Christopher R. W. Dietrich writes in a guest editorial for Informed Comment:
Energy and the Future of U.S. Diplomacy
In a paper written in conjunction with Lloyds of London, Dr. Paul Stevens of Chatham House recently predicted that oil could arrive at $200 per barrel by 2013. As the events in the Gulf of Mexico begin to recede from the front pages, the unpleasant price of oil dependence remains starkly clear.
Conventional technologically advanced oil recovery—the offshore, tar sands, and shale sources that policymakers in the 1970s called “traditional alternatives”—has begun to decline, as their production costs rise and their environmental impact becomes a political imperative. Stevens’ prediction, based largely on an analysis of increased Asian demand, brings more gloomy news, especially for those who believe in the close connection between oil prices and the world economic health.
A similar crisis arose thirty years ago, when an increasingly integrated global economy faced oil prices that quadrupled in 1973-1974 and more than doubled again between 1978 and 1980. In 1980, Jimmy Carter declared foreign oil dependence “a clear and present danger to our Nation’s security.” But, by 1982, the traditional alternatives, as well as other new production, brought supply in line with demand and oil prices dropped. Ronald Reagan had the solar panels installed by Carter on the White House roof removed in 1986.
Today, as the recent debate over offshore drilling has shown, many commentators employ the lessons of the past to hold that a strong position by the federal government will do little to ameliorate our energy problems. Some analysts, often taking a strident ideological position, argue that the combination of an always-innovative energy industry and the free market will again resolve the dilemma of global energy upheavals. Others, historians of science and technology who put forward a more nuanced position, still essentially hold a similar belief: In a century of stunning technological advances, most critical breakthroughs have rarely occurred as a result of government policy, but rather as a confluence of individual creativity and steadily growing scientific knowledge.
That was then. This is now. The emphasis on traditional alternatives in the 1970s and 1980s led to problems within a global society that remains, in the words of the Group of 77, “unduly oil-oriented.” The changes in the world economy fueled by the explosive growth of those decades, as much a result of relatively inexpensive energy as anything else, today points towards oil’s decline.
Nowhere else are the problems of energy dependence more disturbing than in American diplomacy. Even though the Obama administration’s national security strategy, released in late May, emphasizes the deepening of relations with increasingly assertive “emerging centers of influence”—China, India, Brazil, Mexico, and South Africa—relations have floundered, especially in energy diplomacy. Most recently, Turkey and Brazil reached a deal with Iran for the shipment of enriched uranium abroad, in spite of Washington’s misgivings. This setback followed the Copenhagen climate summit last December, when U.S. suggestions were hauled over the coals by an informal alignment of developing nations, including China, India, Brazil, and South Africa.
Given the gravity with which most experts view our energy future, government policy needs to stand at the forefront of changing the national and international energy infrastructure. Major new investment in energy alternatives, well above the levels currently considered by the energy industry and the current bills before Congress, is necessary.
It is clear that Obama understands the imperative of a green energy revolution. Yet, the administration has offered few specifics, despite opportunities to orchestrate such change. If the government ups the ante in a comprehensive energy bill, perhaps by transferring a large part of the Senate’s recent $35 billion subsidy to the oil industry to research and design of alternative sources, it will be easier to draw the colossal investment necessary for the shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy.
This substantial increase in government funding will mitigate many potential problems. Most broadly, by pushing industry to do away with the pathologies of oil dependence, such a policy would help diversify the domestic economy. In the field of diplomacy, more specifically, the escalation of home-grown energy technology will have multiple uses. Foremost, in the ideological frame of promoting a global green revolution, technology transfers will help the major developing nations that stand at the center of the national security strategy to overcome the considerable barriers to clean and sustainable economic development.
Christopher R. W. Dietrich is a PhD Candidate at the University of Texas at Austin and Smith-Richardson Fellow in International Security Studies at Yale University.