Michael Hudson | October 04, 2022
The reaction to the sabotage of three of the four Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines in four places on Monday, September 26, has focused on speculations about who did it and whether NATO will make a serious attempt to discover the answer. Yet instead of panic, there has been a great sigh of diplomatic relief, even calm. Disabling these pipelines ends the uncertainty and worries on the part of US/NATO diplomats that nearly reached a crisis proportion the previous week, when large demonstrations took place in Germany calling for the sanctions to end and to commission Nord Stream 2 to resolve the energy shortage.
The German public was coming to understand what it will mean if their steel companies, fertilizer companies, glass companies and toilet-paper companies were shutting down. These companies were forecasting that they would have to go out of business entirely – or shift operations to the United States – if Germany did not withdraw from the trade and currency sanctions against Russia and permit Russian gas and oil imports to resume, and presumably to fall back from their astronomical eight to tenfold price increase.
Yet State Department hawk Victoria Nuland already had stated in January that “one way or another Nord Stream 2 will not move forward” if Russia responded to the accelerating Ukrainian military attacks on the Russian-speaking eastern oblasts. President Biden backed up U.S. insistence on February 7, promising that “there will be no longer a Nord Stream 2. We will bring an end to it. … I promise you, we will be able to do it.”
Most observers simply assumed that these statements reflected the obvious fact that German politicians were fully in the US/NATO pocket. Germany’s politicians held fast in refusing to authorize Nord Stream 2, and Canada soon seized the Siemens turbines needed to send gas through Nord Stream 1. That seemed to settle matters until German industry – and a rising number of voters – finally began to calculate just what blocking Russian gas would mean for Germany’s industrial firms, and hence domestic employment.
Germany’s willingness to self-impose an economic depression was wavering – although not its politicians or the EU bureaucracy. If policymakers were to put German business interests and living standards first, NATO’s common sanctions and New Cold War front would be broken. Italy and France might follow suit. That prospect made it urgent to take the anti-Russian sanctions out of the hands of democratic politics.
Despite being an act of violence, sabotaging the pipelines has restored calm to US/NATO diplomatic relations. There is no more uncertainty about whether Europe may break away from U.S. diplomacy by restoring mutual trade and investment with Russia. The threat of Europe breaking away from the US/NATO trade and financial sanctions against Russia has been solved, seemingly for the foreseeable future. Russia has announced that the gas pressure is falling in three of the four pipelines, and the infusion of salt water will irreversibly corrode the pipes. (Tagesspiegel, September 28.)
Where do the euro and dollar go from here?
Looking at how this will reshape the relationship between the U.S. dollar and the euro, one can understand why the seemingly obvious consequences of Germany, Italy and other European economies severing trade ties with Russia have not been discussed openly. The solution is a German and indeed Europe-wide economic crash. The next decade will be a disaster. There may be recriminations against the price paid for letting Europe’s trade diplomacy be dictated by NATO, but there is nothing that Europe can do about it. Nobody (yet) expects it to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. What is expected is for its living standards to plunge.
German industrial exports and attraction of foreign investment inflows were major factors supporting the euro’s exchange rate. To Germany, the great attraction in moving from the deutsche mark to the euro was to avoid its export surplus pushing up the D-mark’s exchange rate and pricing German products out of world markets. Expanding the eurozone to include Greece, Italy, Portugal, Spain and other countries running balance-of-payments deficits prevented the euro from soaring. That protected the competitiveness of German industry.
After its introduction in 1999 at $1.12, the euro sank to $0.85 by July 2001, but recovered and indeed rose to $1.58 in April 2008. It has been drifting down steadily since then, and since February of this year the sanctions have driven the euro’s exchange rate below parity with the dollar, to $0.97 this week.
The major deficit problem has been rising prices for imported gas and oil, and products such as aluminum and fertilizer requiring heavy energy inputs for their production. And as the euro’s exchange rate declines against the dollar, the cost of carrying Europe’s US-dollar debt – the normal condition for affiliates of U.S. multinationals –rises, squeezing profits.
This is not the kind of depression in which “automatic stabilizers” can work to restore economic balance. Energy dependency is structural. To make matters worse, the eurozone’s economic rules limit its budget deficits to just 3% of GDP. This prevents its national governments supporting the economy by deficit spending. Higher energy and food prices – and dollar-debt service – will leave much less income to be spent on goods and services.
As a final kicker, pointed out by Pepe Escobar on September 28 that “Germany is contractually obligated to purchase at least 40 billion cubic meters of Russian gas a year until 2030. … Gazprom is legally entitled to get paid even without shipping gas. … Berlin does not get all the gas it needs but still needs to pay.” A long court battle can be expected before money will change hands. And Germany’s ultimate ability to pay will be steadily weakening.
It seems curious that the U.S. stock market soared over 500 points for the Dow Jones Industrial Average on Wednesday. Maybe the Plunge Protection Team was intervening to try and reassure the world that everything was going to be all right. But the stock market gave back most of these gains on Thursday as reality no longer could be brushed aside.
German industrial competition with United States is ending, helping the U.S. trade balance. But on capital account the euro’s depreciation will reduce the value of U.S. investments in Europe and the dollar-value of any profits they may still earn as the European economy shrinks. Reported global earnings by U.S. multinationals will fall.
The effect of U.S. sanctions and the New Cold War outside of Europe
The ability of many countries to pay their foreign and domestic debts already was reaching the breaking point before the anti-Russian sanctions raised world energy and food prices. The sanctions-driven price increases have been compounded by the dollar’s rising exchange rate against nearly all currencies (ironically, except against the ruble, whose rate has soared instead of collapsing as U.S. strategists tried in vain to make happen). International raw materials are still priced mainly in dollars, so the dollar’s currency appreciation is further raising import prices for most countries.
The rising dollar also raises the local currency cost of servicing foreign debts denominated in dollars. Many European and Global South countries already have reached the limit of their ability to service their dollar-denominated debts, and are still coping with the impact of the Covid pandemic. Now that US/NATO sanctions have driven up world prices for gas, oil and grain – and with the dollar’s appreciation raising the cost of servicing dollar-denominated debts – these countries cannot afford to import the energy and food that they need to live if they have to pay their foreign debts. Something has to give.
On Tuesday, September 27, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken shed crocodile tears and said that attacking Russian pipelines was “in no one’s interest.” But if that really were the case, no one would have attacked the gas lines. What Mr. Blinken really was saying was “Don’t ask Cui bono.” I don’t expect NATO investigators to go beyond accusing the usual suspects that U.S. officials automatically blame.
U.S. strategists must have a game plan for how to proceed from here. They will try to maintain a neoliberalized global economy for as long as they can. They will use the usual ploy for countries unable to pay their foreign debts: The IMF will lend them the money to pay – on the condition that they raise the foreign exchange to repay by privatizing what remains of their public domain, natural-resource patrimony and other assets, selling them to U.S. financial investors and their allies.
Will it work? Or will debtor countries band together and work out ways to restore the world of affordable oil and gas prices, fertilizer prices, grain and other food prices, metals and raw materials supplied by Russia, China and their allied Eurasian neighbors, without U.S. “conditionalities” such as have ended European prosperity?
An alternative to the U.S.-designed neoliberal order is the great worry for U.S. strategists. They cannot solve the problem as easily as sabotaging Nord Stream 1 and 2. Their solution probably will be the usual U.S. approach: military intervention and new color revolutions hoping to gain the same power over Global South and Eurasia that America’s diplomacy via NATO wielded over Germany and other European countries.
The fact that U.S. expectations for how anti-Russian sanctions would work out against Russia have been just the reverse of what actually has happened gives hope for the world’s future. The opposition and even contempt by U.S. diplomats toward other countries acting in their own economic interest deems it a waste of time (and indeed, to be unpatriotic) to contemplate how foreign countries might develop their own alternative to the U.S. plans. The assumption underlying this U.S. tunnel vision is that There Is No Alternative – and that if they don’t think about such a prospect, it will remain unthinkable.
But unless other countries work together to create an alternative to the IMF, World Bank, International Court, World Trade Organization and the numerous UN agencies now biased toward the U.S/NATO by U.S. diplomats and their proxies, the coming decades will see the U.S. economic strategy of financial and military dominance unfold along the lines that Washington has planned. The question is whether these countries can develop an alternative new economic order to protect themselves from a fate like that which Europe this year has imposed upon itself for the next decade.