The Arab oil embargo implused five years ago this week signified a seminal change that has had staggering consequences for the whole world. But not in the ways imagined at the time.
Luck has combined with coping to avert theeconomic disasters and supply shortages so widely predicted. Instead, there have materialized around the Persian Gulf acute cultural, political and strategic problems.
To be sure, the fourfold increase in prices associated with the oil embargo has had a decided economic impact. Higher energy costs have been a factor generating steep inflation all over the world.
The diversion of money from oil importers to oil exports has impinged adversely on world economic growth. Annual expansion in the industrial countries has dropped from a 5 percent average before 1973 to less than 4 percent. Growth in the developing countries without oil has moved down from roughly 6 percent to less than 5 percent.
But the financial panics supposed to follow from the accumulation of vast surpluses by countries that couldn't spend the money have been avoided. Inflation has raised the price of goods the oil exporters buy. The decline in the dollar has cut their revenues.
the net surplus of the oil exporting, or OPEC, countries this year is expected to be only about $20 billion. That is less than the total surplus of Japan and Germany, which now replaces the oil exporters as financial problem No. 1.
As to supply, what was supposed to be an acute shortage of oil has in fact turned out to be a glut. Part of the reason for excess is that three major producing areas - the North Sea, the North Slope in Alaska and the Mexican fields - have come on stream.
Equally important, though for less noted, has been the conversation effort undertaken in the industrial countries, including the United States. Higher prices and environmental regulations have caused industrial and individual users to come off the galloping pace of oil consumption under way before 1973.
In the United States, a unit of economic growth used to require an almost exact equivalent growth in the use of energy. Now economic growth takes place with less than a 70 percent energy increment.
Accordingly, projected energy consumption is down, and the expected time for developing of shortages has been put off until after 1965. Even that fateful rendevous can be avoided if the right things are done to develop alternate sources.
But the unexpected good news is more than matched by the unexpected bad news. The sudden access of unearned wealth is the oil-exporting countries has yielded terrible social problems. In the Modern world, from Indonesia through the Persian Gulf to North Africa, social dislocation has engendered a revival of Islamic fundamentalism.
In that climate there has been bred an anti-development mystique - an urge to put the brakes on material progress. Virtually all the oil producters, as a result, have been obliged to curtail development programs.
The victims of development, especially religious leaders and young people, have united in potent opposition movements. A front of that kind has already shaken the throne of the Shah of Iran. For all the piety of some of its members, the Saudi family in Arabia is also vulnerable.
Threats to the regimes governing the two leading oil-exporting countries engage international security. But this country, the chief outwork of internation security, seems percuarily disqualified from helping its friends in the Persian Gulf.
Military force can only suppress instability - no promote enduring civil peace. The kind of reforms dear to Americans - endling corruption and easing repression - are irrelevant if not counterproduction. So in dealing with the unanticipated aftermath of the oil embargo, as in dealing with what was predicted, we will probably have to look mainly to luck and coping. Which suggests that, while problems may change, the need of this country to end dependence on the Persian Gulf only intensitfies.
Corrections: In a recent colum I asserted that the CIA withheld information supplied by a Soviet defector from the Warren Commission investigating the assassination of President Kennedy. That is incorrect, and I regret the error.