Iraq war: dollar vs euro?

Submitted by AWL on 9 April, 2004 - 10:01

By Colin Foster

What were the real reasons behind the USA's drive for war in Iraq? Two polar-opposite explanations have been discussed on the left.
The first theory is that the USA's power has now become so huge that the US capitalist class realistically aspires to rule the whole world more or less directly, laying down the law for every country from Washington.

The second is that the USA is frantically trying to stall a decline in its world power. Specifically, that USA went to war in Iraq essentially to stop the world oil industry moving to trade in euros rather than dollars.

Both explanations seem to me simplistic and overly conspiratorial.

The "neo-conservatives" now dominating US foreign policy believe that, once the USA applies short, sharp blasts of its overwhelming military power, every country in the world will just naturally gravitate to a harmonious US model of free enterprise, plutocratic democracy, and world-market capitalism. They are encouraged by the evolution of Russia and Eastern Europe since 1989-91.

But they are wrong. Capitalism is riven by contradictions and struggles in a way that they do not understand. They may score some successes, but they will not get the whole world running tidily their way. It is not even certain that Iraq will turn out as they planned. The US working class, despite the soaking in warmonger-propaganda it gets from the US media, is still by no means hooked to the "neo-conservative" vision. The "neo-conservatives" do not yet have the political ability to impose permanent garrison imperialism, or wage long high-US-casualty wars, in areas where things do not go their way.

The "declining-USA" theory of the war has been argued by the South African writer Oupa Lehulere and the Australian writer Geoffrey Heard. In 2000 Iraq converted its oil trade from dollars-used by every other oil-trading country-to euros. Iran and Venezuela have murmured about following suit.

The US dollar's role as the currency of the world oil market-the largest, most far-reaching of all world markets in basic industrial inputs-is pivotal to its status as the main currency of countries' bank reserves and of world markets in general. Because of that status, the USA is the only country in the world which can increase its buying power on the world market just by printing more dollars. And that status also helps the USA print those dollars, and buy goods with them. The USA imports about 50%, or $310 billion, more manufactured goods than it exports. That makes its position precarious. Without the central status of the dollar, and the consequent constant flow of capitalist investment funds from all over the world into the USA, the USA would lurch into catastrophic balance-of-payments crises.

With the euro, there is, for the first time since the pound dropped from the big league, a currency that might rival the dollar. The consequences of the euro ousting the dollar at the centre of world trade would be disastrous for US capital. Hence the war: a pre-emptive strike to stop Iraq's euro-experiment continuing and spreading. So the theory goes.

Imperialism of free trade

Marx's insight that unpublicised economic processes underpin and structure the showy surface events of politics and ideology was a brilliant one. But brilliance can dazzle. Find some little-noticed economic process, draw a straight line from it to something in politics, and you have proved your Marxist insight! Too simplistic.

One: Iraq's move in 2000 made sense as a political gambit. French and German capitalists were keen to open trade with Iraq. US capitalists were not-or rather, if they were, the US government was blocking them. To tighten his links with France and Germany, as a possible counterweight to the USA's threats (already current then) against him, was a logical move for Saddam Hussein. The start of a world-wide trend in the oil industry? That is a different matter.

Two: read the US hawks' explanations of why the USA should go to war in Iraq. Not the bullshit they give to the general public, but what they wrote to convince their more cautious ruling-class colleagues. There, under a thin ideological gloss here and there, hard-nosed capitalist calculations are plain. None of what I've read mentions the euro vs dollar angle, and the euro-vs-dollar theorists do not quote any documents which do mention it.

Three: one major lesson of the 1990s is that the talk in the 1970s and 80s, common among both mainstream and left-wing commentators, about the USA being in eclipse relative to the other big capitalist powers, was at the very least grossly premature. The European Union is as yet nowhere near being able to challenge the USA as a world power. (And still less so is Japan, which many writers in the late 1980s saw as about to take over the world).

The war itself confirmed that. France and Germany not only failed to stop the war, but could not even get a united European Union stand against it. Not only Britain, with its old and peculiar ties to the USA, but also eurozone Italy, Spain, and the Netherlands, sided with Washington. Now the US administration says bluntly that France will be "punished" for its stand on the war, and France is in no position to hit back significantly.

The ascendancy of the "neo-conservatives" reflects a triumphalist US ruling class, not one frantically seeking to avoid eclipse.

The element of truth in the euro-vs-dollar theory may be that France and Germany, as the central powers in the EU, will now be galvanised to push harder, stronger and faster for a coherent and assertive European Union, They will fight hard to stop the USA sidelining "multilateral" bodies like the UN, NATO, the G8 and the WTO, and to give themselves a base for asserting their voice in their bodies. In the longer term, that points towards rivalry between the EU and the USA playing a larger and larger part in the world politics. But that is not the same as saying that the Iraq war was "really" a proxy war between the USA and the EU.

Ever since World War Two the US ruling class has pursued a vision of an "imperialism of free trade", encompassing the whole world. It is a vision similar to that of the British ruling class in the years when Britain was the world's biggest industrial power, but the USA has far greater resources, human and natural, to underpin the vision than a small European offshore island could ever have.

The US strategists saw the USA as the financial, technological, and military centre of their ideal world, enjoying a rich flow of dividends and royalties. But they rejected the direct colonial imperialism of the European powers as costly, risky and unnecessary, in an era when the "Third World" countries were developing large and assertive urban populations. Market forces-backed up by one-off military interventions now and then-would serve better.

For decades the vision seemed dim. US foreign policy reduced itself to "containing communism" by propping up vile dictatorships whose only merit was to be "anti-communist". And German and Japanese manufacturing industry rose to rival the USA's.

But at the apparent lowest point of US fortunes, in the 1970s, processes were underway which would show the low point to be more apparent than real. The Stalinist states decayed internally. Evolution towards a "globalised" world of increased trade and investment, and much more mobile finance-capital, strengthened the position of the USA as the home of the world's only possible fallback currency, the greatest financial centre, and a centre of technology and information.

Since 1991:

  • the USA feels able to throw its weight around crudely, without the worry which restrained it before, of pushing countries and populations into the hands of Stalinism. It may be that in time the risk of fuelling Islamic fundamentalism will restrain US strategists as the risk of fuelling Stalinism used to, but for now US strategy is dominated by people who think that the way that the Cold War ended proves that hard-nosed, brutal aggression works better than cautious "containment".
  • new military technologies, and the USA's overwhelming military superiority, has given it a possibility enjoyed by no previous power in history, to wage large wars with very few casualties on its own side. Four successes already: Kuwait 1991, Kosova 1999, Afghanistan 2001, Iraq 2003. The logic of the arrogance of power is that the US hawks will continue on this track until finally they are checked by a war turning out not so easy and becoming a long, bloody quagmire.
  • the World Trade Center bombing of 11 September 2001 has given the hawks a base in US public opinion-not a secure or overwhelming one, but a base-to go on the attack.

    The Iraq war makes perfect sense in that context. The US hawks seized a political chance, which they knew might not come again soon, to start restructuring the Gulf, with its two-thirds of the world's oil reserves, in their own way. They aborted the threat of Iraq reasserting itself to become the Gulf's big power at a time when that threat was still remote. And they conducted an impressive demonstration of the USA's clout as "globocop", one which they think will serve as strong warning to any government inclined to flout the USA's rules.

    The "all-powerful USA" theory of the world tends to lead socialists towards a rather desperate readiness to back any force which seems to contest US power (Islamic fundamentalism, for example). The "euro-vs-dollar" theory should logically lead to a stance in which socialists side with neither dollar-power, nor euro-power, nor the proxies of either, but strive to assert a "third camp" of our own. Actually, however, "euro-vs-dollar" theorists are prone to "anyone but the USA" politics, presenting the USA's supposed resistance to eclipse as the aggressive, brutal, destructive factor, and the euro-alternative, implicitly, as more tranquil, less scary.

    But it is instructive to turn back to what Karl Marx wrote in the era when Britain pushed an "imperialism of free trade". In the USA, of all countries, writers like Henry Carey argued for an anti-British stance. Marx compared him to David Urquhart, a maverick Tory so phobic about Tsarist Russia's evil designs in the world that he would positively support even so reactionary and rotten a power as the Ottoman Empire against Russia.

    "What Russia is, politically, for Urquhart, England is, economically, for Carey...

    "Carey explains [disharmony] with the destructive influence of England, with its striving for industrial monopoly, upon the world market... As the commanding power of the world market, England distorts the harmony of economic relations in all the countries of the world..." Hence, "a denunciatory, irritated pessimism". (Grundrisse, pp.886-7).

    It would be wrong for socialists today to be cornered into a similar "denunciatory, irritated pessimism". The direction for working-class struggle should be not backwards, to desperate support for reactionary forces solely on the grounds that they oppose the USA, but forwards, through the "imperialism of free trade", to workers' unity across the world.

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