The Country’s Biggest Company

Paul Pillar ponders Steve Coll's new book on ExxonMobile:

A corporation such as ExxonMobil that has interests that do not coincide with any one country—even its home country—and is as large and powerful as many states, needs to be treated in many respects as if it were a state. Like Australia, Colombia, or France, it shares many interests with the United States. As an ally, it can be a partner in mutually worthwhile endeavors. But as with other allies, the respects in which its interests diverge from those of the United States also must be kept in mind as public policy is made. That the biggest corporation of today is not anything like the General Motors of Charles Wilson’s day is not to be grieved or welcomed—just recognized as a reality to be dealt with.

Joseph A. Pratt, a University of Houston oil-industry historian, sizes up Private Empire:

Coll’s data-rich case studies of oil-related political infighting in both the U.S. and oil-producing nations are the most important contribution of his book. But the book’s major weakness is the lack of analysis of two linchpins of Exxon’s long-term success and power: Its near-obsession with financial controls, and its historical leadership in using new technology in ever-larger projects to find and produce oil and natural gas. These two factors have served as the company’s calling cards in negotiations with governments, and they deserve fuller treatment than Coll gives.