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The long arm of justice: U.S. structural power and international banking


How much authority can sovereign states exercise over international banking in times of financial globalization? While most literature on international finance is rather pessimistic, this article argues that in case of US law enforcement, this pessimistic view is increasingly erroneous. The reason is that US authorities can take advantage of international banks’ structural dependence on access to the dollar-based financial system to force banks into punitive agreements or to plead guilty in case of criminal offenses. Using the conflict between the USA and Swiss banks over tax evasion by US persons, this article demonstrates that banks in the liberal economic system can no longer survive without access to the US-controlled, dollar-based financial system, thus giving the USA structural power over banks. In addition, it is shown that US structural power can be used strategically during negotiation processes to apply pressure on banks. Finally, while the use of this structural power was originally restricted to smaller banks, whose collapse would not endanger the world economy, US authorities have recently learnt to manage market expectations in a way that allows them to also target banks that were previously considered “too big to jail.”

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* Department of Political Science, University of St. Gallen, Rosenbergstrasse 51, 9000 St. Gallen, Switzerland, Tel.: +41 (0)71 224 2332, e-mail:
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