Geopolitical Imbalances

A state’s great power status resides in the flow of cheap oil, argues Michael Klare, author of the newly published Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet: The New Geopolitics of Energy. With oil prices hitting another high of $123 this week, and predictions of it hitting $200 over the next two years, the overall impact on American ability to project power, the dollar’s solvency, and its domestic economy may have devastating effects. Another result could be a profound geopolitical shift. In fact we are already seeing it.  The rise of India and China, the reemergence of Russia, and a more independent EU are all coming at a time where American power is at best stagnant and at worse shrinking.  As Klare notes, “By now, we are transferring such staggering sums yearly to foreign oil producers, who are using it to gobble up valuable American assets, that, whether we know it or not, we have essentially abandoned our claim to superpowerdom.”

Indeed, it is difficult to argue that American global power has increased in the last eight years. So much so, America’s decline has prompted some to reevaluate America’s “victory” in the Cold War. The way things are going the final assessment of the Cold War might not be who won, but who collapsed first.

As great powers fall, new ones arise. There is no doubt that Russia is one beneficiary of exploding oil prices. As its position as a energy exporter (Russia is the second largest oil exporter after Saudi Arabia) grows, its hegemony expands, especially over Europe, resulting in a shift in the balance of power. Klare writes:

As Russia has become an energy-exporting state, it has moved from the list of has-beens to the front rank of major players. When President Bush first occupied the White House, in February 2001, one of his highest priorities was to downgrade U.S. ties with Russia and annul the various arms-control agreements that had been forged between the two countries by his predecessors, agreements that explicitly conferred equal status on the USA and the USSR.

As an indication of how contemptuously the Bush team viewed Russia at that time, Condoleezza Rice, while still an adviser to the Bush presidential campaign, wrote, in the January/February 2000 issue of the influential Foreign Affairs, “U.S. policy… must recognize that American security is threatened less by Russia’s strength than by its weakness and incoherence.” Under such circumstances, she continued, there was no need to preserve obsolete relics of the dual superpower past like the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty; rather, the focus of U.S. efforts should be on preventing the further erosion of Russian nuclear safeguards and the potential escape of nuclear materials.

In line with this outlook, President Bush believed that he could convert an impoverished and compliant Russia into a major source of oil and natural gas for the United States — with American energy companies running the show. This was the evident aim of the U.S.-Russian “energy dialogue” announced by Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin in May 2002. But if Bush thought Russia was prepared to turn into a northern version of Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, or Venezuela prior to the arrival of Hugo Chávez, he was to be sorely disappointed. Putin never permitted American firms to acquire substantial energy assets in Russia. Instead, he presided over a major recentralization of state control when it came to the country’s most valuable oil and gas reserves, putting most of them in the hands of Gazprom, the state-controlled natural gas behemoth.

Once in control of these assets, moreover, Putin has used his renascent energy power to exert influence over states that were once part of the former Soviet Union, as well as those in Western Europe that rely on Russian oil and gas for a substantial share of their energy needs. In the most extreme case, Moscow turned off the flow of natural gas to Ukraine on January 1, 2006, in the midst of an especially cold winter, in what was said to be a dispute over pricing but was widely viewed as punishment for Ukraine’s political drift westwards. (The gas was turned back on four days later when Ukraine agreed to pay a higher price and offered other concessions.) Gazprom has threatened similar action in disputes with Armenia, Belarus, and Georgia — in each case forcing those former Soviet SSRs to back down.

When it comes to the U.S.-Russian relationship, just how much the balance of power has shifted was evident at the NATO summit at Bucharest in early April. There, President Bush asked that Georgia and Ukraine both be approved for eventual membership in the alliance, only to find top U.S. allies (and Russian energy users) France and Germany blocking the measure out of concern for straining ties with Russia. “It was a remarkable rejection of American policy in an alliance normally dominated by Washington,” Steven Erlanger and Steven Lee Myers of the New York Times reported, “and it sent a confusing signal to Russia, one that some countries considered close to appeasement of Moscow.”

For Russian officials, however, the restoration of their country’s great power status is not the product of deceit or bullying, but a natural consequence of being the world’s leading energy provider. No one is more aware of this than Dmitri Medvedev, the former Chairman of Gazprom and new Russian president. “The attitude toward Russia in the world is different now,” he declared on December 11, 2007. “We are not being lectured like schoolchildren; we are respected and we are deferred to. Russia has reclaimed its proper place in the world community. Russia has become a different country, stronger and more prosperous.”

The same, of course, can be said about the United States — in reverse. As a result of our addiction to increasingly costly imported oil, we have become a different country, weaker and less prosperous. Whether we know it or not, the energy Berlin Wall has already fallen and the United States is an ex-superpower-in-the-making.