often referred to as petro-dollars) in order to purchase crucial energy imports, the dollar has remained the world’s reserve currency. …