Private Empire: Exxonmobil and American Power

Article excerpt

PRIVATE EMPIRE: EXXONMOBIL AND AMERICAN POWER By Steve Coll, Penguin Press 2012

Readers of this Journal should be intrigued with Private Empire,1 which promises an inside look at ExxonMobil and how it acts like a sovereign ("a corporate state within the American State"),2 exercising its own "foreign policy" in 200 nations.3 Unfortunately, Private Empire does not deliver on its promise, breaks no new ground, nor produces evidence of corporate wrong-doing.4 Private Empire's nearly 700 pages and twenty-eight chapters are a wordy, anecdotal review of disparate incidents involving ExxonMobil in locales such as Alaska; Chad; Venezuela; Indonesia; Nigeria; and Jacksonville, Maryland.5

This could have been a more compelling work, especially if it documented a rationale that international, leviathan corporations-energy or otherwise-deserve special government oversight. Private Empire doesn't prove its thesis that big is "bad" or offer a solution if there is an endemic problem with large, multinational corporations.6 Surprisingly, there is no discussion of the anti-trust laws or how ExxonMobil evolved from Standard Oil.7

Stylistically, Private Empire tends to over-dramatize, assign pejorative meaning to terms like "K Street" and "private jets," provide unneeded information about minor players ("a descendant of an English cricket captain"),8 and offer irrelevant information such as: the Saudi Ambassador's home in Beverly Hills was next to Drew Barrymore's9 or a description of the Japanese synthesizing pearls in Qatar.10

Private Empire is also littered with purple prose and non-sequiturs, to wit:

"Alaska's storm-swept seas and icy glaciers might look forbidding, but at least they were situated in a nation that welcomed private capital."11

Private Empire unsuccessfully searches for a villain. However, the best it comes up with is former CEO Lee Raymond, who, at worst, comes offas a curmudgeon who has a long friendship with Vice President Cheney. The author summarily concludes:

"Lee Raymond would manage Exxon's global position after 1989 as a confident sovereign, a peer of the White House's rotating occupants. Raymond aligned Exxon with America but he was not always in sync[.]"12

Private Empire makes no attempt to analyze the reasons for ExxonMobil's success. For example, in describing the company's lobbying in Washington, Private Empire glibly states:

"ExxonMobil's strategy was not so much to dazzle or manipulate Washington as to manage and outlast it."13

According to the author, "ExxonMobil did not want anything from the American government, but it did not want the government to do anything to the company, either."14 What does that "insight" mean?

In conclusion, Private Empire may be on to something. Large, multinational corporations, particularly those that operate in essential industries, such as energy, and require large investments, may require special oversight by the government. …