The non-West coalesces

Oct 19, 2022
Petroleum, petrodollar and crude oil concept : Pump jack and flag of OPEC.

Something recently happened in Vienna, where the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries, now known as OPEC–Plus with the inclusion of the Russian Federation, convened for its first in-person session since 2020. It is something of epochal importance, though you will not know this if you rely solely on the reports carried in our corporate-owned media.

The world just took a significant turn into the 21st century. Let us stay abreast of it, leaving those who refuse to see this to their own devices.

President Biden, apparently not intelligent enough to understand the emergent new era and indifferent to the interests and aspirations of others, quickly made as big a mess of things as could be made. Last week he threatened Saudi Arabia, which co-chairs OPEC–Plus with the Russian Federation, with “consequences” for what transpired in Vienna. This is what imperiums do when their primacy is threatened—they encourage the very currents in history they are determined to disrupt.

As reported everywhere, OPEC–Plus decided to reduce the oil production of member nations by two million barrels per day as of next month. This may amount to an actual cut of half that amount, as many OPEC–Plus members—Nigeria, for instance—have not been lifting to their quotas anyway. But oil prices are already increasing, and we will soon see this at our filling stations. As retail prices rise, it is likely to complicate the political fortunes of the Biden administration and Democrats on Capitol Hill just as the midterm elections approach. So, a pretty big deal.

But this is not the half of what transpired in Vienna two weeks ago. Saudi Arabia, long the driving wheel in OPEC, effectively declared its long history of subservience to Washington, by way of which oil production has been exchanged for security guarantees, to be on the way out. One of Washington’s bedrock allies in the Middle East, Israel being the other, just took a major step toward the coalescence of non–Western nations into a coherent bloc acting in its own interests.

This is more than a pretty big deal. It brings us considerably closer to the new world order Russia and China, the two most influential non–Western nations, have been talking about for several years and notably since the Biden administration took power in January 2021. Within months, Beijing and Moscow concluded that there is no making sense of a nation that, even as its power declines, has no intention of working with them as equals to mutual benefit. Since then, numerous other countries have had little trouble detecting which way the wind blows.

The Ukraine crisis has sent a new bolt of electricity through this geopolitical trend. Nations representing more than 80 percent of the global population and a like percentage of global gross domestic product are perfectly capable of seeing the Biden administration’s pointed provocations and do not approve.

Partnerships that stop just short of alliances—a term of statecraft entailing explicit obligations in the way of mutual defence—have multiplied so quickly since Joe Biden took office it is hard to keep track of them. Russia’s “no limits” relationship with China is the premier case. Russia has recently consolidated its cooperative ties with Iran. So has China. Iran and Venezuela, China and Cuba, China and Nicaragua—the list goes on. As we speak, Moscow and Beijing are developing partnerships of various kinds in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia.

But these nations, it is easy to note, are by and large beyond Washington’s fence posts: The policy cliques, this is to say, have them down as enemies. Every nation just named is currently subjected to U.S. sanctions. Parenthetically, I do have to wonder what happens when most of the world other than the Anglosphere and Western Europe is condemned in this way, but that is another conversation.

With the OPEC–Plus decision, it is time to make a critical distinction.

When Vladimir Putin and Narendra Modi summited in New Delhi last December, the Russian president and the Indian prime minister oversaw the consummation of no fewer than 28 agreements covering cooperation across the board—investment, tech transfer, energy, defence. It is worth singling out India’s intent to purchase a copy of Russia’s S–400 missile defence system, which proves a pebble in Washington’s shoe every time any nation buys one.

Since then, Turkey has sent multiple signals that, never mind its NATO membership, it is increasingly inclined to cast its lot with non–­Western nations. It was an observer at the recent summit of the Eurasian Economic Union in Samarkand. There is talk of membership in the BRICS mini-bloc, which now consists of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa. Egypt under the vicious Abdel Fattah el–Sisi and Argentina under its right-thinking president, Alberto Fernández, also intend to apply for membership.

India, Turkey, Argentina, South Africa, Egypt: These are not nations Washington likes to dismiss as pariahs, rogues, outcasts, or autocracies run by “thugs”—a favourite epithet of the thuggish Biden—even if some of them deserve it. This changes the complexion of the coalescence I describe. We are now talking about nations the U.S. counts as friends of one or another kind.

There is a key point to be made in this connection. The policy cliques and the clerks in the media who serve them love to cast the waxing non–Western bloc as anti–American, driven by hatred or envy or whatever else these people can think of. The reporting on the OPEC–Plus meeting has it that the Saudis “sided with Russia” against the U.S. “Angered by the kingdom’s decision to team up with Russia,” The New York Times reported last week, President Biden signalled openness to retaliatory measures.”

What shall we call this, readers? It is either blindness or narcissism or both, and I nominate this last. As the non–West gathers in the cause of constructive action, mutual benefit, and (not to be missed) noninterference, the only thing they are against is global disorder, and the only nations they are against are those responsible for it.

And now to Saudi Arabia.

This is another nation you wouldn’t want to take home to meet mother, but Washington has had few friends in the non–West closer than Riyadh since the early 1930s, when the Roosevelt administration and the House of Saud worked out the oil-for-security arrangement (and Standard Oil of California got a drilling concession). It is this long party that the Saudis—who are also looking at BRICS membership, let’s not miss—seem to have declared over as of last week.

Western press reports have made much of the presence in Vienna of Alexander Novak, Moscow’s deputy prime minister, who reportedly did some spadework prior to the OPEC–Plus decision to cut production quotas. But any thought that those Rrrrrrussians railroaded the production cut through is simply a flinch from a reality Washington finds hard to bear. The Saudis acted entirely of their own volition, plain and simple. Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince and the kingdom’s de facto leader, is many things, and a man of his own mind is one of them (for better or worse). Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, the Saudi oil minister, is MbS’s half-brother.

There are many reasons Riyadh, as OPEC–Plus’s co–chair, decided as it did. Its stated intent is to protect prices as the world slides toward a precipitous drop in oil demand consequent on the slow growth and rising inflation—the stagflation syndrome—that the U.S. sanctions regime against Russia is forcing upon the world.

There is also the price cap Washington proposes to impose on Russian oil exports—one of the stupidest ideas, of very many, to come out of the U.S. policy elites in decades. The buyer tells the seller the price of goods? Say whaaaa? It has little to no chance of working, but MbS most assuredly asks, If these Americans cap the price of Russia’s oil in 2022, how long before they take a run at us?

There is the matter of Joe “Nobody fucks with a Biden” Biden (and what a polished president is he). I can’t decide if he is a schlemiel or a schlimazel—as a Yiddish-speaking friend explains it, the guy who knocks over a bottle of wine at table or the man into whose lap the wine spills. After following Joe’s years in the Senate and not quite two in the White house, I surrender: He manages to be both.

During his 2020 campaign Biden famously called Saudi Arabia a pariah to keep the progressive peanut gallery quiet on the Yemen war but with no intent to reduce U.S. support for it. As things got hairy in consequence of the sanctions against Russia, our president traveled to Jeddah, bumped fists with MbS during an obviously testy summit, and apparently figured everything would be O.K. on the oil-production side. Prior to the OPEC–Plus session, administration officials flew to Riyadh and practically begged MbS not to announce a production cut at least until after the midterms.

What a bed our Joe and the confirmed schlemiels running America’s foreign policy have made for themselves and the rest of us to lie in. Once again, the man from Scranton proves what he always has been, a provincial pol who thinks he can sell snake oil around the world just as he long did in Delaware and with no clue as to what makes responsible statecraft.

I do not doubt that MbS’s disrespect for a clown with failing mental capacities made it easier for him to act against U.S. wishes and more specifically the Biden White House. In my read, he has effectively joined the Russians and Chinese in concluding there is simply no working with so unserious a regime. But the Saudis appear no more inclined to set policy out of spite or contempt than any other nation in the gathering non–Western bloc. Riyadh acted in its own interests as it sees these.

Asked at a post-session press conference if the OPEC–Plus decision was an act of aggression, Prince Abdul Aziz, the Saudi oil minister replied, “Show me exactly where is the act of belligerence.”

But precisely. Dollars to donuts, as one of my editors used to say, it was an American correspondent who posed the question: It takes an American to read events with this degree of self-centeredness, as if the world revolves around Washington the way Ptolemy thought the sun and all the planets revolved around the earth. “The Saudis sided with Russia” is nothing more than a variation on the Ptolemaic theme, a repeat of Bush II’s “you’re with us or against us” binary—which many of us ridiculed at the time but now consider a perfectly rational way to divvy up the world.

Ideology, to make this point plain, had nothing to with the OPEC–Plus decision and has nothing to do with the non–West’s assembly into a sort of inchoate network of partnerships. Enlightened self-interest—that old phrase in a new context—is what drives this evolution in global affairs.

I have asserted for years, at the risk of repeating myself, that parity between the West and non–West is a 21st century imperative—an inevitability regardless of whether or not anyone anywhere wishes this to be so. What happened in Vienna earlier this month gives us a demonstration of how this evolution will proceed.

Late last week Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan met in Astana, the Kazakhstan capital, the second encounter of the Russian and Turkish presidents in as many months. In the course of things, Putin proposed to make Turkey an energy hub for the distribution of Russian gas now that the Nord Stream I and II pipelines connecting Russia to Europe are out of commission. Erdoğan also noted that Turkey can act as a transit point to get Russian fertilisers to the less-developed most in need of them.

Here is how Erdoğan, ever eager to appear important in world affairs, concluded his conversation with Putin on these matters:

We can work together because we are more concerned about the poor countries than the wealthy states. This is how we should envisage this, and if we do it, we will be able to change much—to change the balance in favour of poor countries.

Turkey and Russia are together. I know some of our steps will worry some circles and some countries, but we are full of resolve. Our relevant bodies, our colleagues [in our ministries], will establish contacts and strengthen our relations.

See what I mean about which way the wind blows? See what I mean about the non–West’s coalescence?

It will be interesting to see what comes next now that the Saudis have joined the party and put some distance between themselves and the Americans. Hardly is it right to anticipate some nasty breach in relations. They seem simply to be shaking themselves loose from the embrace that suffocates, as a British ambassador once described Japan’s relations with the U.S.

A final note in the matter of the BRICS and the Saudis’ interest in joining them. It is a matter of record that, as currently constituted, the group is developing a basket of currencies intended to serve as an alternative to the dollar in international trade. This sounds like another very big deal in the making. Since the Saudis agreed in 1945 to price oil in dollars, the petroleum market has been absolutely key to the U.S. currency’s supremacy as a reserve currency—which, in turn, has been key to Washington’s projection of American hegemony.

Now what? Friends in the markets used to tell me that de-dollarisation, while a long-term inevitability, would not occur in my lifetime. I don’t hear much of this anymore. What appeared a distant prospect only a few years ago now seems to grow closer by the year. It will not matter how many fists Washington bumps: They don’t generally stop history’s wheel from turning, as Biden has learned.

 

Patrick Lawrence, a correspondent abroad for many years, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune, is a media critic, essayist, author and lecturer. His most recent book is Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century.

First published in SHEERPOST on Oct 06 2022

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