Today I Found My Enemies; They’re in My Head

Spencer Ackerman recommended this post on lithium from CNAS’ “natural security” blog. I enjoyed parts of it, but this leapt out at me as a red flag:

But going forward, the center of lithium influence is likely to shift to Bolivia, since vast reserves lie beneath its Salar de Uyuni salt flats. For the United States, this could be a problem: the Morales government remains hostile to U.S. concerns, and there is potential for instability given serious rifts in Bolivian politics.

This mostly strikes me as an example of how the American foreign policy establishment’s ability to gin up “threats” to our national security is really impressive, and paranoia will be a renewal resource in our political discourse for the foreseeable future. Tom Lee informs me that this account is wrong in several technical aspects but even if it is this kind of “war for lithium” thinking is misguided.


Probably the best case for why it’s misguided is to just remind everyone about the Hugo Chavez experience. Venezuela controls lots of oil. Oil is a valuable resource. Not only does America use a lot of oil, but we really use a uniquely large amount of oil. And Chavez is hostile to US concerns. In the current parlance, he’s “anti-American.” And he’s got us over the barrel!

Except . . . he doesn’t. What happens is that at the margin Americans have lots of money and want more oil whereas Venezuela has lots of oil and wants more money so in exchange for money we get oil from Venezuela. It’ll be just the same with Evo Morales and his lithium. If US firms and consumers want lithium, they’ll have to pay money to the people who own it. But if the world’s largest lithium reserves were in Italy or Iceland or Ireland or Illinois it would still be the same — people who want access to lithium ore will need to pay money to the people who control it. Ownership of natural resources is useful insofar as it helps you get money. But developing countries whose economies depend on exporting natural resources need their customers more than we need them (if Iran stopped exporting oil it’d be a disaster for the US but a much bigger disaster for Iran) and it’s in everyone’s interests to keep the commerce flowing.