Doug Stokes University of Kent Rutherford College Kent ct2 7NX

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Doug Stokes

University of Kent

Rutherford College



Forthcoming in the Review of International Studies, 2007.

Abstract: The US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq coupled with the increased militarization of international relations as part of the ‘war on terror’ has led to the development of a ‘blood for oil’ thesis that posits the centrality of oil and the economic interests of US oil corporations to American intervention in the third world. This paper argues that this thesis, whilst correct to identify the importance of energy to US intervention, is not sufficiently attentive to the dual nature of American resource interventions whereby the American state seeks not only to ensure US oil supplies but also to maintain sufficient oil supplies for the global economy as a whole. American intervention is thus driven by oil to a large extent, but in different ways to those commonly suggested by ‘blood for oil’ theorists. In contrast to this thesis I argue that recent energy security moves to diversify oil acquisition away from the Middle East towards new areas such as South America, the Caspian region and Africa continue to be subject to this dual logic. Moreover, counter-insurgency warfare is increasingly being deployed to insulate oil-rich states from internal pressures which is in turn having a profound effect on human rights, social justice and state formation in the global South.

Given the often asserted centrality of oil as a key economic resource for powerful states and the critical view that Western wars are often motivated by oil, it is unsurprising that oil itself was not mentioned as a possible motivating factor for the recent US-led war on oil rich Iraq. Indeed, US planners not only rarely mentioned oil, but vehemently denied that it factored in any way in relation to the decision to topple Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship. For example, the US Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld argued that it was ‘[n]onsense’ to suggest that the US invasion of Iraq had anything to do with oil. He continued that ‘there are certain things like that, myths that are floating around … it has nothing to do with oil, literally nothing to do with oil’.2 The Whitehouse Press Secretary, Ari Fleischer, echoed this theme. When asked whether oil was a factor in US decisions to intervene in Iraq, Fleischer argued that oil is ‘not a factor’.3 Similarly, the Prime Minister of the UK, the US’s key coalition partner, stated bluntly that the idea that access to and control of Iraqi oil lay behind the invasion was a ‘conspiracy theory idea’ and that there ‘is no way whatever if oil were the issue that it would not be infinitely simpler to cut a deal with Saddam’.4
Conversely, the centrality of oil and US resource intervention was well captured by the almost intuitive response of critics of the US-led war who argued that the invasion of Iraq and a more militaristic US foreign policy signalled a new form of American Empire after the terrible events of 9/11. As Michael Cox pointedly argued, after 9/11 a number of analysts argued that ‘we should start calling things by their right name, drop the pretence that America is not an Empire, and accept that if the world was going to be a stable place, the US had to act in much the same imperial fashion as the British and Romans had done several centuries before’. 5 This post 9/11 US Empire is said to be predicated on territorial conquest, and in particular is designed to maintain access and control of major oil producing regions so as to guarantee crucial energy supplies for an oil hungry US economy. Oil is thus seen to be the lifeblood that greases the wheels of American capitalism. Michael Klare, one of the most articulate of these critics argued that
[W]hat is undeniable . . . is that President Bush gave top priority to the

enhancement of America’s power projection capabilities at exactly the same

time that he endorsed an energy strategy that entails increased US dependence

on oil derived from areas of recurring crisis and conflict. What we have,

therefore, is a two-pronged strategy that effectively governs US policy toward

much of the world. Although arising from different sets of concerns – one

energy-driven, the other security driven – these two strategic principles have

merged into a single, integrated design for American world dominance in the 21st Century.6

Similarly, the editors of the Monthly Review argued that both the American ‘government and the major media’ have assiduously avoided any mention that the US ‘had more crass imperialistic motives for the invasion, such as control of Iraqi oil’ unlike major U.S. corporate interests’ that have ‘never been shy about explaining -at least within business circles- their post-war economic goals for Iraq’. These goals amounted to the investment of ‘tens of billions of dollars in Iraq’ by US corporations to privatize Iraqi oil and to thus maximise profits and to potentially trigger a wave of privatisation across the wider Middle East.7 Dilip Hiro, writing in The Nation extended this logic when he argued that it ‘is the prospect of uncontested access to the world's second-largest oil reserves--leading to the end of America's growing reliance on petroleum from Saudi Arabia, the homeland of most of the 9/11 hijackers--that excites popular imagination in the United States. And the US hawks, who are determining Iraq policy, know it’.8 This ‘blood for oil’ thesis thus argues that the US is increasingly intervening in the global South both to ensure the market dominance of US oil transnationals and to secure a stable supply of oil for the American economy. This oil conspiracy reaches right into the heart of the Bush administration, with senior US figures such as US Vice President Dick Cheney said to be using American military might to open productive new markets for US oil transnationals.9
Given the centrality of oil to energy-dependent advanced capitalist economies and the importance of the Middle East in supplying western oil needs (for example, approximately sixty-six percent of global oil reserves are in Middle East), it would be naïve in the extreme to presume that oil considerations did not factor into the Bush’s administrations decision making processes in relation to the intervention in Iraq.10 The argument of this paper is not to disprove or indeed critique the ‘blood for oil’ thesis in relation to its primary claims (the centrality of energy security to US foreign policy). Whilst it is important to avoid mono-causal explanations, it is both empirically and historically correct that the desire to increase US access to and control over oil rich regions within the global political economy has long been one of a number of central strategic objectives of the American state.11 In a more agentic direction, it is also more than possible that close ties between senior Bush administration figures such as Vice President Richard Cheney and large oil sub-contractors such as Halliburton played a key role in the decision to invade Iraq. The point of this paper is not to seek to provide the answer as to the reasons why the Iraq invasion took place (indeed, this paper is primarily concerned with non-Middle Eastern oil rich states). There are however, three areas of weakness in the ‘blood for oil’ thesis that I wish draw out and examine within this paper so as to widen the sets of debates about the nature of the American state within the global economy and its relationship to oil whilst critiquing the often mono-causal accounts of western intervention.
First, I start by arguing that the blood for oil thesis operationalises an overly instrumentalist theorisation of the American state which is in turn economically reductionist and fails to capture the political logic of the American state in producing the necessary conditions for global capitalism through its interventions in oil rich regions. Second, I argue that the dominant inter-imperial rivalry theory of American Empire that sits at the heart of the ‘blood for oil’ thesis is not sufficiently attentive to the largely positive-sum nature of US hegemony and the dense economic and political linkages between alleged rival core powers and regions. Third, I argue that these two areas of weakness lead to a failure to fully understand the wider political and structurally derived power that US primacy in oil rich regions affords the American state vis-à-vis other core powers. After outlining these critiques the paper then grounds these theoretical observations with an examination of recent moves by the American state to diversify energy sources away from the Middle East through incorporating non-Middle Eastern oil rich regions as stable circuits within global capitalism. US primacy in these regions serves both to stabilise energy supplies for global capitalism and to maintain US primacy over other core powers. Importantly, counter-insurgency warfare is increasingly being employed as the primary strategic modality for the integration of oil-rich transnationally orientated states into the global political economy which is in turn having profound effects upon global human rights, state formation and international security in the 21st Century.
Theorising the American state under globalization
Turning to the first argument, as we saw above, the ‘blood for oil’ thesis argues that US intervention in oil rich regions is designed to ensure that US oil transnationals dominate world markets. As James Paul succinctly argues ‘the war was primarily a “war for oil” in which large, multinational oil companies and their host governments acted in secret concert to gain control of Iraq's fabulous oil reserves and to gain leverage over other national oil producers’.12 However, this understanding of the American states role within global capitalism operationalises an overly instrumental theorisation. Simply stated, instrumentalist accounts argue that the state is a mere ‘instrument’ in hands of national elites. As Miliband, one of the chief proponents of state instrumentalism argued, ‘the ruling class of a capitalist society is that class which owns and controls the means of production and which is able, by virtue of the economic power thus conferred upon it, to use the state as its instrument for the domination of society’.13 This theorisation of the American state (and by extension, US foreign policy), tends to reduce American decision making down to the economic interests of the American capitalist class, with the American state’s primary function one of ensuring the necessary conditions for profit maximisation for US corporations. Inherent within this theory of the American state is a base-superstructure reductionism whereby the political and strategic logics of US statecraft are subordinated to the economic interests of American capital with the state the central organisational conduit of this process (‘host governments acted in secret concert to gain control of Iraq's fabulous oil reserves and to gain leverage over other national oil producers’). There are of course more sophisticated versions of this argument. For example, the Retort Collectives analysis of the close interrelationship between US oil corporations, Middle Eastern financial surpluses and the huge profits made by US weapons manufacturers in the financially liquid and war-prone Middle East.14 However, there still exists the tendency to subordinate (albeit in the ‘last instance’) the projection of American power as little more than the extension of an iron fist for corporate interests. The American state thus becomes a mere instrument to be wielded by hugely profitable and powerful US corporations, with American intervention in oil-rich regions designed to ensure continued profitability for US oil transnationals.
Aside from the tendency for this instrumentalist thesis to treat American capital itself as a largely unitary bloc with a contiguous interest in American oil interventions, it also overlooks what Poulantzas called the ‘relative autonomy’ of the state. By this Poulantzas meant that the state enjoys a degree of autonomy from the sectoral interests of its national capital as the states primary function is to reproduce the necessary conditions for the long-term functioning of a given social formation. Thus, the structural requirements of the capitalist system as a whole are not necessarily synonymous with the interests of sections of national, or indeed transnational, capital. The states structural role is thus one of long-term political management which could well be compromised by catering too strongly to the interests of a particular sector of capital (for example, oil transnationals). As such, Poulantzas’ theory of the relative autonomy of the state serves as a useful corrective to overly instrumentalist accounts that denude the state of any political autonomy free from the immediate requirements of the economic interests of capital.15 Panitch and Gindin succinctly capture this when they argue:
It is not so much that states are autonomous from the capitalist economy or from capitalist classes, as that capitalist states develop certain capacities to act on behalf of the system as a whole (autonomy), at the same time that their dependence on the success of overall accumulation for their own legitimacy and reproduction leaves those capacity bounded (relative).16
This ‘relative autonomy’ is especially clear in relation to the American state which has acted as the key hegemonic state within the global political economy since the post-war period, and as such has developed specific capacities to act for global capitalism as a whole (and not just for American capitalism).17 As Andrew Bacevich argues, the primary strategy of the American state has been ‘the creation of an integrated international order based on the principles of democratic capitalism, with the United States as the ultimate guarantor of order and enforcer of norms’.18
The US role as the lead state within world capitalism became increasingly clear with the decline of Britain, the custodian of global free trade prior to the end of the Second World War. US primacy in the post-War period was underwritten by its unrivalled military, political and economic power. At the end of the War, for example, the US had almost half of the worlds manufacturing capacity, the majority of its food supply and nearly all of its capital reserves. In this new role, the post-war US national interest became articulated around a dual strategy: the maintenance and defense of an economically liberal international system conducive for capital penetration and circulation coupled with a concomitant global geo-strategy of containing social forces considered inimical to capitalist social relations. In this endeavor the American state acted not just in its own interests but also in the interests of other core powers that relied upon the American state to contain the spread of world communism, rollback third world nationalism and to underwrite the institutions and enforce the rules of the liberal international order.19 This liberal order was concretized through the American dominated Bretton Woods institutions, the internationalization of American capital and business models (primarily through American foreign direct investment) and US dominance of the strategic frameworks of other core powers, for example NATO and the Japan-US Security pact.20 US hegemony was thus positive-sum in so far as it benefited other core capitalist powers. Indeed some theorists go so far as to term the penetration of European sovereignties by American power as an ‘Empire by invitation’ throughout the post-war period.21 Importantly, this positive-sum generic reproductive function for global capitalism has formed a key component of American power and has undergirded its hegemony in the post-war international system.
In a sense then, American power has played a system-maintaining role that has benefited a number of core states as well as America itself, and in relation to maintaining a stable supply of crucial energy onto the world market, was quite consciously pursued. For example, a National Security Council report authored in 1958 makes clear that in relation to the Middle East, the US needed to be prepared ‘when required, to come forward with formulas designed to reconcile vital Free World interests in the area’s petroleum resources with the rising tide of nationalism in the area’ with the US using force ‘as a last resort’ to insure that ‘the quantity of oil available from the Near East on reasonable terms is sufficient … to meet Western Europe’s requirements’.22 The more narrow instrumentalist accounts miss out on this transnational aspect of the American states role within the historical development and internationalisation of capitalism and often overlooks this wider component of US hegemony. A more structurally grounded theory of the state thus avoids denuding the American state of political autonomy and allows for the fact that the American state has historically acted not just for specific sectors of American capital but for global capitalism as a whole (even if we are currently living through a highly unilateral phase under the current Bush administration).
Rethinking US Empire and oil imperialism
Similarly, the more instrumentally grounded theories of the American state also operationalise an increasingly redundant theory of imperialism which pits rival capitalist classes organised along national lines (and given expression by their respective states). This ‘inter-imperial rivalry’ thesis (promulgated most famously by Lenin and implicit within the presumptive framework of a number of analysts of international relations including prominent realists)23 either misses out on or plays down the positive-sum co-ordinating role of the American state that I have sketched above. Foster captures this argument well when he argues that ‘intercapitalist rivalry remains the hub of the imperialist wheel … In the present period of global hegemonic imperialism the United States is geared above all to expanding its imperial power to whatever extent possible and subordinating the rest of the capitalist world to its interests”.24 Foster’s position, like that of other inter-imperial rivalry theorists, remains overly wedded to what Robinson calls ‘nation-statism’ and an impoverished and inadequate theorisation of the American states reproductive role for global capitalism under emergent forms of transnational globalization.25 As Panitch and Gindin have argued clearly, given the largely positive-sum political and economic structures established between leading capitalist states under the aegis of American leadership, combined with the massive levels of foreign direct investment between America, Europe and Japan, theories of inter-imperial rivalry and war between competing capitalist powers serve as an increasingly ineffective road-map in charting the nature of international politics and contemporary forms of capitalist globalisation.26
In relation to US intervention in oil rich regions, this transnational positive-sum logic is most clear. Rather than interpreting US intervention in, for example, Iraq as a case of US imperialism using its military might to exclude oil corporations from competing nations (for example, France or Russia) it is far more accurate to view US intervention as part of the generic role that the US state has long preformed in ‘stabilising’ market orientated political economies throughout the ME for the generic interests of global capitalism as a whole. That is, by underwriting transnationally orientated political economies in the ME the US has (by default) guaranteed security of oil supply to world markets. As such, US intervention has benefited other core capitalist states as much as it has the US through guaranteeing a relatively cheap supply of crucial energy to their respective national economies and through the ordering of states and political economies along lines that are conducive for the liberal international order as a whole (which in turn benefits all core regions).27 In illustrating this point most clearly, although the US enjoys strategic primacy in the ME it only draws ten percent of its total oil supplies from the region with the rest primarily going to Japan, Europe and increasingly China.28 It is thus way off the mark to suggest that US intervention in the region is designed to guarantee oil for the US economy when in fact US power in the region, and the benign oil regime it helps to maintain, works directly in the interests of other core regions within the global political economy. Thus, to interpret US intervention as a form of ‘global hegemonic imperialism’ designed to subordinate ‘the rest of the capitalist world to its interests’ is incorrect as this presumes that other capitalist states somehow do not have an equally important interest in maintaining political economies open to capital penetration and the disciplining of social forces (be they nationalist, Islamist or explicitly anti-capitalist) that may threaten the security of oil supplies to world markets.
William Robinson’s work has done the most to outline this emergent form of a transnational state structure.29 In relation to US oil interventions, Robinson argues that under contemporary forms of globalization the US state no longer acts for US interests but instead seeks to ‘maintain, defend, and advance the emergent hegemony of a global bourgeoisie and its project of constructing a new global capitalist historical bloc’.30 Robinson contends that we are thus witnessing a nascent transnational state structure (TNS). In relation to the Iraq intervention, and in sharp distinction to Foster’s position, Robinson argues that the Bush Administrations plan was in fact a 'blueprint for the transnational agenda in the region' by opening up Iraq as a productive (and oil rich) circuit for global capital investment. As such, the intervention was not a 'US imperialist plan to gain the upper hand over French, German, and Russian competition' through monopolizing Iraq’s natural resources including its crucial oil reserves.31 Robinson’s transnational thesis sits well with the argument outlined above except in one crucial aspect: whilst Robinson’s work serves as a useful corrective to instrumentalist accounts of the American state, his work goes too far in the other direction when it attempts to escape the still bounded geo-political logics of the inter-state system. That is, whilst US strategic and political preponderance in oil rich regions does effect a transnational outcome for other core capitalist powers, this preponderance also entrenches US hegemony with US political and military dominance in the Middle East forming a key plank of post-war US hegemony vis-à-vis other leading capitalist states within the global political economy. This is largely because the US derives enormous structural power through it (and its proxies) capacity to play 'cop on the beat' in a region where democratic, nationalist or radical Islamist social forces threaten a stability geared towards the generic interests of the West as a whole. Thus, whilst US intervention in the region does benefit a number of capitals there is also a significant and abiding logic of ‘national interest’. Importantly however, this logic of national interest is not reducible to just the interests of major US oil transnationals (as instrumentalist accounts would have it). As David Harvey has shown, there is a major political and strategic motivation attached to US intervention in so far as US primacy in oil rich regions gives it undeniable structural power over other potential rivals within the capitalist core (and emerging zones such as China).32 Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carters former National Security Adviser, captured this logic when he argued:
America has major strategic and economic interests in the Middle East that are dictated by the region's vast energy supplies. Not only does America benefit economically from the relatively low costs of Middle Eastern oil, but America's security role in the region gives it indirect but politically critical leverage on the European and Asian economies that are also dependent on energy exports from the region. 33

Thus, neither state instrumentalist accounts that posit the purely economic basis of US oil primacy or, on the other hand, theories of the US state acting on behalf of a newly emergent transnational capitalist class fully capture the nature of American oil interventions. Instead, it is perhaps more profitable to view US primacy in oil rich regions as being subject to a dual logic whereby the American state is subject to both a transnational and national interest which guides it interventions and it is through this optic (that of making the world safe for global capital which in turn reinforces primacy) that we should interpret US hegemony and its linkage to strategic preponderance in oil rich regions. 34 In short, the American state derives enormous structural power because it guarantees and underwrites capitalist social relations in oil-rich regions that in turn serves the interests of other core states.

So far this paper has examined US intervention in the oil rich ME and made a number of arguments about the wider structural logic of US statecraft. Throughout the post-war period the American state has underwritten a political order largely through military aid and training to a number of recipient militaries in oil-rich regions. Given the continued necessity for oil as a global strategic commodity and the fact that oil is often located in areas where states have fragile social bases, it is perhaps unsurprising that this relationship between military aid and oil has continued. Interestingly throughout the post-Cold War era, and especially since 9/11, the American state has actively pursued a policy of energy security through a process of diversification. That is, the US has been increasing its presence in other oil-rich regions outside of the ME. The key regions are located in South America, Central Asia and Africa. Given the increased instability in the ME and the ever increasing reliance by core powers on foreign oil, US planners are becoming ever more anxious in relation to stabilising these energy supplies to world markets. As part of the so-called ‘war on terror’ we are witnessing an increased militarization of the relationship between energy, global capitalism and US intervention and whilst US counter-insurgency tends to be seen as a Cold War strategy, it is increasingly being wedded to this process of energy security whereby oil-rich regimes are in receipt of millions of dollars worth of US military aid and counter-insurgency training. It is to these areas that I now turn and I show that US intervention in these regions is still subject to the dual logics that I described above. I also detail the ways in which this new strategy of energy diversification is impacting upon human rights and social justice in the global South.

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