2015 Sherman Emerging Scholar
Energy Crisis: Oil and Decolonization in the Twentieth Century
In standard histories of the 1970s energy crisis, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries is depicted as a faceless villain--a cartel, bereft of any real political culture except a healthy interest in the bottom line that has taken illegitimate power over a resource key to the wealth and even survival of the rest of the capitalist world. In one example, U.S. President Gerald Ford accused the oil producers of shirking their "international responsibility" in December 1976. The group had not only cited "artificial economic justifications" to increase prices, it had ignored "the destructive consequences of their actions." But what happens if historians look at the energy crisis from the perspective of the oil producers? "Respect for sovereign rights must mark relations between oil consuming and oil producing states," the Iraqi prime minister told the United Nations General Assembly. The rising price of oil professed the OPEC nations' "rightful control over their natural resources."The emphasis on sovereignty as an international right reveals an important fact about the energy crisis: As much as contemporary western observers, and many historians, have portrayed it as the outcome of abused power, the crisis was in fact the product of a specific moment in time and a particular combination of global economic, political, and intellectual circumstances. In its presentation of a forgotten network of anti-colonial elites -- in particular western-trained oil lawyers and economists from Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Libya -- this lecture tracks an alternative history that links the intellectual history of decolonization with the political-economy of the international oil industry. It begins with the 1951 Iranian oil crisis and continues through the 1955 Afro-Asian Summit, the 1959 meeting of the First Arab Petroleum Congress, the 1960 foundation of OPEC, the 1969 Libyan Revolution, and the 1974 UN declaration of a New International Economic Order. It concludes with an analysis of the U.S. attack on OPEC's "authoritarian economics" and the disappearance of the anti-colonial elites' dream of "an economic equivalent of decolonization."