As Energy Prices Rise, It's All Downhill for Democracy

by Thomas L. Friedman, Op-Ed Columnist, May 5, 2006

In case you haven't noticed, all the oil-rich bad guys seem to be having a fine and dandy time these days.

Iran, awash in oil money, thumbs its nose at U.N. demands for it to desist in its nuclear adventures and daily threatens to wipe Israel off the map. President Vladimir Putin of Russia, awash in oil money, jails his opponents at home and cozies up to America's opponents, like Iran and Hamas, abroad. Sudan, awash in oil money, ignores the world's pleas to halt its genocide in Darfur. Venezuela's president, Hugo Chávez, awash in oil money, regularly tells America and his domestic opponents to take a hike.

And Nigeria, Uzbekistan, Angola, Saudi Arabia, Chad and Syria, all flush with oil or gas, are comfortably retreating from even baby steps of democratization.

There is a pattern here. Many people assumed that with the fall of the Berlin Wall, we were going to see an unstoppable wave of free elections and free markets slowly spread across the globe. For a decade that wave seemed, indeed, to be real and powerful.

But as the world has moved from an oil price range of $20 to $40 per barrel to a range of $40 to $70 a barrel, a very negative counterwave has arisen.

What I would call "petro-ist" states — highly dependent on oil or gas for their G.D.P. and having either weak institutions or outright authoritarian systems — have started asserting themselves. And they are weakening, for now at least, the global democratization trend.

Economists have long taught us about the negative effects that an overabundance of natural resources can have on political and economic reform in any country: the "resource curse." But when it comes to oil, it seems that you can take this resource curse argument a step further: there appears to be a specific correlation between the price of oil and the pace of freedom.

I call it the "First Law of Petropolitics," and it posits the following: The price of oil and the pace of freedom always move in opposite directions in petro-ist states.

According to the First Law of Petropolitics, the higher the price of global crude oil, the more erosion we see in petro-ist nations in the right to free speech, a free press, free elections, freedom of assembly, government transparency, an independent judiciary and the rule of law, and in the freedom to form independent political parties and nongovernmental organizations. Such erosion does not occur in healthy democracies with oil.

Conversely, according to the First Law of Petropolitics, the lower the price of oil, the more the petro-ist countries are forced to move toward a politics that is more transparent, more sensitive to opposition voices, more open to a broad set of interactions with the outside world and more focused on building the legal and educational structures that will maximize the ability of their citizens, both men and women, to compete, start new companies and attract investments from abroad. (For an elaboration of this argument, see the current issue of Foreign Policy magazine,

Yes, many factors are involved in shaping the politics of a country. But is it an accident that when oil was $20 to $40 a barrel, Iran was calling for a "dialogue of civilizations," and when it hit $70 a barrel, Iran was calling for the destruction of Israel?

When a barrel was $20 to $40, we had "Putin I." That's when President Bush looked Mr. Putin in the eye in 2001 and said he'd found "a sense of his soul." If Mr. Bush tried to get a sense of Mr. Putin's soul today — the soul of "Putin II," the Putin of $70-a-barrel oil — he would see down there the huge Russian energy company Gazprom. Mr. Putin's regime has swallowed Gazprom, along with a variety of once-independent Russian media outlets and institutions.

While these increasingly bold petro-authoritarians don't represent the sort of strategic or ideological threat that communism once posed to the West, their impact on global politics is still quite corrosive. Some of the worst regimes now have more oil money than ever to do bad things for a long time — and many decent, democratic countries have to kowtow to them to get oil and gas.

Given the inverse relationship between the price of oil and the pace of freedom in petro-ist states, any U.S. strategy for promoting democracy in these countries is doomed to fail unless it includes a credible plan for finding alternatives to oil and bringing down the global price of crude.

The price of oil should now be a daily preoccupation of the secretary of state, not just the secretary of energy. Today, you cannot be an effective democracy-promoting idealist without also being an effective energy-conscious environmentalist.