How Politics Make for Strange “Oil Fellows” – Part I
I have decided to write a long prelude today to a discussion that will conclude in the next edition of Oil & Energy Investor. There is something quite significant afoot. But in the process of describing what is happening now, I need to travel back, first personally some several decades, and then over a century earlier in literature.
When you read this I happen to be in Europe on one of those new high-speed trains. The conveyance may be a recent change, but the terrain whisking by my window is only too well remembered from an earlier life. This had at one time been a quite personal stage for some very high-risk objectives.
So bear with me as I ruminate about matters a long time coming.
We all arrive of age in different ways. In my case, it was a multi-decade conflict that thrust me into a game of shadows on one continent only to carry me on to several others. It leaves a mark, one that takes some time to understand (or perhaps, more accurately, simply to accept).
How the Cold War Defined Me
It often helps to have a sounding board. In my case, it is what my wife Marina would call my “day job.” During almost four decades as a university professor I would upon occasion ask students to consider how war defined experience and identity.
Infrequently, they would consider Iraq or the “war on terror” as the conflict of their generation. But for the majority, it was a rather alien concept. War does not have the same hold on molding perspective that it used to.
So I would ask them how war had impacted other members of their families. At that point, the differences in generations would immediately surface. Many would recognize how World War II or Korea was the defining moment for their grandfathers, while Vietnam had the same hold on some of their fathers (either halfway around the world in the killing fields or at home in protest).
When it came to be my turn – for I would always accept personally the same obligations placed upon my students – the answer given was not one they were expecting. How could they without having lived it?
For me, the war that galvanized my global perspective, animated my early career, and permeated my day-to-day life was the Cold War. It engulfed my waking hours and crept into whatever sleep was possible.
As a practitioner, it gripped my psyche the way nothing else could. It was an unending wave of event and attribution, of denial and deception. Errors of judgment brought us closer to the edge while successes or even mistakes in analysis somehow managed to save us (on this last one, there is a long discussion warranted about what actually happened during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis or the 1976-1978 breakdown of back-channel intelligence communications leading to a blood bath in Vienna, but these are best left for another time).
Throughout a half-century those of us who entered a certain craft at various points shared a common purpose with those in all other points of a defining epoch. We woke up each morning knowing our adversary and our task.
The Personal Costs of the Cold War
Unfortunately, only later do you recognize the mania, callousness, and frequent inhumanity of it all. It was a genuine test of survival, but one that also appeared to be without the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel.
What it did provide was tunnel vision, dulling the usual perception of right and wrong in the process. Wars, cold or hot, are never noble in that regard. They do provide an intense focus rarely achieved elsewhere. Unfortunately, there is also a major downside.
You cannot unbury the dead.
The front lines of the Cold War eroded connection with “average folks,” made friendships outside “the club” impossible, distanced relatives, ended marriages, and brought some to alcoholism, others to a strait jacket, always slowly eroding the normal balance of living.
Over drinks more than a decade ago, former MI6 (British intelligence) officer David J. M. Cornwell well described the experience as 90% boredom punctuated by 10% of pure terror. You may know this fellow better by his pen name – John le Carré.
Well, it is back.
The New Cold War
A renewed Cold War is upon us. Even with the addition of new players like ISIS, Iran, the morphing al-Qaeda, and a rising China, the old conflict has resurfaced and the primary adversaries remain the same.
Welcome to U.S. vs. Russia, round two.
The rhetoric and actions emanating from Washington and Moscow are troublingly familiar. The weapons of this contest have changed, and the objectives at least initially may be more limited, but the hallmarks are the same.
Closing my eyes on this train speeding through the countryside, I am back in the early 1980s.
Yet something interesting has emerged, literally in the last week or so. It is where we are ultimately heading in this long prelude. However, to introduce this new wrinkle I need to bring you back even further.
Old Adages Still Ring True
The 19th-century essayist Charles Dudley Warner and his more famous Hartford neighbor Mark Twain jointly authored The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today in 1873.
I have always thought the novel overly long and pedantic. Despite its more than 100 printings in over a century, The Gilded Age is not regarded as one of Twain’s more memorable works. This despite having a very unusual conclusion: The authors in their own voices apologize to the reader for not being able to figure out an ending for some of the plot elements!
Nonetheless, the novel does have some interesting elements to it. For one thing, it marked the first time the term “Gilded Age” was used to describe the period of unusual speculation and intense pursuit of wealth ushered in by the end of the Civil War. Ultimately, history would close that period with the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt and the rise of Progressivism early in the 20th century.
For another, the excess and extravagance of the age (gilding gold to overlay more gold, for example) continue to serve as peculiar parallels to some aspects of our time. For example, a particularly inept businessman in the novel is left virtually destitute early on only to appear several hundred pages later (this is a long novel) as the epitome of wealth.
His explanation for the “turnaround” reflects the approach to certain financial institutions at the height of our recent credit crunch. It seems he owed so much money that banks could not allow him to fail.
The Origin of “Politics Makes for Strange Bedfellows”
Well, Warner may have been overshadowed by his friend across the backyard fence, but he was quite a word architect in his own right, coining some of the most famous phrases in American writing.
Even if Mark Twain would upon occasion poach them. “Everybody talks about the weather but nobody does anything about it” is a good case in point. Warner had written the maxim in a newspaper editorial several years before it was purloined by Twain.
Anyway, it is another (and arguably more famous) phrase that is behind the title of today’s Oil & Energy Investor as well as our next issue. In a series of 1870 essays by Warner appears the following:
“Politics makes for strange bedfellows.”
These days the media would assume it referred to some politician’s sexual misadventures. However, Warner was referring to the lack of adequate 19th-century lodgings when events obliged opportunists from across the political spectrum to descend upon the same location.
The promise inherent in the situation advised one to overlook the politics of those with whom a traveler needed to share a bed. The phrase has come to represent mutual interest trumping ideological or partisan difference.
New Allies Turning the Tables Against OPEC
And that finally sets the stage for a curious development under way in global oil (now that’s a segue actually bridging the centuries).
You see, today’s Cold War warriors have found it necessary to work together in a common initiative addressing the oil market. Here, the soundness of two major economies hangs in the balance, as alliances shift in the defense of tax dollars, employment, and domestic industry.
The U.S. and Russia are now beginning to turn the tables on OPEC and have started to structure a common way of doing it.
The ongoing Cold War can wait a bit when budgets need balancing. We will explore what is happening here with these “bedfellows” next time.