Oilcraft. The Myths of Scarcity and Security That Haunt U.S. Energy Policy

Vitalis, Robert
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Rüdiger Graf, Leibniz-Zentrum für Zeithistorische Forschung Potsdam

The U.S. political scientist Robert Vitalis has written a 137-page pamphlet rejecting conventional wisdom on oil and international relations. He argues against the ideas that “oil is power” and that the proliferation of U.S. military power in the Gulf region as well as its alleged “special relationship” with Saudi Arabia result from the geopolitical need to secure access to the local oil reserves. Vitalis fiercely attacks historiography in the line of Daniel Yergin’s Pulitzer Prize winning history of oil,[1] “junk social science”, “paid-to-think-tanks”, and generations of journalists and op-ed writers for The Washington Post and The New York Times. According to Vitalis, these authors engage in “oilcraft”, which has nothing in common with “statecraft” but rather with “witchcraft.” Following Karen and Barbara Fields’s study on “racecraft,” Vitalis suggests that the idea of oil determining international conflicts in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries has no more substance than an interpretation in terms of “racial differences.”[2] Even if one does not delight in aggressive polemics, Oilcraft is highly recommendable to anybody interested in the history of oil and international relations. With fifty pages of footnotes and a thirty-page bibliography, Vitalis’s essay draws on more than two decades of research, including his own 2007 study on oil production in Saudi Arabia.[3] It is particularly illuminating to read it in 2022 as the Russian war on Ukraine has produced a new wave of geopolitical thinking in which what Vitalis calls “raw materialism” plays a prominent role.

Robert Vitalis quotes many historians, social scientists, journalists, and public intellectuals who have argued in both scholarly and popular writings that international conflicts in general and U.S. foreign policy strategy in particular were, and are, driven by the attempt to secure future access to oil at a reasonable price. The underlying assumption of this interpretation is what Roger Stern has called the “oil scarcity ideology,” the idea that oil reserves might one day become exhausted so that only those countries controlling the remaining fields will survive as major powers.[4] Indeed, fears of an impending oil scarcity came in waves in the 1920s, the 1940s, the 1970s, and the early 2000s. Since the 1970s, they have been stimulated by environmentalist concerns, the report for the Club of Rome on the Limits to Growth, and the theory of “peak oil.” Scarcity fears resurge in the news every time the oil price rises but, so far, oil has not become scarce, nor may it ever. Vitalis follows the strictly economic perspective on oil and resources, which MIT economist Morris Adelman advocated forcefully already in the 1970s: oil reserves will never be exhausted because, if supplies decrease, prices rise and other resources and technologies become economically viable.[5]

Against the “myth” that oil is power, Vitalis proposes three theses: 1. In a market with many buyers and sellers, everybody who can pay the price has access to oil. Oil has always flown and will always flow because it adheres to an economic logic which is stronger than political demands. 2. The idea that U.S. access to oil at a reasonable price could be blocked by a hostile power is unfounded and, even if it was true, the projection of military force would not solve the problem. 3. Oil is not different from any other commodity and its price co-varies with other commodity prices. Thus, control over the price is always limited.

Most political observers and many international relations scholars, however, argue otherwise. Those authors, whom Vitalis aptly calls “raw materialists,” hold the view that behind the professed goals of U.S. foreign policy, such as exporting democracy or eliminating military threats, lies the much more mundane interest of securing oil supplies. This interpretation became particularly important in the so-called revisionist school of U.S. diplomatic history in the 1960s. Inspired by Marxist theories, historians aligned with the New Left criticized U.S. “open door imperialism” and interpreted its foreign policy as driven by the goal to secure raw materials. According to Vitalis, they had forgotten that the Columbia School of the 1920s, Ed Earle, Parker Thomas Moon, and Leland Hamilton Jenks, had already refuted neo-mercantilist interpretations of imperialism and established that physical control over natural resources was irrelevant for economic prosperity. Vitalis dismisses the argument that raw materialism could be empirically incorrect while still driving American foreign policy if political elites subscribed to it. In his view, it is so blatantly false that it is not likely that elites, and especially economic elites, thought it to be true.

Oilcraft became hegemonic in the energy crises of the 1970s and under the Carter Doctrine that any attempt by another power to control the Gulf region would be an attack on the vital interests of the United States. Vitalis corrects popular misunderstandings of the 1973 oil crisis, which occur in the media time and again, such as the erroneous description of the “OPEC embargo.” He emphasizes that the embargo by the Arab oil producing countries against the United States was largely ineffective and disconnected from the simultaneous price increases implemented by OPEC. In his view, the embargo was only “political theater” aimed at audiences in the West and the Arab world. Yet, while it is true that economic sanctions serve largely symbolic purposes, this does not make them unimportant. Vitalis continues that the “two undeniably real phenomena of the time: the global price shock of 1973/74 and the infamous U.S. gasoline lines” (p. 63) can be explained without referring to the embargo. In his view, the price change would have occurred anyway, and the supply shortages in the U.S. were due to domestic policies. While the latter has been well established by contemporary political scientists and economists as well as later historians, the former may be true but is at least questionable. The decisions to embargo some countries and reduce production on the one hand and to increase the posted price on the other hand were disconnected. Yet, this does not mean that the ensuing processes did not mutually interact. Moreover, the fear of an impending oil shortage led to a restructuring of energy policies not only in the United States but also in Western Europe and Japan, which are completely absent from Vitalis’s U.S.-centered argument. He quotes Morris Adelman’s bon mot that the oil shortage was a fiction but belief in a fiction is fact. Yet, Vitalis generally dismisses the perceptions and expressed beliefs of the historical actors. In seeking to uncover the hidden motivations behind U.S. policy, Vitalis’s approach has something in common with the ‘raw materialist’ view, even though he rejects the idea that oil was crucial.

In the last chapter of the book, Vitalis tries to dismantle the popular notion that U.S. and Saudi governments had negotiated a deal that Saudi Arabia offers a stable supply of oil at a reasonable price while the United States guarantees its security. Against popular depictions, he argues that there never was such a formal deal and that oil was, in particular, not discussed between Roosevelt and Ibn Saud during the Second World War. Rather, he claims, this story was invented only twenty years ago in order to justify and explain American engagement in the region in the wake of the war against Iraq. While it is correct that there was no official pact between the United States and Saudi Arabia, Vitalis’s fervor in attacking his favorite intellectual enemies and exposing their factual errors gets a little tiring in this chapter. Moreover, his formal argument begs the question concerning the nature of U.S.-Saudi relations which “by any common-sense definition” were “obviously allies,” as Victor McFarland has put it.[6]

Whereas Vitalis argues forcefully and often convincingly when deconstructing raw materialist interpretations of U.S. foreign policy, his alternative interpretation is rather weak. What is the reason for the U.S. military presence at the Gulf if it is not the – however ill-founded – attempt to secure the flow of oil? On the one hand, Vitalis acknowledges a general quest for hegemony and dominance and, on the other hand, he suggests that “Saudi money matters to the elites, Boeing, MIT, Wall Street and K Street.” His opponents might “tar” this view “with the label ‘conspiracy theory.’ It is no such thing” (p. 132). While Vitalis makes a strong argument that securing the flow of oil provides no reason to support or promote the rule of the House of Saud, this hint at an explanation of the real reasons for the support falls short. It is probably true that there are “paid-to-think-tanks” whose members think what they are paid for, but this can hardly explain the widespread lure of resource materialist thinking or the fears of an impending oil scarcity. Yet, in criticizing both, Oilcraft is instructive for future histories of oil. Those should not assume that oil is a scarce resource but rather that its abundance was and is the problem.

[1] Daniel Yergin, The Prize. The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, and Power, New York 1991.
[2] Karen E. Fields / Barbara Jeanne Fields, Racecraft. The soul of inequality in American life, London 2012.
[3] Robert Vitalis, America's Kingdom. Mythmaking on the Saudi Oil Frontier, Stanford, CA 2007.
[4] Roger J. Stern, Oil Scarcity Ideology in US Foreign Policy, 1908–97, in: Security Studies 25 (2016), 214–257.
[5] Morris Albert Adelman, The economics of petroleum supply. Papers by M.A. Adelman, 1962–1993, Cambridge, MA 1993.
[6] Victor McFarland, Oil Powers. A History of the U.S.-Saudi Alliance, New York 2020.

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