Energy Imperialism

Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet:

The New Geopolitics of Energy

The Limits of Power:

The End of American Exceptionalism

FOR MOST people, the Russian war against U.S.-allied Georgia that erupted in August seemed to come out of nowhere. As the media rushed to explain the conflict, it fell into bromides about an increasingly authoritarian Russia suppressing Georgian demands for freedom. But had they asked Michael T. Klare, they would have found a more considered, and cogent explanation: “Georgia, though possessing little oil and gas of its own, has come to play a significant role as a transit country for the export of Caspian oil and gas.” For that reason, Georgia has become a cockpit for conflict between a Russia that wants to take greater control over the export of its vast energy resources, and the U.S. and Europe, which has sponsored a pro-U.S. Georgian regime to guarantee a pipeline that takes oil and natural gas from the Caspian Sea region through pro-U.S. countries of Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey.

For Klare, the Russia-Georgia war would be one example of the type of “resource wars” or their immediate analogs that will increasingly come to dominate the twenty-first century. About this, Klare is both straightforward and chilling: “In the emerging international power system, we can expect the struggle over energy to override all other considerations, national leaders to go to extreme lengths to ensure energy sufficiency for their countries, and state authority over both domestic and foreign affairs to expand.”

His worst nightmare is a localized conflict like the Russia–Georgia war bringing larger forces into conflicts that could spin out of control. He identifies many such flashpoints around the world: in the Caspian Sea region, where an energy-rich and resurgent Russia, in sometime alliance with Iran, contends with the U.S.-led West, or in the East China Sea, where boundary disputes between China and Japan revolving around the undersea Chunxiao Gas Fields threaten to bring the two leading powers of Asia to the brink of military conflict. “Resource contests in these areas are increasingly being viewed not just through the lens of nationalism, but also as part of a deeper struggle over core geopolitical interests,” Klare writes.

In his telling, a new scramble for Africa’s energy among the U.S., older European powers, and China has picked up where the old colonial carve-up of the continent left off. “The U.S. military, in particular, has been devoting special attention to Africa—often under the guise of the Global War on Terror, but with an eye to the safety of offshore oil platforms in the Gulf of Guinea and the sea lanes that connect those rigs with the eastern United States.”

In domestic terms, this competition for resources has revived state-run energy companies like Russia’s Gazprom and placed their concerns at the heart of state policy. Even the U.S., where private ownership of oil and gas companies is preserved, the state has taken (and will continue to take) a more assertive role in aligning military and energy policies. One has to look no further than the Iraq war to see what Klare calls the “basic long-term premise of U.S. policy in the Gulf: oil protection.”

In foreign policy terms, he predicts a future “destined to produce intense competition among an expanding group of energy-consuming nations for control over the planet’s remaining reserves of hydrocarbons and other key industrial materials.” As these leading powers use traditional methods of statecraft, like arms transfers to friendly regimes or even more naked shows of “gunboat diplomacy,” the stakes are raised.

In geopolitical terms, Klare foresees the rise of “proto blocs” akin to the Cold War standoff between the U.S.-led West and the USSR-led East. These proto blocs would include China, Russia, and Central Asian countries against the U.S. and Europe, Japan, Australia, and South Korea, among others. Rising powers like India, which has similar resource needs as China, finds it advantageous to align itself with either bloc depending on the issue.

Klare’s thesis carries much in its favor and is a marked improvement over the usual Washington incantations about “combating terrorism” and “spreading freedom.” The U.S. Army recently completed a study on “modernization” for the 21st century (, which argues in one passage that, “We face a potential return to traditional security threats posed by emerging near-peers as we compete globally for depleting natural resources and overseas markets.” Klare has clearly identified a key motive force in U.S. military and foreign policy, stripped of the ideologically more palatable rhetoric of international diplomacy and human rights.

But is competition for scarce energy resources the only, or even primary, motivation for U.S. imperial policy? Klare seems to accept this, if not to endorse it completely. That is the implication of his concluding chapter, “Avoiding Catastrophe.” Here, with characteristic liberal optimism, Klare outlines ways in which China and the U.S. can collaborate in developing energy resources and the U.S. can lead research efforts to develop alternative sources of energy for all energy-consuming states. “As cooperating consumer states begin to decrease their dependence on energy-surplus states, they will swing the balance of power back in their favor while reducing the overall risk of conflict.”

If the competition for energy resources were the only source of conflict between the world’s leading powers, perhaps Klare’s proposals would usher in a new golden era. But the competition between national capitalist classes that lies at the heart of the system of imperialism isn’t only concerned with energy resources. The competition between national capitalist classes, as mediated by their states, revolves around political power, ideological leadership, and economic strength. The Cold War, for instance, was a global ideological and political struggle between two rival empires that didn’t immediately stem from their competition for energy.

Today, if oil were as plentiful as ocean water, the U.S.—as the world’s leading power—and China, as a rising regional and international hegemon, would continue to compete for economic and political influence in the world system as a whole. As the current global financial crisis has brought into relief, the fact that China holds hundreds of billions of dollars in U.S. government debt may be a bigger flashpoint in the U.S.-China relationship right now than competition in Africa or Latin America over access to oil.

Accounting for the fiscal dimension of the current crisis would play more directly to the thesis of Andrew J. Bacevich’s The Limits of Power.

Bacevich starts from similar observations as Klare: namely, that the U.S. faces a crisis that stems, in part, from its dependence on overseas energy resources. Sounding very much like Klare, he contends, “The strategic reorientation that [President Ronald] Reagan orchestrated encouraged the belief that military power could extend indefinitely America’s profligate expenditure of energy. Simply put, the United States would rely on military might to keep order in the Gulf and maintain the flow of oil, thereby mitigating the implications of American energy dependence.”

But where Klare foresees (and hopes against) a more aggressive and expeditionary U.S. posture in the future, Bacevich sees an imperial project that has reached its limits. His book, an essay on what he identifies as the three crises facing the U.S. today—a crisis of “profligacy,” a political crisis, and a military crisis—that is propelling the nation to “willful self-destruction.”

Bacevich has plenty of evidence for this contention. He is absolutely merciless on the politicians, generals, elite journalists, and others whom he holds responsible for promoting the illusion that the U.S. could hold global primacy into an indefinite future. Congress “is a haven for narcissistic hacks.” The Bush Doctrine of preventive war is “poppycock” whose namesake’s “main achievement has been to articulate that ideology with such fervor and clarity as to unmask as never before its defects and utter perversity.”

Bacevich, a former U.S. Army officer and current professor at Boston University, skewers the senior military leadership of the U.S. as “consistently disappointing,” “maladroit,” and lacking in ability. He holds particular scorn for neoconservative cheerleaders like former Defense Department official Paul Wolfowitz and journalist Max Boot, whose extravagant claims of U.S. invincibility were punctured by Iraqi insurgents’ improvised explosive devices (IEDs), manufactured for the cost of a pizza.

Righteous indignation jumps off just about every page of The Limits of Power. As one of thousands of parents who have lost a son or daughter in the Iraq war, Bacevich has certainly earned a right to vent his anger on the criminals responsible for the Iraq disaster. In many ways, Bacevich’s critique of U.S. policy is more far-reaching than Klare’s.

But in one critical way, it is misguided. And that is in Bacevich’s explanation for the ultimate source of the follies he decries: what he calls the American ideology of “more” as embodied in the “crisis of profligacy.” His key point is that U.S. imperial policy stems from every American’s desires to have a big house and gas-guzzling car—purchased at the price of a massive military establishment ensuring the flow of oil and a sea of credit loaned from abroad.

A self-identified conservative, Bacevich even comes perilously close to endorsing some of the most wrong-headed notions of the 1960s U.S. left, including the idea that ordinary working people benefit from U.S. imperialism and oppression of peoples around the world. Bizarrely, he argues, “In this sense, General Curtis LeMay nuclear strike force, the Strategic Air Command (SAC)—as the manifestation of American might as well as a central component of the postwar military-industrial complex—helped foster the conditions which Betty Friedan’s National Organization for Women emerged.”

Bacevich’s reliance on the mid-twentieth century liberal theologian Reinhold Niebuhr to inform this central thesis is the book’s downfall. A leading public intellectual, Niebuhr was in the 1930s a harsh critic of capitalism who incorporated Marxist critiques into his Christian “social gospel” message. But during the Cold War, he became a leading spokesperson for anti-communism and “vital center” liberalism by way of Christian concepts of original sin and the corruptibility of human nature. Since, Niebuhr has been a favorite citation of status quo-defending liberals against those who would seek more far-reaching change in the system. One can see Niebuhr wagging his finger against a U.S. “‘culture soft and vulgar, equating joy with happiness and happiness with comfort.’” Bacevich continues: “Were he alive today, Niebuhr might amend that judgment, with Americans increasingly equating comfort with self-indulgence.”

An unlikely hero for Bacevich is the most Niebuhrean president of modern times (probably ever)—Jimmy Carter. Bacevich holds up Carter’s 1979 Oval Office address, remembered today as the “malaise” speech, as prophetic. In it, Carter—addressing the nation in the throes of a recession and facing sky-high energy prices—blamed Americans’ self-indulgence for the predicament in which they found themselves. He called on Americans to sacrifice and he proposed a series of energy policies to “break dependence” on foreign oil. The media and public ridiculed Carter’s speech, and Ronald Reagan capitalized on its downbeat message to call for a change. To Bacevich, Reagan’s election sealed Americans’ opting for a militarized foreign policy to sustain an unsustainable standard of living.

There are many problems with this line of argument, not the least of which is its failure to reflect the reality of ordinary people’s lives in the last thirty years. Americans’ real incomes peaked in the 1973 and have been on the downslide since. If ordinary Americans were materially benefiting from imperialist interventionism, it would certainly be news to them. It also ignores the fact that the majority of Americans have opposed the most egregious example of the Pentagon’s oil protection racket, the Iraq war, for the majority of the time since the 2003 invasion of that country.

When Bacevich turns his fire onto the political and military crises, we return to areas of expertise that make his earlier critiques of U.S. foreign policy, American Empire and The New American Militarism, so valuable. Here, he lucidly dissects the origins and continued dominance of the “national security state” from the Cold War to the present. He argues that the U.S. establishment’s assumption that it is desirable or even possible for the U.S. to dominate the globe is a chimera. “To persist in following that path is to invite inevitable overextension, bankruptcy, and ruin.”

Unlike Klare, Bacevich doesn’t leave much room for optimism at the end of his book. In fact, he even douses the hopes of those who think that an Obama administration will alter the fundamental dynamic of U.S. foreign policy. Bacevich agrees with Klare that any sane government would develop alternative energy and combat global climate change, but he leaves us with a Niebuhrean doubt: “Clinging doggedly to the conviction that the rules to which other nations must submit don’t apply, Americans appear determined to affirm Niebuhr’s axiom of willful self-destruction.”

So, who’s right? Klare, who fears a stepped-up U.S. militarism, but who believes that the right policy choices can save the day? Or Bacevich, who believes the U.S. has tapped itself out, but is unwilling to face up to its crises? Both books provide valuable information and insight to the current situation in which the U.S. empire finds itself. And both have major shortcomings as well. But perhaps we won’t be able to say whose vision is more correct in the absence of a factor that each author ignores—a broad movement of ordinary people in the U.S. that can force different priorities on its increasingly oblivious ruling class.

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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