From the realm of international oil, where strange things sometimes happen, here is an extraordinary proposition to consider: the sky-high price of oil forced upon the world by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries has actually been good for America.
The United States is stronger today in the world than it was five years ago, thanks partly to OPEC's four-fold escalation of crude oil prices.
The U.S. political power in the Middle East and elsewhere is enhanced by our close friends in OPEC, particularly Iran and Saudi Arabia, the leading producers.
More important perhaps, since the takeoff of oil prices in the fall of 1973, America's economic stature in the world has improved dramatically, reversing a long decline, while our competitors (and friends) in Western Europe and Japan have suffered.
So much of American political rhetoric casts OPEC as an adversary, intent on hurting us by embargo or price-gouging. Yet according to this proposition, the actual relationship more resembles a partnership, an intricate symbiosis in which the United States gains and gives, and so do the leading partners of OPEC.
America and OPEC together? It sounds odd to American ears, but skeptical Europeans have been talking for years about the economic advantages and the increased political leverage that America may have gained from OPEC. In some quarters, there is even a suspicion that U.S. diplomats implicitly encouraged the OPEC nations to jack up their oil prices in order to enhance the American position in the world.
Whether that allegation is right or wrong, there are these facts to consider:
Since OPEC quadrupled the price of crude oil, America's share of world trade has increased - at the expense of the other industrial nations. In the 15 years before 1973, the U.S share of manufactured exports in the world declined from 28 per cent to 19 per cent. Now the decline has stopped. America's share has begun to grow again.
While the high oil prices create trade-deficit problems for all of the energy-importing countries, including America, the dollar is stronger today, compared to competing currencies in the industrialized nations. Since the oil crisis hit, the dollar has strengthened by about 11 per cent.
Since 1974, more than $100 billion a year has flowed to the OPEC nations in oil revenues from all of the consumer nations, but the largest share has flowed back to the United States in trade, investments, arms sales and development contracts. For example, Saudi Arabia, the richest member of the cartel, has spent about $27 billion in contracts with U.S. companies for supplies and services. At the same time, Saudi Arabia according to reliable sources, now has about $30 billion invested in this country.
America's economic growth rate improved after the OPEC price shock, compared with its major competitors. In the decade prior to 1973, the U.S. average growth lagged below the average for the 24-member Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development. Since then, American growth has been above average.
The cause-and-effect of these trends is subject to endless argument among economists. Some would insist that the American position improved because of dollar devaluations in 1971 and 1973: others would argue that any U.S. benefits from the OPEC pricing have been more than offset by world-wide troubles which rich and poor countries have faced in higher energy costs.
The net effect is still the same: America suffered less (or benefited relatively) compared to its major trade competitors. A principal reason is that America, while it had to import the expensive oil in growing volume, still had an edge over Europe and Japan - its own domestic energy resources.
In theory, what all this means to the average American is a stronger economy - more jobs, sales, profits. But no politician would dare take credit for this prosperity. High prices are hard to sell - especially because the economic benefits do not spread themselves evenly through the society. A consumer looks at the gas pump at 62 cents a gallon or more and remembers when it was 32 cents or less. A homeowner preoccupied with soaring heating bills may not feel assured by the knowledge that the United States is gaining ground in international trade.
The four-fold leap in the price of oil over the last four years has caused vast transfers of wealth both among and within nations. Some Americans have won while others have lost. But America as a whole - in relative terms at least - has lost far less to the Arab and other oil-exporting nations than have many other nations, "rich" as well as poor.
European critics have been arguing for years that the United States, thanks to its own oil resources, was exploiting the high prices set by OPEC. Whether that was fair or not in the past, the Carter administration has now made explicit what was only implied before - in at least one respect, the United States has a direct stake in maintaining the OPEC price level, not attacking it.
The Carter energy plan hinges all domestic energy pricing on the OPEC oil price - not just oil but natural gas and ultimately coal and nuclear fission. The President's incentives for conserving energy in America, plus the intricate proposals for converting to other fuels, all depend on maintaining that price level. If OPEC collapses, so does the National Energy Plan.
Furthermore, the Carter plan proposes a new mechanism which would allow U.S. oil prices to rise in the future - "indexing" their price to the general rate of inflation. This is something OPEC has been talking about doing for more than two years and some energy experts predict that, if the United States "indexes" its prices, OPEC will do the same - thus legitimizing future price increases with OPEC and America in step together.
Indexing all but guarantees that oil prices will increase in the future. But it also guarantees they will not increase any faster than all prices generally. Its aim is moderation - mutual protection.
Federal Energy Administration international affairs expert Clement B. Malin explained the import of Carter's oil-pricing proposal:
"Aren't we saying to OPEC, 'If you index your prices along with our wholesale price, we'll go along with it"'"
There still is an array of critics outside government who believe that U.S. policy should be headed in the opposite direction, attempting to drive down the world price of crude oil by expanding production, particularly during the next three years when newly available oil from Alaska, Britain and Mexico will create a surplus. OPEC exports are expected to level off or even decline moderately between now and 1980 - a "softness" in the marketplace that could inspire price competition, if the OPEC nations are not careful.
Morris Adelman, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist, laments: "The next three years are greater the potential surplus, the more vulnerable they are. This would be the best time to take action."
Adelman and others discussed this approach with President Carter's chief energy adviser, James R. Schlesinger, last spring, urging a more militant approach toward the cartel's pricing. The energy chief reportedly replied: "It would work.But do we dare let it work?"
In other words, the United States would have more to lose than it might gain. Both politically and economically. The hard reality inhibiting U.S. options is that America has greatly increased its dependence on Arab oil in recent years, despite all the political talk to the contrary. In 1974, Arab oil was 14 per cent of U.S. imports; last year it was 36 per cent and still growing. America is now importing about half the 17 million barrels of oil it consumes each day - and the largest share of that comes from our friends in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates, not to mention our nonfriends in Algeria, Libya and Iraq. Even the rosiest projections on energy conservation still assume that we must rely on Arab oil for next generation.
"We're not in a situation where we can say to OPEC - we don't need you," Malin explained. "Clearly we do. Since you can't avoid that situation, how do you optimize it?"
The U.S. policy, launched four years ago by Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger and evolving still under President Carter, was to "optimize" the situation by encouraging interlocking interests, economic and political, with the major oil-selling nations. The goal, as one former assistant secretary of state put it, was to pursue "the optimal political price of oil."
The agrressive campaign to sell U.S. arms and economic development in the Middle East is part of that. So are the highly successful initiatives of America's major international banks to draw OPEC's surplus funds to the U.S. economy With all that money in American banks and other investments, the Arabs threaten their own nest egg if their actions disrupt our economy.
"If you can't dominate your suppliers, regardless of whether it's rubber or coffee or long-staple cotton, it would be better to have them have an interest in your being healthy as well," Malon explained. "Whether it's an embargo or an overnight price increase, it is no longer in their interest either."
Ironically Kissinger was widely maligned four years ago for failing to grasp the complexities of international economics. Now his critics are suggesting that Kissinger brokered some sort of secret deal to enhance our economic and political interests at the expense of Europe.
Some critical scholars and international journals claim that the U.S. OPEC arrangements were reduced to explicit agreements, covering price, supply and national security, sometime during the past four years. U.S. and OPEC officials have regularly denied this, but some oil analysts still believe that a series of unwritten "understandings" are guiding this relationship.
Melvin A. Conant, a former FEA administrator for international affairs, remarked: "I was never satisfied when I was in government that I was ever told anything close to the truth (about the U.S. relationship with OPEC). My impression was that it was close to Kissinger's desk.I'm not sure that there is anything on paper."
Another broker in U.S. Arab relations described it this way: "There are understandings, acknowledgements, but either side can slip out the side door."
The oil-producing nations still have a profound economic problem in this partnership, however. They do not want to keep pumping oil, depleting their reserves in order to keep America operating, if it would be more profitable to leave the oil in the ground and sell it later when prices are higher.
Saudi Arabia and other are asking for a means to preserve the value of their capital - a system of "indexing" investments to inflation so that, for example, the value of U.S. Treasury bonds would not be eroded by inflation or currency devaluations.
While the United States and other industrialized nations have officially opposed this, a recent report by independent economic experts including former Republican presidential adviser Paul McCracken recommended this step to the OECD. If that arrangement transpires, then Saudi Arabia's wealth would be protected against the future, whether it is oil under the desert or Treasury notes deposited at Chase Manhattan Bank.
The political tradeoffs in this relationship are even more complex than the economic interlocks. One Arabist described it a bit baldly:
"The partnership is a coincidence of interests - our excessive need for oil and their need for a strategic umbrella. They want a great power which will protect them against Iran or other Arabs."
The interests converge, obviously, on progress toward a settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict. In that regard, Iran plays a crucial role. It does not sell much oil to the United States directly but it is Israel's major supplier - a kind of insurance policy backing up America's oldest and best friend in the region.
Iran and Saudi Arabia, in addition to being arms customers, also perform the role of being surrogates for U.S. political initiatives, in the Middle East and Africa. One Arab official, noting Saudi initiatives in Somalia, Sudan, Egypt and Zaire, remarked:
"You must remember that your President can look to Saudi Arabia's funds working in your interests . . . We can do things for you that even the most cooperative Congress would not."
If a permanent peace is established in the Middle East and America gains assured access to the OPEC oil far into the future, that will raise other questions about America's "energy crisis." If depending on OPEC oil is no longer considered a problem, there is an awful lot of oil there to depend upon.
James E. Atkins, international oil authority and former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, believes that, with a Middle East peace and cooperative production quotas from OPEC, "we can get through this century without great hardship."
That is a much more optimistic statement than the Carter energy forecast which assumes declining world oil production by the late 1980s.The argument is over how much oil really lies untapped in those OPEC countries, not to mention other undiscovered fields around the world.
Every year since the 1930s when the Arabian American Oil Co. (Aramco) began producing in Saudi Arabia, the consortium of American oil companies has discovered more oil than it pumped that year. Last year there were 2,350 oil rigs drilling for new oil in the United States while only 13 exploratory wells found more in Arabia. Geologists agree that OPEC reserves are understated - nobody really knows how much oil is there, particularly in Iraq.
International oil experts see negative evidence in Carter's energy plan that proves the U.S. OPEC partnership - the absence of a full-scale global search for new oil fields on other continents. If the United States wished to break OPEC, they observe, it would be going full-tilt to develop non-OPEC sources of future oil, in the great uncharted areas of Africa or Latin America or Asia.
If someone does discover another vast oil field somewhere in the world, that would have the effect of diluting the powerful position which America now has established in the Middle East, undermining the OPEC price, unhinging the National Energy Plan.
And the question occurs: would that be good for America, or might it not be?