The bad news isn't what the major oil-exporting countries did last week in Vienna. It's what the major oil-consuming countries did not do all over the world.
The United States, Japan and Europe uttered not a peep of protest against the latest OPEC move to raise prices. Their silence virtually ensures that the hammer blows delivered to the industrial world by OPEC bad guys on occasion last year will be delivered in years to come by OPEC good guys as part of an accepted international formula.
In 1979, international oil markets were dominated by the collapse of the shah. Iranian oil experts fell from over 5 million to under 3 million barrels a day. That drop, and the prospect of worse to come, stimulated panic buying.
Three oil countries with radical regimes -- Libya, Algeria and Iran -- used the occasion to drive up prices by sales on the spot market and heavy pressure inside OPEC. As a result, the average price of oil per barrel doubled in 1979. The international oil bill for most countries increased enormously. The spur to inflation helped tip the United States and several other industrial countries into recession.
Saudi Arabia, and a number of pro-Western countries, did their best to break the price rise. The Saudis kept production high (9.5 million barrels a day instead of the 8.5 million norm). They held their base price at $28 a barrel as against over $35 charged by the Algerians and Libyans.
But their moderation found little reward from the United States and its allies. If anything, on the contrary, the Carter administration kept right on courting the radical oil states. Moreover, the attempted seizure of the Grand Moseque in Mecca showed that accommodation with the West rendered the Saudi royal regime vulnerable to radical Islamic subversion. So the Saudis set about developing an oil strategy that did not leave them at a disadvantage compared with other OPEC members.
The Saudi strategy centers on a long-range pricing formula. The basic idea is that OPEC floor prices would be adjusted upward in line with three different series -- increases in the prices of industrial goods, increases in the gross national products of the industrial countries and the standing of the dollar against the basket of other currencies.
Market conditions currently favor the application of that strategy. The panic buying has led to a glut of oil supplies. Some exporters have had to sell at a discount recently.
Even so the Libyans, Algerians and Iranians refuse to accept the Saudi strategy unless the Saudis raise prices to establish a higher floor, and cut back production to tighten markets.
At the Vienna meeting, the Saudis took a first step in that directon. They agreed to raise their base price from $28 to $30 a barrel. The expectation is that in the near future they will go up to $32 a barrel, and cut back production. Then the long-term strategy will be accepted and applied.
Once established, the long-term strategy puts a noose around the neck of the United States and other industrial countries. It will raise oil prices as soon as business activity picks up in the industrial world -- thus reigniting inflation and causing recovery to self-destruct. It will increase oil prices further as inflation mounts -- thus deepening the amount and prolonging the extent, of the unemployment the industrialized countries will have to swallow to stabilize prices.
Finally, by linking oil prices to a basket of currencies, the long-term strategy increases the vulnerability of the dollar. The United States will more than ever have to manage its federal budget and its interest rates with an eye toward satisfying foreign speculators, which will limit this country's ability to meet its responsibilities for defense and foreign aid.
That prospect would appall any serious American administration and most of the other governments in the industrialized world. By unified protest -- and by joint action -- the industrialized countries could at least make the Saudis think twice.
But President Carter has his eyes fixed on more important business -- the business of reelection. He wants the country to believe everything is just dandy. Since he keeps his mouth shut, mum is also the word for the Europeans and Japanese. So the Saudis are encouraged to move ahead, and the world has the impression nothing much will happen, and the United States continues to participate in its own decline.