In the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the US and its Western allies ramped up sanctions and political pressure on Moscow. Russia is a major exporter of commodities including wheat and oil, and the sanctions have led to significant volatility in the markets. This has played a large role in the dramatic rise in energy prices throughout the world, with US gas prices jumping to $4 per gallon for the first time since 2008. Some experts believe a US ban on Russian oil could lead to prices crossing $5 later this year.
President Biden has blamed Russia’s actions for the rise in gas prices, and the reasoning makes sense. The US and its allies want to punish an autocratic Russia’s aggression in the region and weaken their energy revenues. But in response to rising gas prices hitting American consumers, the US has asked other authoritarian oil-rich regimes such as Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, and Iran to bring more oil to the global markets to help stabilize prices. This presents a contradiction in both US policy and democratic values. Iran and Venezuela have both long been under US sanctions, and the US pursued limited sanctions on Saudi Arabia after its role in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.
Having Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, and Iran pump more oil into the world market would help ease Americans’ sticker shock at the pump, particularly helping lower- and middle-class Americans. It would also help President Biden’s approval rating as his party moves into a tough midterm election season.
But is it the right thing to do from an ethical perspective?
Washington has previously called the current Venezuelan government illegitimate, and President Bush once said that Iran was part of the “Axis of Evil.” What does it mean for the US—which believes it is a moral leader of the world and not simply a political one—to be seeking economic help from regimes it believes are immoral and unjust?
The potential move has led to trepidation on both sides of the aisle. New Jersey Democratic Senator Bob Menendez said that buying Venezuelan oil could spark a humanitarian crisis in Latin America, and Tennessee Republican Representative Mark Green called it “outrageous” to consider buying oil from Iran or Venezuela. But Biden administration officials have already traveled to the Venezuelan capital to discuss the move, and to all appearances, easing of sanctions are seriously being discussed.
Is this the right move from an ethical and humanist perspective? It might help Americans economically in the short term. But it also provides more power to regimes that Washington has held up as authoritarian and repressive. If the ultimate goal is to put more pressure on authoritarian regimes such as the Russian government, and to show the world that democratic politics is the better choice, isn’t buying oil from Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Venezuela massively counterproductive? On the other hand, can we expect middle- and lower-class Americans to bear the brunt of higher gas prices so we can remain ideologically consistent on the world stage?
While it is clear that many Americans are struggling with higher gas prices, the US has made the mistake of trading democratic and moral values for short-term economic or geopolitical gains many times before. If buying Russian oil compromises democracy and world peace, the same is true of buying it from Saudi Arabia, Iran, or Venezuela. There are ways to relieve the pressure on those hardest hit at the pumps, ways that do not entail repeating the massive policy errors of the past.