The OPEC cartel that meets in Vienna today has thrived in its 50-year history. First ignored, then despised for using the "oil weapon" on the West, and ultimately granted a strange legitimacy due to age, it has assumed all the trappings of an international organization. This week's meeting of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad 's Iran, Muammar Gaddafi's Libya and Hugo Chavez' Venezuela to fix quotas, for example, will take place not in Gaddafi's tent but in a sumptuous building on the Helferstorferstrase in Vienna. Press is likely to report not on why oil prices are set by a cartel of the world's worst leaders but rather on whether oil quotas are modestly adjusted to cover wells out of order since the Libyan revolt
Unfortunately, the cartel's victims have not fared as well. OPEC has over the last century engineered a massive transfer of wealth from the rest of the world to its rulers. At key junctures, it has used the "oil weapon" to destabilize the global economy as with the 1970s oil shocks, the 1980s debt crisis triggered by soaring oil bills and the 2008 financial collapse (when it cut quotas with prices over $100). Less well known is the role of oil price spikes in stoking misery and instability in developing countries. The final victims have been the people of the oil states themselves who have not shared in the wealth enjoyed by a few while seeing democracy pushed indefinitely into the future.
Adam Smith famously observed "Seldom do businessmen of the same trade get together but that it results in some detriment to the general public." Based on a long history of economic study, today cartels are illegal in virtually all developed countries. The question with OPEC, therefore, is not why it is bad but why has it survived. During the first Gulf war in 1991, the US and its allies saved Saudi Arabia, liberated Kuwait and dictated peace terms to Iraq. Yet after the war, all three countries continued as prominent OPEC members. In 2002 we invaded Iraq again, this time overthrowing Saddam Hussein. But rather than insisting that Iraq leave OPEC, the United States actually became a de facto OPEC member through the provisional Iraq authority.
The superficial answer to this question of why OPEC has persisted is it has successfully claimed sovereign immunity. Unlike a private cartel -- hundreds of which have been prosecuted by the Justice Department since 1990, OPEC is comprised of governments that happen to set quotas for oil. But this argument is weak. The 1976 Foreign Sovereign Immunity Act contains an exception to immunity in the case of governments engaging in commercial activities. The real reason that OPEC has survived is a lack of US resolve to break it up. In 2007 and 2008, the House and Senate passed legislation that would have forced the Justice Department to go after OPEC. However, a veto threat from President Bush prevented final passage of the legislation.
There is an equally strong case for trade action against OPEC, made compelling by Senator Frank Lautenberg. The WTO unequivocally prohibits quota-based cartels except in the rare case of conserving resources or national security and of the 12 OPEC members, five are WTO members and 3, observers. Yet to date, the US Trade Representative has not filed an action.
These tools alone might suffice to end OPEC. But the ratcheting up of US engagement in the region recently creates a new opportunity to break the cartel.
The Middle East -- the geographic center of OPEC -- is clearly undergoing fundamental change. Not only, of course, did the US midwife democracy in Iraq, we remain the guarantor of security of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE, and are now also supporting the rebels in Libya. The expanded US and EU role in the region provides an opportunity to make a simple case to all parties. US and more broadly EU support must be contingent on a timeline for withdrawal from OPEC.
In short, the conditions exist to end OPEC. We only need resolve. Here is a plan forward. By July 4th, Congress should pass legislation revising the FSIA to strip OPEC of any hint of sovereign immunity. The US Trade Representative should immediately begin studying action against the OPEC countries in the WTO. The Obama Administration should make it clear to parties we aid in the Middle East they need to plan to transition out of OPEC. We can end OPEC but only if we act. Time is of the essence due to the tenuous state of the global recovery.