Friedmanspeak and the geopolitics of oil

On the need to prove links and jettison dogmas

Thomas Friedman calls it, ceremoniously, the First Law of Petropolitics. He has a point — though calling it a ‘law’ requires as much a departure from strictness as accepting that the World is Flat. He correlates oil prices and indices of freedom to confirm the empirical observation that the price of oil and the pace of freedom move in opposite directions.

He doesn’t bother to point out that correlation is not quite the same as causation (see Atanu Dey’s post on this). He simply assumes that rising oil prices cause erosion of freedoms in oil producing authoritarian states. That’s a big leap to make because it can be argued, though less intuitively, that the erosion of freedom causes or keeps oil prices high (Exhibit A: Hugo Chavez). Or, as the Left contends, rising high prices and creeping autocrats could both be responses to rampant globalisation. So for his ‘law’ to be taken seriously it is crucial to prove the causation. Friedman admits that he’s not seeking academic tenure, but the burden of evidence is too large to be left as an exercise for the student.

To avoid the ‘poisoning’ of global politics by the ‘negative impact on the pace of freedom’, Friedman suggests that:

Thinking about how to alter our energy consumption patterns to bring down the price of oil is no longer simply a hobby for high-minded environmentalists or some personal virtue. It is now a national security imperative.

Therefore, any American democracy-promotion strategy that does not also include a credible and sustainable strategy for finding alternatives to oil and bringing down the price of crude is utterly meaningless and doomed to fail. Today, no matter where you are on the foreign-policy spectrum, you have to think like a Geo-Green. You cannot be either an effective foreign-policy realist or an effective democracy-promoting idealist without also being an effective energy environmentalist. [Foreign Policy]

Fair enough. But how does this square with Friedman’s opposition to the India-US nuclear accord? Quite obviously, the big reason why oil prices are expected to stay high is because the world is “flattening” and causing China, India, Brazil and others to have enormous energy appetites. If countering rising crude oil prices is a national security imperative, then surely, it is in America’s interests to bring India into the nuclear mainstream? Mr Friedman must decide what is worse: the rise of authoritarianism in petrolist states or India’s production of weapons-grade material.

4 thoughts on “Friedmanspeak and the geopolitics of oil”

  1. Nitin,

    Friedman’s argument is not new. Nancy Birdsall and Arvind Subramanian have made similar arguments in multiple articles in Foreign Affairs over the past years. They make a broader case of the curse of natural resources – not just oil, but diamonds & other precious commodities in Africa and in other countries. I actually think Friedman is onto something even if it’s based on correlation. The reverse is a hard case to make – that Hugo Chavez actually impacted oil prices by such a scale. Without high oil prices, Chavez bark won’t be so loud.

    When it comes to India, people loose all sense of judgment especially, the left in US – it is all about equating India with Pakistan. In this regard, Friedman’s opposition to the nuclear deal in on par with western media’s equivocation when covering terrorism in India and it has nothing to do with energy security.

  2. Nitin,

    I seriously doubt that their is a very strong causation between presence of natural resources and absence of democracy.
    However once tyranny is established presence of nautral resource does help in ensuring the longetity of totalarian regimen.


  3. Chandra,

    Hugo Chavez has not effected the price of oil. It is supply and demand.
    and something called Peak Oil. With so much demand and high price,
    oil company are in max capacity. All Hugo Chavez is doing is asking for major share of it and nationalizing the oil fields in Venezuela.
    Don’t listen to american propaganda on hugo, they already tried to overthrow him and failed.

  4. Anon,

    I was trying to say the same thing, but it looks like, not as clearly 🙂

    Not withstanding American propaganda, Chavez is turning Venezuela’s economy back – it may be sustainable as long as oil prices remain high. In the long run, Venezuelans will be poorer (and, probably, Chavez richer like his buddy the-near-billionaire Castro).

Comments are closed.