Imagine the following scenario five years from now. China will have spent half a decade building high-speed railroads, ports power systems and other construction for Asian and African countries, enabling them to grow and export more. These exports will be coming on line to repay the infrastructure loans. Also, suppose that Russia has been supplying the oil and gas energy needed for these projects.
To U.S. neocons this specter of AIIB government-to-government lending and investment creates fear of a world independent of U.S. control. Nations would mint their own money and hold each other’s debt in their international reserves instead of borrowing or holding dollars and subordinating their financial planning to the IMF and U.S. Treasury with their demands for monetary bloodletting and austerity for debtor countries. There would be less need for foreign government to finance budget shortfalls by selling off their key public infrastructure privatizing their economies. Instead of dismantling public spending, the AIIB and a broader Eurasian economic union would do what the United States itself practices, and seek self-sufficiency in basic needs such as food, technology, banking, credit creation and monetary policy.
With this prospect in mind, suppose an American diplomat meets with the leaders of debtors to China, Russia and the AIIB and makes the following proposal: “Now that you’ve got your increased production in place, why repay? We’ll make you rich if you stiff our New Cold War adversaries and turn to the West. We and our European allies will help you assign the infrastructure to yourselves and your supporters, and give these assets market value by selling shares in New York and London. Then, you can spend your surpluses in the West.”
How can China or Russia collect in such a situation? They can sue. But what court will recognize their claim – that is, what court that the West would pay attention to?
That is the kind of scenario U.S. State Department and Treasury officials have been discussing for more than a year. The looming conflict was made immediate by Ukraine’s $3 billion debt to Russia falling due by December 20, 2015. Ukraine’s U.S.-backed regime has announced its intention to default. U.S. lobbyists have just changed the IMF rules to remove a critical lever on which Russia and other governments have long relied to enforce payment of their loans.
The IMF’s role as enforcer of inter-government debts
When it comes down to enforcing nations to pay inter-government debts, the International Monetary Fund and Paris Club hold the main leverage. As coordinator of central bank “stabilization” loans (the neoliberal euphemism for imposing austerity and destabilizing debtor economies, Greece-style), the IMF is able to withhold not only its own credit but also that of governments and global banks participating when debtor countries need refinancing. Countries that do not agree to privatize their infrastructure and sell it to Western buyers are threatened with sanctions, backed by U.S.-sponsored “regime change” and “democracy promotion” Maidan-style.
This was the setting on December 8, when Chief IMF Spokesman Gerry Rice announced: “The IMF’s Executive Board met today and agreed to change the current policy on non-toleration of arrears to official creditors.” The creditor leverage that the IMF has used
is that if a nation is in financial arrears to any government, it cannot qualify for an IMF loan – and hence, for packages involving other governments. This has been the system by which the dollarized global financial system has worked for half a century. The beneficiaries have been creditors in US dollars.
In this U.S.-centered worldview, China and Russia loom as the great potential adversaries – defined as independent power centers from the United States as they create the Shanghai Cooperation Organization as an alternative to NATO, and the AIIB as an alternative to the IMF and World Bank tandem. The very name, Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, implies that transportation systems and other infrastructure will be financed by governments, not relinquished into private hands to become rent-extracting opportunities financed by U.S.-centered bank credit to turn the rent into a flow of interest payments.
The focus on a mixed public/private economy sets the AIIB at odds with the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and its aim of relinquishing government planning power to the financial and corporate sector for their own short-term gains, and above all the aim of blocking government’s money-creating power and financial regulation.
… U.S. strategists have designed a policy to block trade and financial agreements organized outside of U.S. control and that of the IMF and World Bank in which it holds unique veto power.
The cement of trade credit and bank lending is the ability of creditors to collect on the international debts being negotiated. That is why the United States and other creditor nations have used the IMF as an intermediary to act as “honest broker” for loan consortia. (“Honest broker” means in practice being subject to U.S. veto power.) …
Mikhail Delyagin, Director of the Institute of Globalization Problems, understood the IMF’s double standard clearly enough: “The Fund will give Kiev a new loan tranche on one condition that Ukraine should not pay Russia a dollar under its $3 billion debt. Legally, everything will be formalized correctly but they will oblige Ukraine to pay only to western creditors for political reasons.” It remains up to the IMF board – and in the end, its managing director – whether or not to deem a country creditworthy. The U.S. representative naturally has always blocked any leaders not beholden to the United States.
The post-2010 loan packages to Greece are a notorious case in point. …
The IMF thus is breaking four rules: Not lending to a country that has no visible means to pay back the loan breaks the “No More Argentinas” rule adopted after the IMF’s disastrous 2001 loan. Not lending to countries that refuse in good faith to negotiate with their official creditors goes against the IMF’s role as the major tool of the global creditors’ cartel. And the IMF is now lending to a borrower at war, indeed one that is destroying its export capacity and hence its balance-of-payments ability to pay back the loan. Finally, the IMF is lending to a country that has little likelihood of refuse carrying out the IMF’s notorious austerity “conditionalities” on its population – without putting down democratic opposition in a totalitarian manner. Instead of being treated as an outcast from the international financial system, Ukraine is being welcomed and financed.
The upshot – and new basic guideline for IMF lending – is to create a new Iron Curtain splitting the world into pro-U.S. economies going neoliberal, and all other economies, including those seeking to maintain public investment in infrastructure, progressive taxation and what used to be viewed as progressive capitalism.
Russia and China may lend as much as they want to other governments, but there is no international vehicle to help secure their ability to be paid back under what until now has passed for international law. Having refused to roll back its own or ECB financial claims on Greece, the IMF is quite willing to see repudiation of official debts owed to Russia, China or other countries not on the list approved by the U.S. neocons who wield veto power in the IMF, World Bank and similar global economic institutions now drawn into the U.S. orbit. Changing its rules to clear the path for the IMF to make loans to Ukraine and other governments in default of debts owed to official lenders is rightly seen as an escalation of America’s New Cold War against Russia and also its anti-China strategy.
Timing is everything in such ploys. Georgetown University Law professor and Treasury consultant Anna Gelpern warned that before the “IMF staff and executive board [had] enough time to change the policy on arrears to official creditors,” Russia might use “its notorious debt/GDP clause to accelerate the bonds at any time before December, or simply gum up the process of reforming the IMF’s arrears policy.” According to this clause, if Ukraine’s foreign debt rose above 60 percent of GDP, Russia’s government would have the right to demand immediate payment. But no doubt anticipating the bitter fight to come over its attempts to collect on its loan, President Putin patiently refrained from exercising this option. He is playing the long game, bending over backward to accommodate Ukraine rather than behaving “odiously.”
A more pressing reason deterring the United States from pressing earlier to change IMF rules was that a waiver for Ukraine would have opened the legal floodgates for Greece to ask for a similar waiver on having to pay the “troika” – the European Central Bank (ECB), EU commission and the IMF itself – for the post-2010 loans that have pushed it into a worse depression than the 1930s. “Imagine the Greek government had insisted that EU institutions accept the same haircut as the country’s private creditors,” Russian finance minister Anton Siluanov asked. “The reaction in European capitals would have been frosty. Yet this is the position now taken by Kiev with respect to Ukraine’s $3 billion eurobond held by Russia.”
Only after Greece capitulated to eurozone austerity was the path clear for U.S. officials to change the IMF rules in their fight to isolate Russia. But their tactical victory has come at the cost of changing the IMF’s rules and those of the global financial system irreversibly. Other countries henceforth may reject conditionalities, as Ukraine has done, and ask for write-downs on foreign official debts.
That was the great fear of neoliberal U.S. and Eurozone strategists last summer, after all. The reason for smashing Greece’s economy was to deter Podemos in Spain and similar movements in Italy and Portugal from pursuing national prosperity instead of eurozone austerity. Opening the door to such resistance by Ukraine is the blowback of America’s tactic to make a short-term financial hit on Russia while its balance of payments is down as a result of collapsing oil and gas prices.
The consequences go far beyond just the IMF. The fabric of international law itself is being torn apart. Every action has a reaction in the Newtonian world of geopolitics. It may not be a bad thing, to be sure, for the post-1945 global order to be broken apart by U.S. tactics against Russia, if that is the catalyst driving other countries to defend their own economies in the legal and political spheres. It has been U.S. neoliberals themselves who have catalyzed the emerging independent Eurasian bloc.
Putin’s counter-strategy and the blowback on U.S.-European and global relations
In an even more exasperated tone, Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev explained to Russia’s television audience: “I have a feeling that they won’t give us the money back because they are crooks. …
The basis for Russia’s legal claim, he explained was that the loan was a request from the Ukrainian Government to the Russian Government. If two governments reach an agreement this is obviously a sovereign loan…. Surprisingly, however, international financial organisations started saying that this is not exactly a sovereign loan. This is utter bull. Evidently, it’s just an absolutely brazen, cynical lie. … This seriously erodes trust in IMF decisions. I believe that now there will be a lot of pleas from different borrower states to the IMF to grant them the same terms as Ukraine. How will the IMF possibly refuse them?
…how long will Western Europe be willing to forego its trade and investment interest with Russia? Germany, Italy and France already are feeling the strains. If and when a break comes, it will not be marginal but a seismic geopolitical shift.
…U.S. Cold Warriors have aligned themselves not only against secular regimes, but against democratic regimes where these seek to promote their own prosperity and economic independence, and to resist neoliberalism in favor of maintaining their traditional mixed public/private economy.
… The Enlightenment’s ideals of secular democracy and the rule of international law applied equally to all nations, classical free market theory (of markets free from unearned income and rent extraction by special vested interests), and public investment in infrastructure to hold down the cost of living and doing business are to be sacrificed to a militant U.S. unilateralism as “the indispensible nation.” Standing above the rule of law and national interests, American neocons proclaim that their nation’s destiny is to wage war to prevent foreign secular democracy from acting in ways other than submission to U.S. diplomacy. In practice, this means favoring special U.S. financial and corporate interests that control American foreign policy.
This is not how the Enlightenment was supposed to turn out. Classical industrial capitalism a century ago was expected to evolve into an economy of abundance. Instead, we have Pentagon capitalism, finance capitalism deteriorating into a polarized rentier economy, and old-fashioned imperialism.
The Dollar Bloc’s financial Iron Curtain
By treating Ukraine’s nullification of its official debt to Russia’s Sovereign Wealth Fund as the new norm, the IMF has blessed its default on its bond payment to Russia. President Putin and foreign minister Lavrov have said that they will sue in British courts. But does any court exist in the West not under the thumb of U.S. veto?
What are China and Russia to do, faced with the IMF serving as a kangaroo court whose judgments are subject to U.S. veto power? To protect their autonomy and self-determination, they have created alternatives to the IMF and World Bank, NATO and behind it, the dollar standard.
America’s recent New Cold War maneuvering has shown that the two Bretton Woods institutions are unreformable. It is easier to create new institutions such as the A.I.I.B. than to retrofit old and ill-designed ones burdened with the legacy of their vested founding interests. It is easier to expand the Shanghai Cooperation Organization than to surrender to threats from NATO.
U.S. geostrategists seem to have imagined that if they exclude Russia, China and other SCO and Eurasian countries from the U.S.-based financial and trade system, these countries will find themselves in the same economic box as Cuba, Iran and other countries have been isolated by sanctions. The aim is to make countries choose between impoverishment from such exclusion, or acquiescing in U.S. neoliberal drives to financialize their economies and impose austerity on their government sector and labor.
What is lacking from such calculations is the idea of critical mass. The United States may use the IMF and World Bank as levers to exclude countries not in the U.S. orbit from participating in the global trade and financial system, and it may arm-twist Europe to impose trade and financial sanctions on Russia. But this action produces an equal and opposite reaction. That is the eternal Newtonian law of geopolitics. The indicated countermeasure is simply for other countries to create their own international financial organization as an alternative to the IMF, their own “aid” lending institution to juxtapose to the U.S.-centered World Bank.
All this requires an international court to handle disputes that is free from U.S. arm-twisting to turn international law into a kangaroo court following the dictates of Washington. The Eurasian Economic Union now has its own court to adjudicate disputes. It may provide an alternative Judge Griesa‘s New York federal court ruling in favor of vulture funds derailing Argentina’s debt negotiations and excluding it from foreign financial markets. If the London Court of International Arbitration (under whose rules Russia’s bonds issued to Ukraine are registered) permits frivolous legal claims (called barratry in English) such as President Poroshenko has threatened in Ukrainian Parliament, it too will become a victim of geopolitical obsolescence.
The more nakedly self-serving and geopolitical U.S. policy is – in backing radical Islamic fundamentalist outgrowths of Al Qaeda throughout the Near East, right-wing nationalist governments in Ukraine and the Baltics – the greater the catalytic pressure is growing for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, AIIB and related Eurasian institutions to break free of the post-1945 Bretton Woods system run by the U.S. State, Defense and Treasury Departments and NATO superstructure.
The question now is whether Russia and China can hold onto the BRICS and India. So as Paul Craig Roberts recently summarized my ideas along these lines, we are back with George Orwell’s 1984 global fracture between Oceanea (the United States, Britain and its northern European NATO allies) vs. Eurasia.
 Anton Siluanov, “Russia wants fair rules on sovereign debt,” Financial Times, December 10, 2015.
 “Putin Seeks Alliance to Rival TPP,” RT.com (December 04 2015),
https://www.rt.com/business/324747-putin-tpp-bloc-russia/. The Eurasian Economic Union was created in 2014 by Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, soon joined by Kyrgyzstan and Armenia. The SCO was created in 2001 inShanghai by the leaders of China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan,Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. India and Pakistan are scheduled to join, along with Iran, Afghanistan and Belarus as observers, and other east and Central Asian countries as “dialogue partners.” ASEAN was formed in 1967, originally by Indonesia, Malaysia the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand. It subsequently has been expanded. China and the AIIB are reaching out to replace World Bank. The U.S. refused to join the AIIB, opposing it from the outset.
 Ian Talley, “IMF Tweaks Lending Rules in Boost for Ukraine,” Wall Street Journal, December 9, 2015.
 Anders Aslund, “The IMF Outfoxes Putin: Policy Change Means Ukraine Can Receive More Loans,” Atlantic Council, December 8, 2015. On Johnson’s Russia List, December 9, 2015, #13. Aslund was a major defender of neoliberal shock treatment and austerity in Russia, and has held up Latvian austerity as a success story rather than a disaster.
 Ian Talley, op. cit.
 Anders Åslund, “Ukraine Must Not Pay Russia Back,” Atlantic Council, November 2, 2015 (from Johnson’s Russia List, November 3, 2015, #50).
 Anders Aslund, “The IMF Outfoxes Putin,” op. cit.
 Quoted in Tamara Zamyantina, “IMF’s dilemma: to help or not to help Ukraine, if Kiev defaults,” TASS, translated on Johnson’s Russia List, December 9, 2015, #9.
 I provide a narrative of the Greek disaster in Killing the Host (2015).
 Reuters, “IMF rule change keeps Ukraine support; Russia complains,” Dec 8, 2015. http://www.reuters.com/article/us-ukraine-crisis-imf-idUSKBN0TR28Q20151208#r8em59ZOcIPIkqaD.97
 Anders Aslund, “The IMF Outfoxes Putin,” op. cit.
 Anna Gelpern, “Russia’s Bond: It’s Official! (… and Private … and Anything Else It Wants to Be …),” Credit Slips, April 17, 2015. http://www.creditslips.org/creditslips/2015/04/russias-ukraine-bond-its-official-and-private-and-anything-else-it-wants-to-be-.html
 Anton Siluanov, “Russia wants fair rules on sovereign debt,” Financial Times, December 10, 2015. He added: “Russia’s financing was not made for commercial gain. Just as America and Britain regularly do, it provided assistance to a country whose policies it supported. The US is now supporting the current Ukrainian government through its USAID guarantee programme.”
 John Helmer: IMF Makes Ukraine War-Fighting Loan, Allows US to Fund Military Operations Against Russia, May Repay Gazprom Bill,” Naked Capitalism, March 16, 2015 (from his site Dances with Bears).
 “Ukraine Rebuffs Putin’s Offer to Restructure Russian Debt,” Moscow Times, November 20, 2015, from Johnson’s Russia List, November 20, 2015, #32.
 “Lavrov: U.S. admits lack of prospects of restoring Ukrainian solvency,” Interfax, November 7, 2015, translated on Johnson’s Russia List, December 7, 2015, #38.
 Quoted by Tamara Zamyantina, “IMF’s dilemma,” op. cit. [fn 8].
 Vladimir Putin, “Responses to journalists’ questions following the G20 summit,” Kremlin.ru, November 16, 2015. From Johnson’s Russia List, November 17, 2015, #7.
 Anton Tabakh, “A Debt Deal for Kiev?” Carnegie Moscow Center, November 20, 2015, on Johnson’s Russia List, November 20, 2015, #34. Tabakh is Director for regional ratings at “Rus-Rating” and associate professor at the National Research University Higher School of Economics, Moscow.
 “Lavrov: U.S. admits lack of prospects of restoring Ukrainian solvency,” November 7, 2015, translated on Johnson’s Russia List, December 7, 2015, #38.
 “In Conversation with Dmitry Medvedev: Interview with five television channels,” Government.ru, December 9, 2015, from Johnson’s Russia List, December 10, 2015, #2