Category Archives: Guest Post

Guest Blog: ‘Oil Imperialism? Energy and Political Power from a Global Perspective’

Our guest blog-post this week comes from Gemma Jennings, an AHRC-M3C funded PhD student in History here at the Centre for Modern & Contemporary History. Gemma’s research examines the impact of the oil industry on gender relations and social structures, adopting a transnational approach focused on Algerian oil, tracing the impacts of this sector through space.

Below she reports on an important recent conference at the crossroads of global, political and environmental historiographies. Thanks Gemma!

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Image: An oil pump at sunset, source.

Conference report: ‘Oil Imperialism? Energy and Political Power from a Global Perspective’ (4-5 November 2016, Paris-Sorbonne).

Emerging as a uniquely valuable commodity in World War One, oil has become one of the world’s most sought after resources, with the global struggles for control of oil reserves widely researched and debated. In these discussions, both within and beyond academic circles, the notion of a new, contemporary form of imperialism, that of ‘oil imperialism’, is frequently invoked. However, scholars have yet to offer a clear definition or theoretical framework for research discussing this conceptualisation. This conference sought to address this ambiguity, exploring a range of historical episodes in which the apparent operation of ‘oil imperialism’ has been identified, attempting to both define the term and interrogate whether the concept could be employed as a useful category of analysis.

Panel One examined oil in the context of empire and international relations. GUILLEMETTE CROUZET (Geneva) presented on the British oil concession in Bakhtiaristan in the early twentieth century, arguing that oil companies operated as ‘agents of imperialism’. The paper illustrated how the policies of these companies created an area that was governed by capitalism and oil technopolitics, transforming local people from ‘dangerous’ tribes into colonial subjects through their employment within the oil labour force. BENJAMIN BENGOBEYI’s (University Paris I-Panthéon Sorbonne) paper, in contrast, elucidated how oil exporting countries have been able to use their oil reserves to counter perceived imperialistic projects, through an examination of Iraq’s approach to the implementation of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries’ (OPEC) oil embargo against Israel and its allies in response to the Yom Kippur War.  VICTOR McFARLAND (University of Missouri), likewise examined international politics in the Middle East, examining the U.S. role in the Persian Gulf in the 1970s, exploring the motivations for and limitations of the American military presence in the region, particularly highlighting the dependence on local partners acting as hosts for the American military. The final paper of the panel, presented by EMILY MEIRDING (U.S. Naval Postgraduate School), returned to British oil interests, interrogating the prevailing premise that the British involvement in the Falklands War was motivated by an attempt to control the Falklands oil reserves. In elucidating the lack of evidence to support this supposition, and highlighting that, conversely, Britain had no interest in this oil, the paper both countered the conception of the conflict as an ‘oil war’ and highlighted the significant influence of  ‘oil imperialism’, as a presumed ubiquity, both among contemporary actors as well as in historical accounts.

The second panel focused on the operation of national and multinational oil companies. MARTA MUSSO’s (European University Institute) paper illuminated the divergent policies pursued by French and Italian oil companies, faced with British and American domination of the industry. The work highlighted a rhetoric that posited these companies outside of and in opposition to Anglo-Saxon ‘imperial’ projects to gain access to oil. TOURAJ ATABAKI (Leiden University) then examined the labour policies in the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, arguing that the crucial role of oil workers to the British war effort, as well as the chronic scarcity of labour in the area, facilitated an entry into the political sphere through trade unions and strikes in oil refineries, ultimately developing political citizens whose actions could affect world politics. KEVIN WUNSTHORN (University Paris I-Panthéon Sorbonne) closed the panel with an examination of the tensions between French and Anglo-Saxon oil companies within the context of the Iraq Petroleum Company, examining the divergent aims of the Compagnie Française des Pétroles and its Anglo-Saxon counterparts, and the counter measures taken by the French government to promote its interests in the area.

Day one ended with a keynote address from MYRNA SANTIAGO (Saint Mary’s College), which tracked the development of critiques of oil companies operating in South America, evolving from labour force action and nationalist claims to include wider environmentalist concerns, questioning the notion of oil extraction itself. The argument highlighted that anti-imperialist discourse was a central platform of these movements, noting as one example, that industrial action by oil workers lost much of its status and influence following nationalisation.

The second day of the conference opened with a panel on oil, anti-imperialism and decolonisation. GIULIANO GARAVINI’s (New York University Abu Dhabi) paper examined the formation, aims and actions of OPEC, arguing that in its opposition to former colonisers attempting to protect their interests within oil exporting countries, the organisation embodied the international dimension of anti-colonialism.  ELISABETTA BINI (University of Trieste) adopted a different approach, focusing on the oil workers of Libya from 1960-1980, outlining how the industrial action of these workers challenged the discriminatory policies of American oil companies. PHILIPPE TRISTANI (Agrégé d’histoire, Sorbonne University) then traced how the Iraqi government, despite western opposition, nationalised its oil, arguing that this played a key role in a global ‘décolonisation pétrolière’, mobilising other oil producing countries to nationalise their own industries. KATAYOUN SHAFIEE (UCL London, Centre for Advanced Studies), in contrast, explored strategies employed by oil importers to manage nationalisation, through an examination of the British appeal to international law against the nationalisation of the Iranian oil industry. The presentation argued that, despite the final verdict linking permanent sovereignty to control over natural resources, the strategy of temporisation enabled the British government resolve the crisis to its own advantage.

The final panel of the conference looked at oil companies, the state, and the future of oil imperialism, opening with DUCCIO BASOSI’s (Ca’ Foscari University, Venice) paper, which argued that the 1970s  ‘petrodollar recycling’[1] constituted a form of imperialism, due to its direct relationship with the development of an ‘imperial’, globally used, dollar in the 1970s and 1980s. FRANCESCO PETRINI (University of Padua) examined the history of agreements and compromises between oil companies and the U.S. government, arguing that by conflating public interest with the success of their companies, oil businesses were able to leverage deals that tended to favour their interests over those of the state. In the final paper of the day, SIMONE SELVA (University “L’Orientale”, Naples), illuminated how Iranian oil revenues reshaped international capital markets, changing the role of American banks into intermediaries for Iranian international investments.

VICTOR McFARLAND (University of Missouri) concluded the conference, outlining that although the range of papers had elucidated the development of ‘oil imperialism’ as a powerful concept in contemporary and historical discourse, the conference had not produced a clear definition of the term, primarily due to its more empirical focus. The geographic delimitation of the conference was discussed, noting that papers had primarily concentrated on oil producers in the Middle East and South America, as well as foregrounding the relationships between western (primarily America and Britain) and producing countries, with less consideration of the broader range of international connections. Finally, the current lack of ‘histories from below’ in this field was discussed, underlining the focus, both at the conference and in wider literature on high politics and economics of the oil industry, highlighting the need to build on and expand the limited studies concerned with individuals and communities directly affected by the industry.

Conference Details

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Guest Post: Performing a State in Occupied Iraq 2003-2006

Our guest post this week is reposted by kind permission of the author, Dr. Nida Alahmad, who holds Marie Sklodowska-Curie grant No 658988 PS-IRAQ at the Middle East and North Africa Research Group (MENARG) at the Department of Conflict and Development Studies, Ghent University, Belgium. The original post can be found at the ‘Performing a State’ blog here. A more elaborate discussion of the question will appear in Nida Alahmad, “Illuminating a State: Statebuilding and Electricity in Occupied Iraq,” Humanity Journal 8, no. 1 (2017).

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The Iraqi state was the focus of a major American engineering project that failed, leading to a civil war in 2006. The US occupied Iraq in May 2003 aiming to radically reshape the country into a liberal democracy. This was to be done mainly through re-engineering state institutions and re-defining their functions in a process that is often designated as “statebuilding.” Over the span of thirteen months the Coalitional Provisional Authority issued sweeping orders and launched projects to implement its radical vision. In August 2003 an insurgency irrupted and spread across the country. Shortly after the transfer of sovereignty from the CPA to an Iraqi interim government in June 2004, Iraq witnessed the first civil war since its establishment in 1920. Many state-building experts declared post-occupation Iraq a fragile or failed state. With the rise of the Islamic State in northern and western Iraq in 2014, Iraq is facing renewed threats of civil war and possible partition, indicating a definite failure of the state-building project.

This failure has prompted criticism from various directions. Scholars have treated the US project and its failure as the outcomes of an imperialist project;or an ambitious implementation of the so-called Liberal Peace paradigm; or as a failure that could have been avoided given better policies. These critiques are important. They help up see the practical and normative problems of intervention. At the same time, they tend to starts from the presupposition that these interventions are external to the political field upon which they act. Treating these interventions as external (either as an imposition or as welcome intervention—both distinctions are mostly normative) reifies their self-representation as a body of expertise that is autonomous from the objects of intervention.

My research project is not interested in asking how the American statebuilding project in Iraq could (or could not) have worked. Instead, it takes as a starting point that once an intervention occurs, it becomes part of the landscape that it attempts to change. In other words, whether or not it succeeds in changing the object of intervention into a particular form, once an intervention takes place it can no longer be treated as an external element. This research project is an inquiry into the performative nature of statebuilding: how is the state (as an object of intervention) conceived, identified, quantified and acted upon in the production of knowledge about intervention and during the intervention itself? How does the act of intervention and the knowledge that informs it become part of the reality such intervention seeks to amend?

There are different ways to approach the investigation of a failed statebuilding project. We could ask, how it could have been better? Or, why did it fail? Or, could it ever have worked? Or, which is what this project is interested in: how did it materialize itself and its object on the ground? Which set of questions we choose to ask depend on what is it that we try to understand, or in some cases, predict.

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“Middle East-ness”: (Auto)-Mobility, Synecdoche and the Region

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Kurtulus, Istanbul, August 2015. Photo courtesy Sam Dolbee

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This week’s guest post emerges from a Modern & Contemporary History Workshop held in November 2015, and also looks ahead to a major conference scheduled for June 2016 at the Institute for Advanced Studies, on the Middle East in the Age of Speed. Our guest is Sam Dolbee.

Sam is a fifth year student in the joint program in Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies and History at NYU. His dissertation explores the environmental history of the end of empire by following locusts, cholera, and tribes as they moved from the Ottoman Empire into the post-Ottoman nation-states of Iraq, Syria, and Turkey.

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Some three months after the Centre for Modern & Contemporary’s foundational workshop on this topic, and with a view to the upcoming ‘Global Middle East in the Age of Speed’ conference in June, here are some thoughts and questions on the categories in play: first the global Middle East and then (auto)mobility.

 

Back in November, as discussions of Cairo/Beirut gave way to discussions of the Middle East /Europe, I wondered what might get lost when we scale up conversations in a way such that Cairo, for example, stands for the entire Middle East. Surely there ought to be a way to move beyond Eurocentric narratives and promote comparative work without resorting to reductive typologies. So what does synecdoche – the part representing the whole – expose and what does it obscure? Put differently, what holds together the Middle East as an analytic category when it is characterized by such tremendous diversity? Ought we be thinking of Cairo and Riyadh and Beirut together so much as Cairo and Mumbai, Riyadh and Las Vegas, Beirut and Belfast? And ought we be thinking of the spaces in between these car-clogged metropolises? How does rural space figure into these processes?

 

On another level, we might even ask how synecdoche acted as a historic process. Because even if the Middle East’s coherence breaks down upon close inspection, the region as an entity has nonetheless loomed large in the minds of world policy makers, corporations, and the region’s residents for a good century now. Indeed, the term is not simply an abstract Eurocentric reflection of early twentieth-century geopolitics but a category shaping everyday possibility. As On Barak has shown, the infrastructure of the Middle East today bears the imprint of having been defined as “the Middle East” in that colonial moment. For Barak, this enmeshing of geopolitical structures and infrastructures informs his claim that “England and India were officially hyphenated by Egypt.” So rather than using the “region” as an analytic, we might use it as an object of analysis in its own right, by asking how corporate, state, or non-governmental organizations might have relied on ideas of the Middle East as a coherent cultural or economic zone to promote cars. And how might these strategies – rather than or in addition to a priori regional coherence – have reified or transfigured Middle East-ness?

 

Second, just as we ought to be careful in invoking the term Middle East, we might do well to explore automobility in terms of longer historical patterns, too. What did notions of mobility look like before cars and to what extent did they leave traces the period of automobility? After all, as Frédéric Abécassis’s presentation at the first workshop nicely demonstrated, automobiles did not – and have not – cleanly displaced animal-powered forms of transportation. And when it comes to horsepower coinciding with horse power, here, too, Barak provides an instructive example. Observing how economic changes catalyzed by rails necessitated more camels to carry goods to those rails, Barak writes, “Put plainly, Egyptian trains could not run without camels.” In these hybrid worlds where fossil-fuel consumption begot intensive reliance on animal-power, the hegemony of the car might have seemed far from clear.

 

Questions of scale and analytic focus, of course, loom in any scholarly endeavor. The fact that these sorts of questions emerged from the first gathering of the conference points to exciting possibilities for how, as the second conference approaches, the study of (auto)mobility in the global Middle East might involve rethinking what we mean by the Middle East and mobility in the first place.

 

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The Global Transformation of Time: 1870 – 1950

This week’s guest post comes from our Modern & Contemporary research seminar speaker, Vanessa Ogle (University of Pennsylvania), who will present her work at the Centre on Wednesday 21 October at 16:15h.

Cover of William Willett’s pamphlet “The Waste of Daylight” 1914. Courtesy, Vanessa Ogle.

Cover of William Willett’s pamphlet “The Waste of Daylight” 1914. Courtesy, Vanessa Ogle.

As new networks of railways, steamships, and telegraph communications brought distant places into unprecedented proximity, previously minor discrepancies in local time-telling became a global problem. In my forthcoming book, The Global Transformation of Time, I chronicle of the struggle to standardize clock times, calendars, and social time from 1870 to 1950 and highlight the many hurdles that proponents of uniformity faced in establishing international standards.

Yet clock times and calendars were not only concepts that were standardized and internationalized during the nineteenth century, like so many other subject matters and movements during the same years. Time also had a more foundational role to play in nineteenth-century globalization. A globalizing world led contemporaries to reflect on the annihilation of space and distance and to develop a global consciousness.

In his famous Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson argued that print products and newspapers in particular, made it possible for dispersed audiences to conceive of themselves as belonging to the imagined community of a nation. Yet what Anderson did not see was that new means of communication and transportation encouraged contemporaries to imagine their nations and societies in the world, and to view them as members of a global community of nations and societies.

Time – historical, evolutionary, religious, social, or legal – served as the backdrop against which to imagine this global community, by comparing nations and societies and situating them in universal time. Time established the hierarchies that separated ‘advanced’ from ‘backward’ peoples in an age when such distinctions underwrote European imperialism.

Time thus became a universal language in which to make sense of an interconnected but heterogeneous world during the age of empire. Time’s role as such a universal metric meant that a surprisingly wide array of observers commented on varieties of time. Around 1900, the result was a striking simultaneity of ‘time talk’ around the globe. Involving German and French government officials, British social reformers, colonial administrators in Africa and Asia, Indian nationalists, Arab reformers, Muslim scholars, and League of Nation bureaucrats, such exchanges about time often heightened national and regional disparity.

For several decades, countrywide mean times were introduced first and foremost with national and regional concerns in mind. Germany introduced GMT+1 as “Central European Time” – Mitteleuropäische Zeit. “Mitteleuropa” was a designation drawn from the emerging discipline of geopolitics and denoted Germany’s ‘middling’ position on the continent as covering, at least in aspiration, much of the space between France in the West and Russia in the East.

In the colonial world, mean times were applied late and often designed for regional purposes. Half-, quarter, and even twenty-minute differences rather than even hours were therefore the norm rather than the exception. The standardization of clock times hence remained incomplete as late as the 1940s, about sixty years later than normally assumed. The much sought-after unification of calendars, entirely overlooked by existing research, never came to pass.

The Global Transformation of Time reveals how globalization was less a relentlessly homogenizing force than a slow and uneven process of adoption and adaptation that often accentuated national differences.

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Writing the History of Food Security since 1945

This week’s guest post comes from Dr. Silvia Salvatici, Associate Professor of Contemporary History at the University of Milan. She writes on post-war societies, women refugees, gender and human rights, and European displaced persons in the aftermath of WWII.

Here she introduces some new research on the history of global food security, a topic connected to the Modern & Contemporary History Centre’s upcoming winter roundtable, on 4 December, on the theme “Disentangling the World: The Politics of Autarky after the First World War“.

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Writing the History of Food Security since 1945

DP children in Rosenheim, Germany, 1946, pictured before beginning their evening meal. National Archives and Records Administration, USA, 260-MGG-1062-08. Photo courtesy of Silvia Salvatici.

 

Silvia Salvatici (Università di Milano)

In 1993 the authors of a bibliographic survey conducted for the Institute of Development Studies noted that in the literature “there is no single definition” of food security “but rather a complex weave of inter-related strands, which are adjusted to suit the needs and priority of individual users”[1]. More than twenty years later, this assertion still seems to hold true, in spite of a proliferation of studies that have opened up specific areas of research across a variety of disciplines linking food security to processes of globalization, environmental issues, human rights and individual crisis regions.

The absence of any “single definition” and the presence of different sets of “priorities of individual users” reveal how varied and complex the scholarship is, but they also provide an important opportunity to historians seeking to interpret the measures deployed in the past to combat hunger and malnutrition. The expression “food security” itself, for example, entered current usage in the early nineteen seventies, when the international community was forced to deal with an unexpected dearth of agricultural products on markets and a food crisis afflicting the world’s poorest regions.

In recent years historical studies have been mainly concerned with the meanings attributed to the idea of food security – even if this wasn’t always the expression used – and on how those attributed meanings led to initiatives to alleviate food insecurity. Adopting a variety of perspectives and chronologies, such studies have drawn attention to the many different players and principles involved in determining food needs and the measures aimed at satisfying them.

One of the main streams of scholarship has viewed food security as a matter for global governance and it has looked at the role assumed by international organizations in this regard. In line with this approach, a number of studies have identified the period following the Second World War as a transitional phase, when food security began to be addressed as a separate issue within the United Nations with the setting up of the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO, 1945) and later the World Food Programme (WFP, 1961). The end of the Second World War has, thus, come to be seen as the beginning of a period that ushered in contemporary food policies. How these policies subsequently unfolded has itself now become a topic of special interest for scholars.

Accordingly, the articles of a recent special issue of the journal Contemporanea: Rivista di storia dell’800 e del ‘900 devoted to “Food Security in the Contemporary World” all focus on global food policies during the second half of the twentieth century[2]. They analyze the institutional framework represented by the United Nations, the ideology of development, and the role of food security in international relations as connecting threads during the decades that followed the end of the Second World War.

However, like many recent studies, this special issue considers 1945 less as a departure point and more as a pivot that needs to be contextualized within a longer chronology, including both the interwar years and the time after the Second World War. In fact, an important cluster of studies has emphasized how the idea endorsed by the United Nations – that food security was a matter for concerted global governance – was already visible in the earlier activities of the League of Nations.

Studying food security as a matter for global governance allows us to trace extended chronologies and identify new turning points, and to this end the history of international organizations (IOs) can offer useful insights. However, the essays in the special issue of Contemporanea show how the role of international organizations can only be fully grasped by looking closely not just at IOs themselves, but at the many players – national governments, non-state actors, experts – who were involved in designing and implementing measures against hunger and malnutrition. This cluster of studies provides a compelling picture of the current state of the research and it also suggests, we hope, new areas that modern and contemporary historians might begin to explore.

[1] M. Smith, M., J. Pointing, and S. Maxwell, Household Food Security: Concepts and Definitions. An annotated Bibliography, Brighton, Institute of Development Studies, 1993, p. 136.

[2] “Food Security in the Contemporary World”, special issue of Contemporanea. Rivista di storia dell’800 e del ‘900, essays of Heike Wieters, Silvia Inaudi, Elisa Grandi, Ruth Jachertz, Alana Mann https://www.rivisteweb.it/issn/1127-3070

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