Review: ‘Blood Oil’ by Leif Wenar


Blood Oil
Tyrants, Violence, and the Rules That Run the World

Leif Wenar

Publisher: Oxford University Press
ISBN: 9780190262921
Publication Date: 1st January 2016


Throughout the world, resource-rich countries are plagued by tyranny, violence, and corruption. With precious few exceptions, the political elites in such nations control natural resources, which are often the primary–and sometimes the only–source of wealth generation, and do not need to rely on popular support to maintain their rule. Their wealth comes from selling the resource overseas, which in turn gives them the income they need to buy off the military, the police, and the business sector. Oppressive, corrupt autocracies are the all-too-frequent result, and such regimes have been the source of many–perhaps most–US foreign policy headaches over the last fifty years. Yet despite their pariah-like status, these regimes continue to exist and even prosper-especially oil-powered regimes. For all of the criticism directed at resource-rich autocracies by Western critics, Western consumers remain reliant on them for the materials that fuel their cars and comprise their computers.

In Blood Oil, Leif Wenar explains in detail how the resource curse impedes democracy and development in resource-exporting countries, but he does not stop with a simple analysis of the phenomenon. He also plumbs the ethical complications that ensue when Western consumers buy goods derived from these ill-gotten resources. In the arena of international trade, however, all nations subscribe to the centuries-old dictum of “might makes right”–that outside powers cannot tell another regime how to run its economy. But this simply means that at both the institutional and individual consumer level, we are perpetuating the injustice.

There is hope, though. Former taken-for-granted global trades like slavery are now reviled. Indeed, the successful campaign to eliminate slavery suggests that it is possible for us to eventually treat the trade in natural resources as equally immoral. To that end, Wenar develops a cluster of democracy-enhancing clean trade policies that can allow us to disentangle ourselves from the dictators and warlords who rely on natural resource sales to perpetuate their rule. The resulting world will be safer both for those under the boot of oppression and for Western countries, which have lost a substantial degree of control over their foreign policy because of their addiction to resources that have effectively been looted from the citizenry by dictators and warlords.

In every sense a big-idea book, Blood Oil reshapes our understanding of what we can do to create a more a just world and challenges us to wean ourselves from materials extracted and sold to us by some of the world’s worst regimes. 

My Review

This is indeed a big ideas book; Wenar handles the majority of his argument well but part five is overladen with other philosophers’ ideas. While I believe this is a necessary and useful text, consolidating many existing ideas, its heavy philosophical bent will appeal to those already interested in the subject only. There is much passion and inspiration in this book but the last chapters bludgeoned me with philosophical arguments.

In my opinion, the ideas presented in this book need a more popular treatment to help spread them further. This might find its place on the book shelves of academics and activists, and rightly so, but it won’t be a popular work.


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