Leif Wenar on the Resource Curse and Clean Trade

“Our moral situation is poor. The global market that sustains our lives is harmonized on a bad rule.”


Blood Oil by Leif Wenar (2016, Oxford University Press)


“Saddam, Gaddafi, Iran, Darfur, Putin, Al-Qaeda, ISIS” – this is how Professor Leif Wenar (@LeifWenar) describes the contents of his latest book Blood Oil: Tyrants, Violence, and the Rules that Run the World. The scholar, who holds the Chair of Philosophy and Law at the Dickson Poon School of Law at King’s College London, was trained in philosophy at Stanford and Harvard. He has worked in the United Kingdom since 1997 and is Visiting Professor and Visiting Fellow at several institutions in the English-speaking world. His opinion pieces are available on The New York Times, CNNThe Wall Street Journal and other places.

Blood Oil – which took eight years – is a rigorous investigation of what social scientists call the resource curse. Wikipedia defines the problem in these words:

The resource curse, also known as the paradox of plenty, refers to the paradox that countries with an abundance of natural resources, specifically non-renewable resources like minerals and fuels, tend to have less economic growth, less democracy, and worse development outcomes than countries with fewer natural resources. This is hypothesized to happen for many different reasons, and there are many academic debates about when and why it occurs. Most experts believe the resource curse is not universal or inevitable, but affects certain types of countries or regions under certain conditions.

Several countries of the Middle East, Africa and Asia that are rich in natural resources – oil, gems, metals – are afflicted with one or more of the following pathologies – authoritarianism, violence, civil war, radical gender inequality, lack of press freedom, poverty, weak healthcare and education systems. And this may exist alongside super-rich elites and well-equipped terrorist groups. From where do these strongmen and militiamen obtain their funds? Ultimately, from what the citizens of developed countries spend on automobile fuel, technological gadgets, jewellery…even toys, toiletries, clothes and food (substances derived from oil somehow make their way into almost every product on the shelves). As consumers purchase their everyday comfort, they are inadvertently putting cash into the pockets of some of the worst human rights violators of our time via a mind-boggingly complex network of global supply chains. The coercive and corrupt actors of resource-rich countries deliberately keep their local populations repressed. Unimaginable suffering and injustice persists at the first link of the supply chain – the extraction sites. The huge amount of money that resource-rich countries earn by exporting petroleum or metals or gems remains concentrated in the hands of a powerful minority. Much of it is invested in more bullets, bayonets and bombs. The men of blood, addicts of resource rents, are all about division. They divide their local populations, they are divided against the foreigners to whom they sell their products (time and again, you find them issuing threats and fiery speeches) and they also sow discord among those foreigners so that they remain divided against each other.

Leif Wenar looks into these issues in depth and calls for a moral revolution, which, he asserts, is as necessary and crucial as the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade, the liberation of the colonies and the banning of apartheid. For West-based policymakers and consumers, he proposes strategies through which the situation of repressed peoples can be improved and the global supply chains can be upgraded without being damagedBlood Oil, says the author, is, in a way, a journey like that of Dante Alighieri’s (1265-1321) Divine Comedy. It begins with an exhibition of hellish events and gradually shifts to a process of purgation.


Beginning with a fascinating overview of the situation, Blood Oil moves on to the first of its five parts. In I. Them vs. Them, we are taken straight to the extraction sites. Resource rents, we learn, do not always lead to pathologies. The influx of resource money can lead to spectacular economic growth. Certain resource-rich nations have been able to flourish in the recent past, among them Norway (oil), Chile (copper) and Botswana (diamonds). But a country is likely to benefit from exports only if its people were strong before the resource money started arriving. Bodies politic with a hardy constitution that had self-control ingrained in their civic character and possessed a strong culture of institutional accountability prior to business, have utilised the money earned wisely. Elsewhere, where people were weak, the start has been shaky; cruel rulers and rebels have risen quickly to divide and rule, divide and kill.

Corrupt actors gain control over the natural resources of their countries by physical force, they steal the property of their citizens. “Stolen” goods are exported abroad and are “legally” bought by shoppers. How is this possible? Wenar explains because of an old bad rule called “might makes right” (“the rule of effectiveness”, in legal language) – a fragment of pre-modern international law. “Might makes right” simply says that forceful possession leads to entitlement. It could be traced back to the Treaty of Westphalia (1648) enforced to contain the chaos which ensued in Europe after the fall of Christendom. Effectiveness – basically the jurisprudence of the jungle – was the primary rule of European international law from 1648 up till 1948, that is, when Westphalian ideas were replaced by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Today, in the realm of politics, coercive control of a territory or people no longer creates the right to rule over it/them. But in the field of natural resources, unfortunately, effectiveness continues and must be abolished. [II. Them vs. Us vs. Us and III. The People’s Rights].

In IV. Clean Trade, the author lays out feasible strategies to respond to the resource curse. First, he insists that developed countries simply get out of business with autocrats (before anyone calls this an impractical proposal it must be noted that blood-stained goods have been successfully boycotted by morally conscious consumers in the past despite great economic loss – in 1791, pamphlets were distributed in Britain which encouraged the public to stop using sugar produced by slaves in the Caribbean). But if Country A boycotts a blood-stained good, it may not directly lead to improved conditions for resource-diseased populations because an authoritarian can keep exporting their product to Country B and continue their reprehensible practices. What then? For that, Wenar recommends the formation of “Clean Hands Trusts”. Suppose America gets out of business with Equatorial Guinea but Equatorial Guinea continues to sell blood oil to China – what could America do in response? It can create a trust for the citizens of Equatorial Guinea “until a minimally accountable government is in place” in that country. Here’s how it will work: China buys blood oil worth $3 billion from Equatorial Guinea, America imposes duties on Chinese imports as they enter America. These duties will be collected in a bank account that, upon reaching $3 billion, will be directed towards Equatorial Guineans.

Because the resource curse is all about division, Wenar concludes his book with an ideal vision of “unity” and “universal love” (he draws upon the work of Immanuel Kant and John Stuart Mill) [V. All United]. Although this solution may seem a little mystical, states a review on Kirkus, it really is “quite hard-nosed”.


Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, has called Blood Oil “a courageous and forceful book…a serious and urgent appeal to the conscience of the West”. One Amazon reviewer has remarked that this book “is a lens” which “sharpens blurry thinking”. I agree with both these assessments. Blood Oil is very well researched and argued and is largely jargon-free. There is a strong practical side to the project as well. Wenar has launched a website called Clean Trade (www.cleantrade.org) – “a non-partisan campaign to change the law that forces all of us to fund repression, conflict and extremism when we shop” – in which anyone can participate. It is also worth noting that a former student of the author’s, New York-based Cynthia Salim (@CynthiaSalimNYC), has started a brand of luxury women’s professional wear called Citizen’s Mark which is dedicated to operating on a responsible supply chain. Finally, Blood Oil demonstrates the importance of philosophy and philosophers. We live in a time of much philosophy-bashing – scientists arrogantly keep declaring the death of the discipline and politicians blithely mock it as a useless pursuit. After reading this book, people of such persuasions may want to revise their opinions.


I found the arguments pretty solid. The author wisely anticipates and addresses every possible objection. There is only a little technical issue – some may find the prose a little repetitive.


A terrific book that deserves wide readership going way beyond energy strategists, government officials and lawyers. I would easily rate it 9.5/10.


Additional Resources: Leif Wenar: Oil: Power, Conflict and Trade in a Natural Resource by World Council Affairs, Blood Oil: Author Lecture with Leif Wenar | Global Voices Lectures, Conferences, Film Series by International House UChicago, Blood Oil: tyrants, violence and the rules that run the world by the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) and Leif Wenar – Blood Oil by talkingsticktv.

Featured Image Credit: Pixabay


Preview Blood Oil: Tyrants, Violence, and the Rules that Run the World by Leif Wenar.


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