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Wealth and Power: The Politics of Food and Oil

Anyone looking back in 1975 at the oil and food crisis, as it has developed since October 1973, and at the whole current economic disequilibrium, will quickly perceive that things are not what they seem. Of course, we must take care not to get involved in the old game of the pot calling the kettle black. But the way events have been presented in the West is at best only a half-truth. There is a politics of food as well as a politics of trade, and oil—from as far back, at least, as the Achnacarry agreement of 1928—has always been a matter of politics. The danger in the present situation, as in the 1930s, is that the politics will override the economics and propel us all into disaster.


Contrary to commonly accepted opinion, the overriding issue since the end of 1973 has not been oil or food, or even inflation and unemployment. What we have witnessed, in reality, and what we are still witnessing, is the opening stage of a struggle for a new world order, a search for positions of strength in a global realignment, in which the weapons (backed, naturally, by the ultimate sanction of force) are food and fuel. If we continue to analyze the situation in economic terms, as though the only issue was how to combat the threat of depression, we shall never get the measure of the crisis which overhangs the world. The scenario (to use the currently fashionable jargon) may be economic, but the action is political.

The steps taken by the oil-producing countries in October 1973 to secure a larger share of oil revenues added a new dimension to the conflict, but it would be totally unrealistic to suppose that they created it. The onset of the crisis was clearly visible five or six years earlier. What happened, briefly, was that the war in Vietnam, and the mounting inflation that ensued, undermined the international system built up since 1947, and in particular weakened the position of the United States, the linchpin of the system. “After 1967,” as Fred Bergsten puts it, “the rules and institutional bases of the old structure began to disintegrate.”1

The event that symbolized the close of one era and the opening of another was the withdrawal (one might almost say the abdication) of Lyndon B. Johnson, his announcement on March 31, 1968, of his decision not to seek re-election. In retrospect, it would seem probable that the operative cause was less the much advertised student unrest than a revolt of big business and corporate finance, frightened by the damage Johnson’s policies were inflicting on the US economy and on its economic position abroad.2 In effect, Nixon and Kissinger were called in to repair the damage, to remodel the system, and to restore US standing in the world. Two new brooms—or, to be accurate, one new broom and a distinctly shop-soiled one—were to sweep away the debris and clear the ground for a brave new world.

They set about the job with impressive speed and energy. On a political level Kissinger’s “diplomatic revolution” (as its admirers liked to call it) got going with a swing. After the announcement of the “Nixon Doctrine” in July 1969, the outlines of the new strategy quickly became visible: withdrawal from Vietnam, détente and understanding with the Soviet Union and with China, and an American-European-Japanese bloc articulated and held together by a new “Atlantic charter.”

On an economic level the going was stickier. The deflationary policies Nixon was elected to carry out resulted, as the London Times was quick to point out, in “a near disaster,”3 and when the Penn Central bankruptcy conjured up the frightening prospect of “a snowballing trend of corporate bankruptcies,” the administration abruptly went into reverse, stoking inflationary pressures at home and abroad which destroyed confidence in the dollar and sapped the foundations of Kissinger’s ambitious foreign policy. The Smithsonian agreement of December 1971 marked, in Douglas Evans’s words, “not only the end of the Bretton Woods monetary system, but the end of an era of American leadership.”4

Even before the Arab-Israeli war of October 1973, it was obvious that Kissinger’s ambitious schemes were not working to plan. Already in April 1973 the icy reception in Europe of his “Grand Design”—the keystone of the world-spanning arch he was building—was a sign of trouble. The war in the Middle East, the oil embargo, and the sudden escalation of oil prices brought a whole series of new complications, and the imposing structure began to topple. No wonder that Kissinger angrily accused the Arabs of betraying him!5 After October 1973 nothing went right, and Kissinger began his feverish journeyings from capital to capital, seeking desperately to prop up the tottering building.

To no avail. The Middle East remained an intractable problem, absorbing and dissipating his energies, and in Indochina the dominoes he had so carefully built up began to fall. By May 1975 South Vietnam and Cambodia were down, Laos was toppling, even Thailand was unsure. Japan, too, was talking of “rectifying” its position.6 There remained the accords with Soviet Russia and China, but what these amounted to in practice it was impossible to say. In fact, the two communist giants could afford to sit quietly on the sidelines, watching their capitalist colleague struggle like Gulliver—and with no greater success—to throw off the bonds in which the Lilliputians had enmeshed him.

There is a story that, as Walt Rostow packed his bags and left Washington for the University of Texas, Kissinger was heard to murmur: “I wonder what it is like in Arkansas.” But what is important is not Kissinger’s personal fate, but the fact that the new constellation of world forces is clearly turning out to be very different from the pattern he so confidently laid down in 1969.

Less than a month before the fall of Saigon, Kissinger told an interviewer that “the design of our foreign policy is intact.” 7 It was a bold affirmation, but not a very plausible one, and for reasons that are obvious. What had happened, quite simply, was that the mounting economic crisis had created a disarray and fluidity in international relationships that cut across all his plans. The shape of the world that will eventually emerge is anyone’s guess, but, if historical precedent is anything to go by, it will be something no one foresaw and no one wanted. Who, in 1933, would have foretold the Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939? Or who, in 1939, the alliance between the United States, Great Britain, and Soviet Russia in 1941? The essential point to grasp is that the situation in the 1970s is as fluid and unpredictable as the situation in the 1930s, and as fraught with danger.

If the Kissinger world—the world he so optimistically envisaged in 1969—has collapsed, what is to take its place? The old international order, we are constantly being told, has irretrievably broken down, and any attempt to rehabilitate it is doomed to failure. It is not merely that the bipolar world of the 1950s—the world we associate with the name of John Foster Dulles—has gone forever, and been replaced by a multipolar world of shifting alliances. More significant is the fact that the looser patterns of the 1960s are coming apart and being transformed, as Seyom Brown puts it, “into a vast web of intersecting adversary and cooperative relationships.”8 But who is cooperating with whom, and who the adversaries are, is another question, and one to which, at the present stage of the crisis, there is no clear answer.

Not, of course, that there has been any lack of guesses. The temptation to extrapolate current tendencies, or apparent tendencies, and project them into the future is always fascinating, and all sorts of blueprints have been drawn up, among them the division of the world into “superblocs” (American, Russian, Chinese, European, Japanese), 9 a “community of developed nations” (in other words, a tripartite American-European-Japanese hegemony),10 an international class war (the colored poor against the white rich), with China, perhaps, as the champion of the underdeveloped world.11 In addition, there are those who, like Saul H. Mendlovitz, director of the World Order Models Project, “believe that global community has emerged and global governance is not far behind,” and that the question is not “whether or not there will be world government by the year 2000,” but “how it will come into being—by cataclysm, drift, or more or less rational design.”12

These are all intriguing possibilities, but it would be a mistake, in the shifting sands of the present, to pin too much faith in any of them. Few things are more characteristic of an age of crisis than the upsurge of prophetic voices, warning us of the disasters ahead if we do not cooperate to solve the problems that threaten to engulf us. In the 1930s the call was for collective security. Today the slogan is interdependence. The question is whether interdependence will prove more effective as a rallying cry in the 1970s than collective security was in the 1930s. The omens, so far, are not very encouraging. Since the onset of the economic depression the world has become less, not more, interdependent. As Richard A. Falk courageously admits at the end of his impressive plea for “a world order system responsive to global humanism,” the prospects are “bleak.”13 By 1978, when the economic crisis really begins to bite, they are likely to be bleaker still.

On any rational calculation, all sensible people will agree, cooperation is (in the words of the recent report of the Club of Rome) “the only sensible and the most beneficial path” to follow.14 But it is one thing, as Carl-Friedrich von Weizsäcker points out, to “sense” the need for a global approach to the great overriding problems of world poverty, overpopulation, scarcity, pollution, and the depletion of natural resources, and another to “perceive” a way out of the present impasse.15 Too often, the call for “constructive relations of global interdependence” reflects little more than a pious hope, with no discernible structural underpinning. Few people will quarrel with Richard Falk when he picks out as the central point the danger and inadequacy of “a world order system constituted primarily by sovereign states of unequal size and wealth”;16 but this, alas, though everyone is aware how “inherently unstable and precarious” it is, is the reality with which we have to deal.

Nor should we be deceived by all the current talk of interdependence. No government, probably, rejects the concept of interdependence as such, provided it can secure it on its own terms. The question is how the terms are defined. We may all be in the same boat together; but the first question, notoriously, among shipwrecked mariners is whom to throw to the sharks.17 The Club of Rome asks rhetorically whether there is a “danger that some could gain permanently by seeking confrontation,” and concludes that any attempt “by one side to take advantage over the other” would “backfire.” 18 In the long run that may be true. But governments are apt to operate in the short term. As Rajni Kothari puts it, for a quarter of a century “the United States has been the core of the international status quo.” What it has been “trying to achieve” since Kissinger came on the scene in 1969 is “a rehabilitation of this core” and a restoration of United States “hegemony.”19 If “interdependence” is one way to achieve this (and it is a card Kissinger is currently playing for all he is worth), well and good; but what if not?

  1. 1

    C. Fred Bergsten, Toward a New International Economic Order, p. 402. Bergsten was formerly Kissinger’s assistant for international economic affairs and is now at the Brookings Institution.

  2. 2

    Cf. Richard J. Barnet and Ronald E. Müller, Global Reach: The Power of the Multinational Corporations (Simon and Schuster, 1974), p. 97.

  3. 3

    The Times (London), February 1, 1971.

  4. 4

    Douglas Evans, The Politics of Trade, p. vii.

  5. 5

    Cf. Tad Szulc, The Energy Crisis (Franklin Watts, 1974), p. 93.

  6. 6

    New York Times, May 2, 1975.

  7. 7

    Secretary Henry A. Kissinger interviewed by Pierre Salinger of L’Express of France, April 12, 1975” (Department of State, Washington, DC), p. 2.

  8. 8

    Seyom Brown, New Forces in World Politics, p. 44.

  9. 9

    The thesis of Douglas Evans (among others), whose book The Politics of Trade is subtitled “The Evolution of the Superbloc.”

  10. 10

    The underlying argument of the Trilateral Commission, to which I return below; the scheme was set out some years ago by the commission’s director, Zbigniew Brzezinski, in his book Between Two Ages: America’s Role in the Technetronic Era (Viking, 1970).

  11. 11

    Cf. Ronald Segal, The Race War (Jonathan Cape, 1966).

  12. 12

    Saul H. Mendlovitz, On the Creation of a Just World Order (The Free Press, 1975), pp. xvi-xvii.

  13. 13

    Richard A. Falk, A Study of Future Worlds (The Free Press, 1975), p. 492.

  14. 14

    Mihajlo Mesarovic and Eduard Pestel, Mankind at the Turning Point: The Second Report to the Club of Rome (Dutton, 1974), p. 97.

  15. 15

    On the Creation of a Just World Order, p. 147.

  16. 16

    A Study of Future Worlds, p. 80.

  17. 17

    Today this age-old expedient has been promoted to the rank of a science and instead of being called murder is referred to as “triage”; cf. the article under that title in The New York Times Magazine, January 5, 1975.

  18. 18

    Mankind at the Turning Point, pp. 16, 100.

  19. 19

    On the Creation of a Just World Order, p. 65.

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