For seventy years, one of the critical foundations of American power has been the dollar’s standing as the world’s most important currency. For the last forty years, a pillar of dollar primacy has been the greenback’s dominant role in international energy markets. Today, China is leveraging its rise as an economic power, and as the most important incremental market for hydrocarbon exporters in the Persian Gulf and the former Soviet Union, to circumscribe dollar dominance in global energy – with potentially profound ramifications for America’s strategic position.
Since World War II, America’s geopolitical supremacy has rested not only on military might, but also on the dollar’s standing as the world’s leading transactional and reserve currency. Economically, dollar primacy extracts “seignorage”—the difference between the cost of printing money and its value—from other countries, and minimises U.S. firms’ exchange rate risk. Its real importance, though, is strategic: dollar primacy lets America cover its chronic current account and fiscal deficits by issuing more of its own currency – precisely how Washington has funded its hard power projection for over half a century.
Since the 1970s, a pillar of dollar primacy has been the greenback’s role as the dominant currency in which oil and gas are priced, and in which international hydrocarbon sales are invoiced and settled. This helps keep worldwide dollar demand high. It also feeds energy producers’ accumulation of dollar surpluses that reinforce the dollar’s standing as the world’s premier reserve asset, and that can be “recycled” into the U.S. economy to cover American deficits.
Many assume that the dollar’s prominence in energy markets derives from its wider status as the world’s foremost transactional and reserve currency. But the dollar’s role in these markets is neither natural nor a function of its broader dominance. Rather, it was engineered by U.S. policymakers after the Bretton Woods monetary order collapsed in the early 1970s, ending the initial version of dollar primacy (“dollar hegemony 1.0”). Linking the dollar to international oil trading was key to creating a new version of dollar primacy (“dollar hegemony 2.0”)—and, by extension, in financing another forty years of American hegemony. …