The Cocoa Exchange on Wall Street, a highrise built in the early twentieth century, is now dwarfed by characterless towers containing offices of the world's biggest trading institutions. The building's name is as surprising as its quaint, ornate appearance. Who would have thought cocoa once merited a skyscraper of its own in the world's financial capital? Despite the millions of chocolate addicts across the world (I can be counted among them), cocoa does not figure in our imagination today as a crucial driver of the world's economy. When the French military participates in a UN backed operation in Ivory Coast, we do not cynically dismiss it by saying, "It's a conspiracy to control the world's chocolate, led by France whose culinary industry depends heavily on the commodity." Few politicians will lose votes because Easter eggs are dearer this year than they were in 2010.
Cocoa was first grown and consumed in Mexico, but it was Europeans who discovered it combined well with sugar, and encouraged its cultivation in West Africa, where climate and soil proved excellently suited to producing richly flavoured chocolate. It was, along with sugar, tea and fruit, among the foodstuffs that transformed nations and inspired wars and revolutions in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. By 'fruit', I'm referring particularly to bananas, historically associated with economic relations defined as 'neo-colonial', implying indirect control of a developing nation's resources by rich countries through the mediation of private industry. The history of the United Fruit company is well-known, not least because the firm carried out a massacre of striking workers in Aracataca, Colombia, (the very name sounds like machine-gun fire) that was later immortalized in fiction by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who was born in Aracataca in 1928, the year of the massacre. To facilitate the operations of firms like United Fruit, the United States for decades supported right-wing authoritarian regimes in Latin America. Small nations in this region prone to eccentric dictatorial rule came to be called banana republics, even in cases where they grew few bananas. That period is, thankfully, over. Colombia is not associated with United Fruit and bananas any more. Unfortunately, it is now associated with cocaine, but that's a different story.
If the West covertly and overtly supported friendly tinpot dictators in Latin America, the same was true elsewhere in the world, notably in West Asia. The overthrow of Mohammad Mossadegh's democratically elected government in Iran in 1953, because he believed Iranians ought to control their own oil, was only the most glaring of a series of Western interventions in that highly inflammable part of the world. The tide of history, though, was against neo-colonialists; regimes across the globe took over their own natural resources, and the United States and Britain ceased to control oil reserves in the Persian Gulf in any meaningful way. The impression remained, though, that any military adventure undertaken by the West in that area was concerned mainly with gaining or retaining control of the precious fluid. When Saddam Hussein was ousted from Kuwait, the chorus rose, "Would George Bush have taken such an interest had Kuwait not been swimming in oil?" What the question failed to comprehend was that Saddam Hussein would not have overrun Kuwait in the first place, had that nation not been rich in oil. He would not have grabbed a piece of Iran, had oil been taken out of the equation. He would not have faced such a well equipped adversary, had Iran not also had massive petroleum reserves. Oil wealth allows dictators to follow through on their dreams and delusions of grandeur, enhancing the odds of conflict with other nations. The leader of a country with an economy dependent on cocoa is hardly likely fund militants in Europe the way Muammar Gaddafi once did. NATO-member led assaults in poor nations typically aim to sort out civil wars, but because oil-rich countries project their power on the global stage, wars within such nations also have a global resonance. Another factor that differentiates Western interventions in oil producers like Iraq and Libya from those in poorer places like Somalia, Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast is that the former tend to give rise to stable regimes backed by strong military hardware. The wars against such regimes, therefore, have more shock and awe involved, enhancing their scale and newsworthiness.
So, while it is accurate that the war for Kuwait in 1991 was 'about oil', the role of the commodity should be viewed in a context wider than the one created by the history of neo-colonialism. If one were to enumerate military interventions by NATO countries since the end of the Cold War, it would be hard to correlate frequency of conflict with the existence of oil reserves. The fact is that wars in oil producing countries typically result in a spike in petroleum prices, both because of a dip in production in the affected nation and because, as the cliché goes, markets hate uncertainty. Rising oil prices have a deeply negative political impact. The cynical and pragmatic strategy for any nation, then, would be to collaborate with whatever government is in place and do one's best to shore it up. That's the strategy the perfectly pragmatic Chinese have adopted: it doesn't matter if a regime is black or white as long as it delivers oil. Conversely, it is far from clear that choosing battle over placation has been good for the American economy. After all, after fighting and winning two wars against Saddam Hussein and overthrowing his regime, the United States had virtually no leverage over Iraq's oil wealth and what that nation chooses to do with it. The same will be the case at the end of the current clash in Libya, no matter what the outcome.
Girish Shahane is a Mumbai-based freelance journalist. He writes the blog Shoot First, Mumble Later.