It’s an amazingly powerful weapon that only the US government can wield—kicking anyone it doesn’t like out of the world’s US-dollar-based financial system.
It’s a weapon foreign banks fear. A sound institution can be rendered insolvent at the flip of a switch that the US government controls. It would be akin to an economic kiss of death. When applied to entire countries—such as the case with Iran—it’s like a nuclear attack on the country’s financial system.
That is because, thanks to the petrodollar regime, the US dollar is still the world’s reserve currency, and that indirectly gives the US a chokehold on international trade.
For example, if a company in Italy wants to buy products made in India, the Indian seller probably will want to be paid in US dollars. So the company in Italy first needs to purchase those dollars on the foreign exchange market. But it can’t do so without involving a bank that is permitted to operate in the US. And no such bank will cooperate if it finds that the Italian company is on any of Washington’s bad-boy lists.
The US dollar may be just a facilitator for an international transaction unrelated to any product or service tied to the US, but it’s a facilitator most buyers and sellers in world markets want to use. Thus Uncle Sam’s ability to say “no dollars for you” gives it tremendous leverage to pressure other countries.
The BRICS countries have been trying to move toward a more multipolar international financial system, but it’s an arduous process. Any weakening of the US government’s ability to use the dollar as a stick to compel compliance is likely years away.
When the time comes, no country will care about losing access to the US financial system any more than it would worry today about being shut out of the peso-based Mexican financial system. But for a while yet, losing Uncle Sam’s blessing still can be an economic kiss of death, as the recent experience of Banca Privada d’Andorra shows.