Blood Oil: An Interview with Leif Wenar

By Isabel Bolo

February 3rd, 2016

On February 3, Global Voices Metcalf Fellow Isabel Bolo interviewed Professor Leif Wenar, Chair of Philosophy and Law at King’s College London. Professor Wenar visited the University of Chicago’s International House to discuss his new book Blood Oil: Tyrants, Violence, and the Rules that Run the World, in which he argues that the West has a moral responsibility to end its dependence on oil from authoritarian regimes.

This interview has also been published in the Gate, the partner student publication of the Global Voices Interview Series.

Global Voices: Given your background in philosophy, what led you to write about the international oil trade?

Professor Leif Wenar: There is a paragraph in a book by Thomas Pogge that says: “Here is a funny fact about our world. If bandits take over a warehouse, nobody thinks they get to sell off the merchandise and keep the money. But if an armed group takes over an oil state, they do get the right to sell off the oil and the right will be recognized by the police and courts of all importing countries.”

And I just read that, and I said to myself: “Really? That’s the way the world works? Someone had better look into that.” That was ten years ago, when I started to look into oil, and oil is a big part of our world. So much of the politics, economics, violence, and oppression can be traced back to oil. So, the deeper I went, the more fascinated I got. And, at a certain point, I just put a thumb in philosophy books and started listening to people who know about oil and traveling to oil-producing countries. In Nigeria, I talked to everyone I could find: the OPEC minister, the head of the Central Bank, the militants from the Delta, the son of the chief of the Ijaw. If you just listen to one of these subjects, like oil, people will tell you so much about our world and how it really works: where the power is; who the decision makers are; what their incentives are and what they really want to happen.

If we as philosophers listen, we can then take what we’ve learned about the world and do what the other people don’t tend to do, which is to go to a level beyond abstraction. So our skill is to see the big picture. We can connect the dots. We can see the larger story of how the economics and the politics work. And then if we’re able to, we might be able to suggest principles that actually could do some good in resolving the real problems that people are having on the ground.

Global Voices: You referenced earlier the principle of “might makes right.” Could you explain this principle in more detail and tell us how you think it has led us as Western consumers to inadvertently support authoritarian regimes and oppression?

Wenar: It’s true. I think people have some sense that, when they go to the gas station, some of the money they give to the cashier might end up going overseas. But it’s actually much more intense than that and much more involved. So, I looked into it. It turns out that the average American household sends about $275 a year to authoritarian governments in exchange for oil at the pump. But that’s really not all. Oil is everywhere. So we send money to coercive and violent actors overseas not only when we pay at the pump, but also when we buy anything that’s made from oil or transported with oil, which is basically everything we buy. Whenever we buy gas or whenever we go to the checkout, we may be sending our money back through the oil supply chain. And that money goes to these bad actors abroad. It becomes this bad old rule which you just mentioned: “might makes right.”...The reason consumers are in business with bad actors abroad is that the world works by this bad, old rule, which sends our money to them and allows them to buy more tanks, guns, bayonets, and bombs.

Global Voices: Ideologically, it seems that shifting our energy sources to more environmentally friendly modes could be beneficial on multiple fronts. If the reliance on authoritarian regimes for oil is as significant as you suggest, do you envision some type of resolution that does not forgo using oil almost completely?

Wenar: It’s going to take changes, and some of the changes have to be exactly the ones you’ve indicated. We do have to get off fossil fuels—everyone knows we do. But we can do both of these things at once: we can get off authoritarian oil and have an alternative energy program. So just as it happens, the West doesn’t need authoritarian oil and gas anymore. America obviously doesn’t import much oil and gas anymore, and even our European partners don’t need authoritarian oil and gas. So we can actually stop importing the stuff without serious damage to our economy.

The problem isn’t really the economics. It’s convincing the whole world, not just the West, but our Chinese and our Indian friends, that they also need to signal an end to imports of authoritarian oil. And that’s the most challenging part of this process.

So, as you said, a lot of oil exporters are authoritarian, and a lot of them have civil conflict. And that’s the oil curse. It turns out that oil states in the developing world are half as likely to be authoritarian and twice as likely to be at war with themselves. They’re more corrupt; they’re bad for women’s representation in the economy and politics. There really is something bad about oil for the political economy of these exporting countries. So unlike the rest of the developing world—like India and China—the oil states are no richer, no freer, and no more peaceful than they were in 1980, which is just a scandal.

So the challenging part of this project is not the economics of getting off of authoritarian oil. It’s the politics of convincing the big importers that they also should get off of authoritarian oil. There are ways that we can encourage our trade partners—India and China—to make that decision. But at the end of the day, they have to see that it’s not in their national interest to be dependent for their primary energy supply on this increasingly unstable region, especially the Middle East and North Africa where things really are heating up in a bad way.

Global Voices: To switch gears for a moment: you mentioned in a past interview that most of the countries that have ever been on the U.S. Terrorism Watch List have in fact been major oil exporters. Considering terrorist organizations like ISIS that are not geographically rooted to a single state, can you describe the role that oil plays in the rise of such organizations?

Wenar: ISIS is wrapped up with oil in three different ways, the last one being the most profound. So as you know, when ISIS was getting going, it made a lot of money from oil. It was making $2 million each day selling Iraq’s oil. Basically, it  just dug a shallow hole in the ground and stuff came up. [ISIS] sold it off and made a ton of money. That really helped it get established.

The second way is an indirect way in which ISIS has been funded by rich, private individuals in the Gulf States who are sympathetic to its causes. And, it’s hard to stop. We have a lot of technology, but we’ve never learned to stop two pieces of technology, which are the airplane and the canvas bag. A lot of rich individuals in the Gulf just fly money over to extremist groups like ISIS.

But the third level, and the most profound one, is that the ideology of ISIS is Salafist Islam, which is an extreme, intolerant version of Islam that has been spread very vigorously around the world by Saudi Arabia over the course of three decades. It is perhaps the largest ideological campaign in the world: tens of billions of dollars to establish schools, study centers, and madrasas, not only in the Middle East and Asia, but also in Europe. In fact, this form of Islam—this intolerant, medieval form of Islam which is now mutating into Jihadi extremism all over the place, including Europe and maybe even here—in my view would have had no chance to survive into the twenty-first century if it hadn’t been for our money going to the Saudi regime, which uses it to spread the regime’s religion around the world.

Global Voices: As part of the terms of the recent nuclear agreement with Iran, Iran is now allowed to sell oil on the global market. How does this fit into your discussion of the global oil trade, and does it set us back in terms of the progress we want the rest of the international community to make?

Wenar: I happen to believe that the natural affinities between the people of the United States and the Iranian people are very strong. In 1952, America was by far the most beloved country amongst Iranians, and then there was the trouble. Together with the British, we overthrew the democratically elected government and installed the Shah. And then there was 1979 and it’s been trouble.

I actually think that the affinities between the American people and the Iranian people are extremely promising, and if we could just get people-to-people connections back with the Iranian people, I am very hopeful that we could reestablish friendly and productive relations. I mean, there is amazing potential, that country.

We should get on the side of the people and say: we believe the oil belongs to you, the people, and we’re just not going to buy it from the regime that could not possibly be accountable to you for selling off your oil. So, we’re not attacking you; we’re not punishing you; we don’t want to oppose you.

Global Voices: It seems that, in order to support people under oppressive regimes, you are suggesting that we do not buy oil from their states for a period of time. However, many of the countries that those oppressive regimes run rely primarily on oil for their economy. How would this move not be detrimental to the people in those countries, at least in the short term?

Wenar: In this case, I think there’s a transition coming in the Middle East, one where there’s a harder way of doing it and an easier way of doing it. And the harder way of doing it is actually continuing with business as usual as of now. So, business as usual as we have it now is that we as consumers send hundreds of billions of dollars each year to whomever in the Middle East can be the most coercive and oppressive.

The people in these regions are gaining power, one way or another. They’re young; they’re connected; they’re informed; they’ve got better weapons now. They want to be freer; they want opportunities; they want recognition. If we keep funding the leaders who are oppressing and attacking the people, that will drive them into armed resistance and extremism, and that’s going to be the worst transition in the Middle East. The Green Revolution was tough. The Arab Spring was tough. But now we’ve really seen conflicts all over the region. So business as usual is going to give us a very difficult transition.

The better transition would really be to let the air out of the balloon slowly: we say we stand with the people and are going to taper off our oil imports. We believe that the people should be in charge of the country. That step itself will empower the progressive reformers in these countries who are looking for their moments of opportunity to say, “Look, we’ve got to make constitutional reforms so the oil is not going to flow anymore.”