[This piece has been adapted from Adam Hochschild’s new book, Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939.]
“Merchants have no country,” wrote Thomas Jefferson in 1814. “The mere spot they stand on does not constitute so strong an attachment as that from which they draw their gains.” The former president was ruing the way New England traders and shipowners, fearing the loss of lucrative transatlantic commerce, failed to rally to their country in the War of 1812.
Today, with the places from which “merchants” draw their gains spread across the planet, corporations are even less likely to feel loyalty to any country in particular. Some of them have found it profitable to reincorporate in tax havens overseas. Giant multinationals, sometimes with annual earnings greater than the combined total gross national products of several dozen of the world’s poorer countries, are often more powerful than national governments, while their CEOs wield the kind of political clout many prime ministers and presidents only dream of.
No corporations have been more aggressive in forging their own foreign policies than the big oil companies. With operations spanning the world, they—and not the governments who weakly try to tax or regulate them—largely decide whom they do business with and how. In its quest for oil in the anarchic Niger Delta, according to journalist Steve Coll, ExxonMobil, for example, gave boats to the Nigerian navy, and recruited and supplied part of the country’s army, while local police sported the company’s red flying horse logo on their uniforms. Jane Mayer’s new book, Dark Money, on how the brothers and oil magnates Charles and David Koch spent hundreds of millions of dollars to buy the Republican Party and America’s democratic politics, offers a vivid account of the way their father, Fred, launched the energy business they would inherit. It was a classic case of not letting “attachments” stand in the way of gain. Fred happily set up oil installations for Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin before the United States recognized the Soviet Union in 1933, and then helped Adolf Hitler build one of Nazi Germany’s largest oil refineries that would later supply fuel to its air force, the Luftwaffe.