Helen Thompson’s project is admirably ambitious. Dissatisfied with accounts of the past decade’s political and geopolitical turbulence that foreground populist revolts against a liberal-international order—she notes Mounk’s The People vs Democracy and Müller’s What Is Populism?; Luce’s Retreat of Western Liberalism and Emmott’s Fate of the West—Thompson sets out to provide a comprehensive explanation for the disorder of her title, identifying its causes in a set of structurally driven shocks, redounding between the geopolitical, economic and domestic-political spheres, widening the historical fault lines within them. Her book is an avowedly schematic analysis, its emphasis on ‘material conflicts and geopolitical power’, rather than culture or ideas. Central to its story—or stories, for Thompson provides discrete accounts for each of her three spheres—is the question of control over oil and gas, for the history of the past century is ‘impenetrable’, she argues, if this fundamental link between the economic and the geopolitical is ignored.
The result is often illuminating, casting familiar historical landmarks in new light. Disorder’s starting point is the rise of the us as a world power—and as an oil-producing nation—just as the ‘energy age of coal’ was giving way to the ‘age of coal and oil’. It was oil, she writes, that transformed a rural wood-fuelled society into an industrial power, capable of mesmerizing Europe. Pumped in Pennsylvania from the 1860s, American output soon rivalled that of the world’s main producer, Tsarist Russia. By the 1870s, Standard Oil’s commanding presence in refining and transportation saw it competing with Russia for Europe’s booming kerosene market. In 1908, demand for oil was transformed as the first motor cars rolled off Ford’s production line. Three years later, the ships of the Royal Navy made the switch from coal. By 1914, the us was supplying two-thirds of the world market. As a rising power, already predominant in its own hemisphere, its advantage over Britain was not just size and population, Thompson writes, but, ‘more immediately’, oil.
Disorder casts the First World War as, not least, a struggle between London and Berlin for control of the Ottoman and Persian oilfields—won, of course, thanks to its Indian Army, by Britain, which awarded itself a League of Nations mandate to govern much of the Middle East. By the 1920s, with Soviet oil production knocked out by civil war, the uk commanded half the world’s known reserves, while the us, having pumped its existing wells dry for the Allied war effort, became a net importer. Discoveries in Texas soon changed that, and Washington could wield the oil weapon in the 1930s against an expansionist Japan. The Second World War, spanning continents and oceans with oil-thirsty bomber planes, battleships and aircraft carriers, ‘unleashed us energy power’, as Disorder puts it, making American military and financial might ‘an overwhelming presence in Eurasia’. Here was the first fault line: as ‘a non-Eurasian power in Eurasia’, Washington was always an outsider on the super-continent, which remained world history’s ‘centre of gravity’.
The second fault line was the division of Europe into contending Cold War blocs, bisecting Germany. This introduced further potential fissures: Western Europe became reliant on an outsider power for its security with the formation of nato in 1949, under us military command. And while rebuilding the German economy, as the foundation stone of a prosperous ‘free-world’ Europe, Washington was also locking it into dependence on us-controlled oil supplies. This, in Thompson’s account, gave rise to a third fracture, an energy fault line between Germany and the ussr, enforced by the Truman Administration in 1949 when it slapped a nato embargo on Soviet oil imports. Washington’s Herculean tasks in Eurasia therefore included guaranteeing Western Europe’s growing dependence on Middle Eastern oil, largely pumped by us majors, transported in us tankers and paid for in dollars that were supplied by us grants and loans.
Busy with its heavy lifting on the other side of the continent, in Japan and Korea, Washington brought Turkey into nato but otherwise deputed to London the task of maintaining order in the Middle East, a continuation of its inter-war role. But, Disorder argues, America’s unwillingness to put its own troops into the Middle East introduced a fourth fault line: the uk proved a weak link, no longer up to the task militarily, since Indian independence had deprived it of imperial foot soldiers, yet trying to throw its weight around as an independent actor with the Anglo-French-Israeli invasion of Egypt in 1956 to block Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez Canal. The Eisenhower Administration put a stop to that; but the upshot of Suez was to open further fissures in the Atlantic alliance. France now swallowed its reservations and signed up to the Treaty of Rome with Germany and the Benelux countries, on condition that Italy join, too. Equally important, for the story Disorder is telling, in the aftermath of Suez first Italy, then Germany and Austria, began buying Soviet oil and constructing an east-west Druzhba (‘friendship’) pipeline. This caused uproar in the us Congress, with Senator Hubert Humphrey thundering that Soviet oil exports were as much a threat to the us as the Red Army. In 1962, the Kennedy Administration tried to use the Cuban missile crisis to force European firms to stop selling wide-diameter pipes to the ussr.
While closing the German-Soviet energy fault line, Druzhba aggravated other rifts, its low prices destabilizing the us-run oil market in the Middle East. The Arab states, now modernizing and self-confident, rebelled when the Americans tried to impose a more competitive oil price, to undercut Moscow; they set up opec in revenge. The 1967 and 1973 Arab-Israeli wars then exacted a high price from Israel’s American backers: the Middle East’s geopolitical fault lines widened into economic crevasses when opec imposed price hikes and an oil embargo, just as us domestic oil production was waning. Washington’s economic response, unilaterally shifting the world from a gold-pegged to a fiat-dollar system, then opened further rifts as France and Germany set in motion the makings of a single European currency, which itself would be the cause of future fissures within the eu. For Thompson, the geopolitical contradiction between the us’s will to ‘control the oil tap’ of the Middle East, as Carter’s Energy Secretary put it, and its inability to bring to bear sufficient military force to do so—at the same time as maintaining its weight in Europe and the Far East and waging war in Indochina—constituted a further fault line. After 1979, following the Iranian Revolution and the Soviet entry into Afghanistan—both the upshots of what one might call social fissures—American policy became, as she puts it, more confrontational; but the us still ‘lacked the military capacity to impose regional order on the Middle East’.
In energy terms, the 1970s and 80s brought ‘the age of oil and gas’. The high prices of the 70s helped draw in investment for new finds—Alaska, Mexico, Siberia, Kazakhstan. These developments, too, widened trans-Atlantic fissures. In Disorder’s telling, a Deutsche Bank-led German-Soviet consortium for the construction of a new gas pipeline from Siberia preceded the hardening of the Cold War under Reagan, who seized upon the 1981 declaration of martial law in Poland to slap tough sanctions on the European firms involved. In contrast to present-day attitudes, Thatcher’s Trade Secretary railed against this ‘unacceptable extension of American extraterritorial jurisdiction, in a way which is repugnant in international law.’ The Schmidt government insisted the pipeline would go ahead. The best deal that Washington could impose at the time was an agreement that only 30 per cent of European energy would come from the ussr.