It sounds like a global nightmare scenario like those described in Cold War thrillers like “Fail Safe” – Middle East militants from someplace start attacking shipping in the Persian Gulf, through which a third of the world’s oil supplies flow, and the international economy teeters on the brink of total collapse. Except such attacks are happening right now.
So the Trump administration’s counter-moves – sounding alarms, blaming Iran, and seeking to rally global support for some kind of forceful response – seem to make perfect sense.
Actually, however, there’s every reason to think that the global economy can ride out this apparent crisis just fine, and that as a result, the President is missing an opportunity to display the virtues of a genuine America First foreign policy.
Not that the Gulf doesn’t matter for global oil trade. An estimated 30 percent of the globe’s oil exports travel through it, and out to markets the world over through its narrow Straits of Hormuz. Moreover, many of the world’s leading economies depend on such oil for big (though significantly varying) shares of their total energy use.
But these countries so far have displayed no interest in taking military steps to protect the oil flow. Indeed, many have focused their efforts instead on questioning the U.S. claims about Iran’s responsibility.
It’s tempting to view these actions as simply the latest example of such American allies counting on the United States to pull their fat from the fire – and/or a worrisome sign that the Trump administration’s alleged “bullying” on issues ranging from China trade to sharing the burden for the supposedly common defense to dealing with Iran and its nuclear weapons ambitions and other aggressive policies has cost it precious credibility with America’s best foreign friends.
Yet there’s also a strong case to be made that in this case, the allies’ apparent dithering (a charge that would be justified by either of the above narratives) makes perfect sense. The reason? The world literally has been here before – in spades. That is, in recent memory, the Gulf has been a much more violent place, and a much more threatening environment for oil tankers specifically. And as described in this useful Washington Post review, most of the global economic consequences were pretty minor. Those that weren’t – mainly entailing oil price hikes – didn’t last especially long in part because, quite naturally, the higher prices generated more supply, which brought the prices back down after a few years.
Moreover, even if “this time it’s different” in the Gulf, there’s an equally strong case that the United States should be following the allies’ lead. After all, they’re potentially the countries that are most seriously affected. Therefore, at least theoretically speaking, they have the greatest incentives to behave responsibly. If their economies do run into trouble, the U.S. economy certainly wouldn’t escape unscathed, given its extensive trade and investment with Europe and Asia.
But because thanks to its fracking-led energy production revolution, the United States no longer imports much oil from anywhere any more, the impact would be much less important. Chances are, moreover, that this impact would be far below a level that would warrant military action, much less taking charge of such operations. And since the allies’ ambivalence indicates that their aid couldn’t be counted on, a major American-dominated military initiative seems even more foolhardy.
Several years ago, an anonymous Obama administration official created a stir when he described the President’s approach for intervening in the Libya civil war as “leading from behind.” Critics definitely had a point when they charged that such strategies were difficult at best to reconcile with the then prevailing globalist foreign policy strategy that defined vital U.S. interests in sweeping, near-universal terms and emphasized the need for active, practically ceaseless American global engagement. But following the allies’ lead in the current Persian Gulf crisis seems like just the ticket.