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THE GLOBAL PAYMENT SYSTEM RULES EVERYTHING AROUND ME

THE GLOBAL PAYMENT SYSTEM RULES EVERYTHING AROUND ME

As billed, US President Donald Trump blasted Iran yesterday in his General Assembly speech, calling on other nations to join Washington in further isolating the Islamic Republic. The ballgame for Trump, as we wrote yesterday, is to force Tehran to agree to a more stringent version of the 2015 Nuclear Deal that the US, alone among its seven signatories, walked out on earlier this year.


The biggest point of leverage that the US has is its dominance of the global financial system, which enables Washington to force European companies to abandon their investments in Iran, even as Brussels pledges, with little effect, to shield them from US measures. When the next round of US sanctions hits Iran in early November, the Belgian-based messaging system that banks use to send money around the world – called SWIFT – will be under intense pressure to cut off Iranian banks even though Europe is opposed to the sanctions. Why? Because refusing to play ball with the US could expose the executives that sit on its board – and the global banks they work for – to US sanctions.

On Tuesday, the Financial Times reported that the US’s main partners in the Iran nuclear deal, the UK, France, Germany, China, and Russia, had agreed to a different approach: establishing an alternative payment system that would allow them to keep doing business with the Islamic Republic despite harsh new US curbs. The details are TBD, but in theory, a rival European payment system could enable interested parties to continue doing business with the Islamic Republic (or anyone else under US sanctions), by routing transactions through an alternative to SWIFT. But here’s the problem: any companies or banks that did so would probably risk US sanctions anyway. It would be risky to assume that the US, at least under Trump, is bluffing on this stuff.

Those practical matters aside, the fact that historically close US allies are joining China and Russia in challenging the 800-pound US financial gorilla is significant. America’s adversaries have long bridled at the US’s outsized influence over the financial system, which gives it a unique ability to inflict economic pain on countries that it disagrees with politically. The fact that the UK, France, and Germany are actively pushing a plan to skirt the US sanctions is a sign of how the US’s more confrontational, America-first approach is creating strange bedfellows.

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On Wednesday, Joe Biden will become president because eighty-one million Americans, the highest tally in US history, voted to change course after four years of Donald Trump's leadership. Like all presidents, Biden and his vice president, Kamala Harris, take office with grand ambitions and high expectations, but rarely has a new administration taken power amid so much domestic upheaval and global uncertainty. And while Biden has pledged repeatedly to restore American "unity" across party lines — at a time of immense suffering, real achievements will matter a lot more than winged words.

Biden has a lot on his agenda, but within his first 100 days as president there are three key issues that we'll be watching closely for clues to how effectively he's able to advance their plans.

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We're only a few weeks into 2021 and that 'fresh new start' that so many had been hoping for at the end of 2020 has not exactly materialized. But what gives World Bank President David Malpass hope for the coming year? "The promise of humanity and of technology, people working together with communication, where they can share ideas. It allows an incredible advance for living standards." His wide-ranging conversation with Ian Bremmer was part of the latest episode of GZERO World.

It wasn't pretty, but we made it to Inauguration Day. These last four years have taught the US a lot about itself — so what have we learned?

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Ian Bremmer's Quick Take:

Hi everybody. Ian Bremmer here, and it is the last full day of the Trump administration. Extraordinary four years, unprecedented in so many ways. I guess the most important feature for me is how much more divided the United States is, the world is, as coming out of the Trump administration than it was coming in. Not new. We were in a GZERO world, as I called it well before Trump was elected president. The social contract was seen as fundamentally problematic. Many Americans believed their system was rigged, didn't want to play the kind of international leadership role that the United States had heretofore, but all of those things accelerated under Trump.

So perhaps the most important question to be answered is, once Trump is gone, how much of that persists? It is certainly true that a President Biden is much more oriented towards trying to bring the United States back into existing multilateral architecture, whether that be the Paris Climate Accord, or more normalized immigration discussions with the Mexicans, the World Health Organization, the Iranian Nuclear Deal, some of which will be easy to do, like Paris, some of which will be very challenging, like Iran. But nonetheless, all sounds like business as usual.

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The GZERO World Podcast with Ian Bremmer. Listen now.

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