Black Gold: The Financer of Tyranny

In a moment where the forces of dictatorship and tyranny seem to be pushing back against democracy, the common thread that has successfully aligned nations such as Iran, Russia, Venezuela, China, and Sudan have been the supply and demand of energy. While it is encouraging that the relationships forged seem to be more based on Machiavellian pragmatism then aligned ideologies or long term goals, problematic occurrences and diplomatic realignment have debilitated the West’s efforts to act against undemocratic forces. Increasingly, the ability to act as a geopolitical actor has been taken away from the United States and the UN as powers forge alliances with lesser but energy rich nations, specifically China and Russia with Iran and China with Sudan. Ultimately, the resources are finite and so is the tolerance that the rest of the world should and will have for these deleterious and reciprocally empowering relationships among undemocratic forces.

In third world countries, the production of black gold often hinders successful economic and political growth. For these nations domestically, the nature of the wealth that oil typically creates is concentrated in a few hands that often ascend to political power because of their access to resources. In economically stagnant and wartorn nations like Chad or Sudan, it means the ability to act opressively domestically without fearing recourse from the West out of fear of oil production. In developing nations such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, this means a stratified society that is secured by security apparatuses, oppression, and consolidated power. In more developed nations like Russia, it means high-level corruption and the use of oil as a political tool against regional rivals.

The primary player in the energy market after the United States has been China, whose soaring economy has created a huge international increase in demand for energy. As the BBC states, “From zero 15 years ago, China last year became the world’s number two oil importer… China has, we are told, been running around the world signing oil deals with everyone from Iran, to Sudan to Angola. In the race to secure future oil resources China is prepared to deal with even the dodgiest regimes, and pay the highest prices.” The Washington Post recently editorialized in ‘Responsible China? Darfur exposes Chinese hypocrisy.’, about the dynamics of China as a world player and China as an energy consumer, with the latter emerging as the more important need:

China’s ambassador to the United Nations made a formal statement on Darfur that calls into question China’s claim to be treated as a responsible international player. Mr. Wang began by saying that China wants U.N. peacekeepers to be deployed in Darfur, calling this a “good idea and realistic option,” one that should be done “as soon as feasible.” But then he went on to explain that China was refusing to support the U.N. resolution calling for such a deployment. Unless China changes its position, the result may well be tens of thousands of civilian deaths.

Mr. Wang argued that China could not support the resolution because Sudan’s government was not yet ready to accept U.N. peacekeepers on its soil. But the reason that Sudan is refusing to allow in peacekeepers is that it has faced little international pressure to do so. The United States and its European partners have called upon Sudan to let the U.N. force in. But China, which has enormous leverage over Sudan because of its investment in Sudanese oil fields, has failed to push the Sudanese into accepting the “realistic option” of a U.N. deployment. Indeed, China lobbied hard and successfully to prevent Russia from supporting the peacekeeping resolution, further undermining pressure on Sudan’s government to allow in peacekeepers.

Further, a recent Times interview with Prime Minister Wang of the PRC exposed China’s continued backtracking regarding decisive multilateral action against Iran’s nuclear program:

“China has close ties to Tehran with trade reaching nearly $8 billion in the first seven months of this year, much of that in the form of oil imports to fuel economic growth. Beijing has been vocal in urging negotiations, part of its traditional opposition to the use of sanctions in international diplomacy although it has always tried to avoid exercising its veto in the United Nations.”

At the Brookings Institute, Erica Downs describes the tenuous situation that Sino-American relations are heading towards:

The emergence of China over the past decade as a major importer of oil has catapulted energy toward the top of the list of issues — up there with trade and Taiwan — that are major sources of friction in Sino-American relations. China’s rapidly rising demand for energy is stoking anxiety in Washington that there is not enough oil in the world to satisfy the appetites both of America’s 300 million gas-guzzling citizens and of 1.3 billion Chinese. In turn, America’s unease has raised concerns in Beijing that the U.S. might deny China access to the oil it needs for continued economic growth.

Much has been made over this looming fight. Yet the real conflict brewing between the two powers isn’t because of direct competition for physical barrels of crude, but rather because oil is inextricably linked to other foreign policy issues on which Beijing and Washington don’t see eye to eye.

The two most prominent spots where China’s search for oil collides with American interests are the Sudan (the largest source of foreign production for Chinese companies) and Iran (China’s No. 3 supplier of crude imports). While Washington sees a major power using its permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council to frustrate efforts to halt genocide in Darfur and to slow international action to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions, Beijing sees international policies of limited efficacy that might jeopardize its oil supply.

While China’s energy demand has driven it into bed with new allies, Russia has leveraged its huge oil reserves for political gain as it seeks to reassert itself in the post-Cold War era. Vladimir Socor of the Jamestown Foundation demonstrates Russia’s ability to manipulate the use of gas (and in fact describes universal situations where the supplier is able to manipulate politic will out of economic necessity):

Moscow’s monopoly on the transit of eastern Caspian oil and gas to consumer markets in the industrialized democracies. The transit monopoly constitutes a novel type of economic and political leverage, usable against producer countries as well as against consumer countries. It is also an instrument of choice in the economic and political penetration of the countries of Europe’s East.

Continued, this could have the effect of debilitating foreign policy as the European Union has become almost completely dependent on Russia for crude oil:

Growing dependency on Russian energy supplies could increasingly impinge on the EU’s and some member countries’ foreign policy decisions and the strategic coherence of the Euro-Atlantic community.

The shift has occurred while the United States and NATO have been involved in Iraq and Afghanistan respectively that created a vacuum of power and the ability to enforce international law. This has given Russia and China more latitude to act brazenly with foreign policy in a reemergence of the Iron Curtain. Dictatorships in countries such as Belarus and Venezuela have seen little external pressure as they cozy up to oil powers and disregard the warnings from the West. While this has not created an international crisis, the ability for tyranny to thrive because of economic necessity is troubling. Indeed, the future for democracy cannot be borne or ignored from the desires of the free but from the commitment of the free, diplomatically and economically.

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