May 8, 2006Foreign AffairsSecurity

Friedmanspeak and the geopolitics of oil

On the need to prove links and jettison dogmas

This is an archived blog post from The Acorn.

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.

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