All great empires – from the Greek, to the Roman, the Spanish and the British – have at their heart a dominant means of exchange which is very much part of their political and social hegemony. Once upon a time, it was Roman coinage which was the world’s pre-eminent currency. In more recent times it was the British pound. Today, it’s the US dollar to which international investors flock as a safe haven for their money. Highly liquid and apparently reliable – until recently at least – nothing else comes even remotely close to the greenback’s dominant position in the international monetary system.
That this position – what Giscard d’Estaing referred to as America’s “exorbitant privilege” – could so casually be put at risk by politicians on Capitol Hill is an extraordinary spectacle that may be indicative of a great power already seriously on the wane.
With the pound, the fall from grace was swift. Britain emerged from the devastation of the First World War an irreparably damaged economic and military power, with crushing debts and a deeply impaired manufacturing sector.