A version of this article was first published on The Globalist under the title: High Time for a Western Oil Strategy on January 26, 2016. “Blood Oil – Tyrants, Violence and the Rules that Run the World,” by Professor Leif Wenar, published by Oxford University Press.
The United States, for example, imports about 1.5 million barrels of oil per day from countries whose governments are repressive and corrupt - governments where, to use a phrase that author Leif Wenar favors "might is right." Wenar, a professor of law and philosophy at Kings College, London, argues that the U.S. and other Western countries have the power to stop importing the "blood oil" that flows from these authoritarian states.
Wenar argues that just as the slave trade was ended, and South African apartheid was defeated, so now is the time for a powerful campaign, driven by Western values of ethics and integrity, to challenge all those governments, whose nations are rich in natural resources, but where the profits are pocketed by tiny ruling elites, while the real owners of the assets, the citizens of these countries, are cheated.
I think it is important to put this proposal in a broad context. Over the last 18 months, the oil price has fallen from around $110 per barrel to around $30. The oil price collapse creates new uncertainties, including greater rivalries in the Middle East, more internal turmoil in Venezuela and a strain on Vladimir Putin’s grip on power.
But the price collapse also offers geopolitical opportunities. A post-OPEC world is emerging.
It is essential that Western countries lose no time in seeking to forge a new international oil strategy and shape a more secure future – secure from a military perspective and also from a humanitarian one.
Over the past four decades, the rulers of most OPEC countries became very rich, built modern armies and captured all the levers of governance.
In sharp contrast, a majority of the citizens in most of these countries enjoyed none of the benefits. Indeed, in many of these OPEC-member countries, poverty and corruption both rose.
Oil as a war trigger
At present, demand for oil is very low relative to the abundant supply. This situation is not likely to change soon.
This is, therefore, an ideal time for Western governments to put in place a strategy to ensure that oil will no longer be a crucial factor in launching wars – as it has repeatedly been in recent decades.
Using Freedom House’s annual index as a guide, a veritable alphabet of some 28 natural resource-exporting nations, from Angola to Zimbabwe, are categorized as “not free.” This underscores that much of the world’s oil comes from countries run by corrupt and repressive regimes.
Against this backcloth, Wenar's book is timely and compelling. This volume is winding journey across the world of natural resources, the crony capitalism that abounds, the wretched governments that misappropriate the natural wealth of their nations, as well as detours into philosophy and past causes, such as the slave trade. However, the patient reader is eventually rewarded with the striking proposal that the West should adopt a “Clean Trade Act.” It would gradually see the end of Western purchases of natural resources from authoritarian resource-exporting regimes.
Such Western pressure is key to convince these governments to be more accountable to their own citizens. Such efforts, according to Professor Wenar, will enhance our security. A “Clean Trade Act” is a catchy title for what amounts to a regime of trade boycotts and sanctions on corrupt foreign governments. This is admittedly fraught with risks.
The increasing clashes between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and their proxies, could well become more explosive if Western countries added pressure on both of them to become more democratic and explicitly threatened to curb oil purchases.
Further sanctions on Putin and his cronies might lead Russia’s leader to even more dangerous overseas adventures.
There are some obvious counter-arguments. One is what good would sanctioning the authoritarian resource governments do if China and other Asian countries did not participate?
Blood Oil’s author suggests that they will join “the Clean Trade Act” in time because they will not want to become increasingly reliant on their natural resources or on unstable and unpredictable resource-exporting governments.
He also believes international institutions such as the World Trade Organization and multinational corporations will support his approach.
Whether Wenar has really got a proposal here that could catch fire and secure the support of major Western leaders remains to be seen. The merit of the publication of "Blood Oil" now is timing: this is absolutely the right moment for Western governments to take stock of their relationships with authoritarian resource- exporting regimes. They ought to come up with a strategy that leads to a world made more secure as governments that control oil become more accountable to their own citizens.