On world stage, wealth can be a curse

Amity Shlaes

TEXT OF COMMENTARY

KAI RYSSDAL: This might've escaped your notice amid all the turmoil on Wall Street, but up on the east side of Manhattan today the U.N. General Assembly convened its annual session. There'll be a slew of speeches by a series of world leaders. And then the bickering will start. Commentator Amity Shlaes says the explanation for who's friendly with the U.S. at the United Nations -- and who's not -- is often economic.


AMITY SHLAES: Wealth is good, especially for developing nations. That used to be Econ 101. Discovering oil or diamonds helped move a country forward. Those resources made a nation richer and its diplomats friendlier. Only Marxists believed otherwise.

But maybe the Marxists are right. At least that's what we found at the Council on Foreign Relations. We ranked 120 or so countries by their oil wealth. Then we rated the countries by how often they voted with America on key issues in the U.N. We found that the oilier a country, the less friendly it was to the U.S. Think Venezuela, Algeria, Russia.

Try a thought experiment. Back in 1990, when the Cold War ended, Russia and India stood about equal chances of becoming U.S. allies. India had its tradition of feisty independence. Russia was turning Westward. Then the price of oil rose and the Kremlin backed away from the U.S. and the rest. Over time, Moscow tangled with Ukraine, and now the Russians are in this ugly conflict with Georgia.

India, by contrast, had no oil. Nor diamonds, like South Africa. Nor copper, like Chile. India became friendlier. The good news along the East River this week is that a U.S.-India nuclear deal seems to be moving forward. Russia seems to be a country that's creating geopolitical shocks. India seems to be a country that's absorbing them.

Where's the disconnect? It's the nature of commodity wealth. When there's a windfall, be it oil or diamonds, everyone in the country starts to fight over it. You get tragic, creepy situations like Sierra Leone. That's the country in the movie "Blood Diamond." When there's no windfall, people have to start devising opportunities. They have to turn to intellectual capital. We found that resource-poor countries tend to be hospitable to small business.

So wealth can be a curse, at least sometimes. And if Vladimir Putin suddenly starts looking like Hugo Chavez, don't be surprised. It's not the geography or the culture. It's the oil.

RYSSDAL: Amity Shlaes is a columnist for Bloomberg and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Her most recent book is called "The Forgotten Man."

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