The recent ouster of Bolivian President Evo Morales has sparked plenty of theories, especially on the left. One of the most prominent has been the idea that the military’s intervention is a coup intended to ensure U.S. control of a critical global resource: lithium.
That’s part of a tradition that sees U.S. foreign policy as being essentially about controlling natural wealth by any means necessary—one rooted in real American practices, from the deployment of U.S. Marines in defense of the United Fruit Company’s interests in Central America to President Donald Trump’s repeated orders to troops to protect oil, not Kurds, in Syria. But in this instance, the idea, heavily touted in the online left-wing media and by the occasional politician, is fundamentally mistaken.
Lithium is undoubtedly important to the future economy, because it’s one of the key components in lithium ion batteries that power everything from laptops to many electric cars. U.S. strategists have been interested in it since the 1960s for just these reasons.
And it’s only going to become more important as electric vehicles increasingly replace traditional cars. The lithium industry is currently trying to figure out just how it will supply roughly twice as much high-end lithium for batteries by 2025: Low prices currently have discouraged investment, which points to a possible supply shortfall in the near future—making any country with a lot of lithium potentially appealing.
But there are limits to the comparison between lithium and oil, said Chris Berry, the founder of House Mountain Partners, an independent metals analyst. “There’s a lot of misunderstanding, there’s this idea that lithium is rare and critical. It is critical. It is not rare by any stretch of the imagination,” he said. And there are other differences from oil.