When Louis Turner, a British authority on multinational corporations, published a widely quoted study on the oil companies, he concluded that it was wrong these days to consider that the companies have "private foreign policies," as they did in the first two or three decades of the century.
"International relations analysts need no more than give the majors an occasional mention in footnotes," the study said.
There is at least one important exception to this. It is the Atlantic Richfield Company (Arco), which in the last 25 years has moved from being a small refining company dead in the water to being the 12th largest corporation in the United States.
The company is run by two unusual men -- Thornton Bradshaw, president, and Robert O. Anderson, chairman. Together they have worked out an effective policy for building Arco's economic strength. At the same time they have also conducted a "hearts-and-minds" operation on the world's intelluctuals, businessmen, politicians and journalists. (I should add I have been part of this. Five years ago, I ran a couple of their seminars.)
The base of this operation is the Aspen Institute, which takes its name from the Colorado resort where its headquarters are located.
The institute has lovely houses around the globe, and nearly every week it hosts free-ranging seminars on subjects as diverse as arms control, human rights and energy policy.
More recently, Arco became the proprietor of the London Observer, showed an interest in taking over Encounter magazine, and in July joined in the rescue of Harper's magazine, agreeing to share its operating expenses through its own foundation.
This is not the direct power of the early 20th century, when oil barons like the Rockefellers could threaten to bring down governments. But this indirect power could well be all the more effective because it is used in respectable, unobtrusive, low-key ways.
This could explain why Bradshaw was the only oil company chief invited to Camp David last summer, when President Carter was preparing his new-look energy program.
It might also be why Bradshaw is the oil company president to whom Middle East heads of state talk most regularly about their political problems, even though Arco's oil interests in that part of the world are negligible.
Bradshaw certainly does have a "private foreign policy." In more than two hours of conversation, he gave a very good idea of what it involves.
Bradshaw's starting point is America's energy policy. He is a severe critic of U.S. energy habits. The way to run a sane world, he says, is to build more cities like Zurich, where a blue tram will take you anywhere.
Nevertheless, he continues, Carter has persuaded America to start coming to terms with its profligate energy use.
The United States cannot dismantle Los Angeles, but it can conserve 10 million barrels of oil a day by 1990. Given the incentives provided by high oil prices and decontrol, the United States can also step up its rate of exploration within the country, reintroduce coal and open up solar energy, Bradshaw said.
Even so, assuming the economy is going to grow, there seems to be no way the United States, by the end of the decade, can cut its oil imports to fewer than 8 million barrels a day. [The U.S. Department of Energy prediction is 6 million barrels a day.]
Bradshaw says this means that the United States will pressure the oil states to pump at a faster rate than is sensible given their need for social and political stability.
It also means -- since the Soviet Union will soon have to import oil -- that the Western oil companies will be competing with the Soviet purchasing agents in the Middle East. There is no reason to think that such a situation -- full of contradictions and weaknesses -- will work out, Bradshaw said.
"We'll have to depend on luck. We've created this problem, we've exacerbated it. But we can't now back off," he added.
Bradshaw is convinced that if anything goes wrong -- for instance, if a key government collapses -- the Soviets will exploit the situation. He says the Soviets cannot resist the "hemgemonic urge to put their foot on the oil pipeline," and when this happens, the West will have to take military action.
This would represent a "moral and political failure," since it would mean the West had been unable to deal with its energy problems before they reached that crisis point.
Nevertheless, "The United States will have run out of options," Bradshaw said. The country "cannot sit and watch its oil supplies shut off, its factories closed, and its work force unemployed."
Bradshaw said the only comfort to be derived from this assessment of the situation is that the Soviets must realize they are playing a dangerous game.
"It's not in their interest to press too far," he explained.
Meanwhile, true to his egghead image, Bradshaw suggests a few ideas that might help defuse the situation. For example, he would be rather pleased if the Iranians decided to export their oil northward. The West has already adjusted to living without most of it. It would satisfy the new Soviet import needs and would deprive them of an excuse to enter oil markets further south.
Bradshaw would also like to see a more determined U.S. effort to solve the Palestinian problem, but said this would have to wait until after the November election.
"I would like to see a dialogue involving all the parties that have an interest in the matter," he said. Bradshaw believes that if there were "step-by-step negotiations," the issue of Palestinian self-determination "will get out on the table."
Bradshaw is also concerned about isolating the Third World from the impace of higher oil prices and any trouble that might erupt in the Middle East. Together with Harlan Cleveland, he has formulated a plan for earmarking a certain percentage of OPEC production for poor countries. He would combine this with a system of special credits financed by an issue of special drawing rights by the International Montary Fund.
Those working with Bradshaw on his intellectual enterprises say he gives them a lot of rope.
Conor Cruise O'Brien, editor-in-chief of the London Observer, said a few months ago that the "only condition imposed by Arco is that we don't lose money."
Lately, however, the Observer has been doing just that, principally because of problems with the printers' unions. As a result, Arco is threatening to close the paper.
As for the Aspen Institute, most visitors are only vaguely aware of who is picking up the tab. Indeed, the institute is now such an attraction that participants increasingly pay their own way.
However, a number of influential people passing through Aspen do remember that Arco made the intellectual fun and games possible.
In today's world, that is the basis of real power.