Beyond BP: Michael Klare on US Energy Policy

The disaster engendered by the explosion and subsequent hemorrhaging of British Petroleum’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico has thrust energy costs—economic and environmental—back into the public discourse in a way not seen since gasoline prices went ballistic in the summer of 2008. That summer, with prices hovering in the $4-per-gallon range, Hampshire College’s Michael Klare published Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet: The New Geopolitics of Energy (Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt & Co., New York). 

 Klare’s book could not have been more timely. After all, his warnings about the dire implications of the world’s growing reliance on finite energy sources—especially petroleum, natural gas, and uranium—seemed all too painfully validated by those record-high gas prices. However, shortly afterward, an epidemic of real estate foreclosures and the subsequent financial crisis and recession contributed to a near-50 percent reduction in the price of gasoline. (Of course, prices have since rebounded somewhat.)

Was Klare’s ominous portrayal of the problems attending energy extraction and consumption an overstatement? Hardly, if the current crisis in the Gulf is any indication.

In view of recent comments made by BP officials—such as CEO Tony Hayward’s claim that the sheer “vastness” of the world’s oceans would render the environmental costs of virtually any oil spill negligible—it is easy to imagine them and other defenders of the fossil fuel status quo dismissing Klare’s warnings as alarmist. But today’s geopolitics of energy is in fact a scary state of affairs, and that is certainly not due to any embellishment on Klare’s part.

Rising Powers is a cogent, accessible, well researched (e.g., relying on energy trade publications and statements from energy officials both in and out of government) expose of the intensifying, heavily militarized competition among the globe’s largest energy-consuming nations for finite—and soon to be dwindling—sources of energy. Moreover, Klare makes clear that these remaining sources, like the oil currently gushing out of the well in the Gulf of Mexico, are becoming increasingly remote and hazardous to extract.


 Rising Powers doesn’t mark the first time that Klare has been ahead of the curve in prefiguring the underlying features of contemporary geopolitics. In fact, Rising Powers can be seen as an elaboration on a broader theme—the centrality of natural resources (energy-related or otherwise) in geopolitical relations—sketched out in his previous book, Resource Wars: The New Landscape of Global Conflict. And in Rogue States and Nuclear Outlaws: America’s Search for a New Foreign Policy (1995), Klare demonstrated remarkable prescience in anticipating how the so-called “Rogue State Doctrine” would provide the U.S. government with a justification for maintaining and exceeding Cold War-level military expenditures in the post-Cold War era.

In highlighting the increased likelihood of conflict accompanying the international scramble for energy reserves, Klare’s overriding intent in Rising Powers is not to alarm, but rather to portray this sobering reality for what it is: a progressively volatile endgame fueled by military proliferation.

Moreover, Klare boldly asserts that this dynamic marks the beginning of a new era in global politics. Traditionally, national security considerations and state power have been defined in terms of the relative size and strength of states’ military arsenals; now, state security and power are increasingly understood by policymakers as hinging on the possession of and/or access to sources of energy. Moreover, the energy-driven dynamics of international relations are creating a realignment of the global power lineup, which in turn will necessitate nothing less than a “redraw[ing] of the map of international politics” as both “energy surplus” and “energy deficit” states come to enjoy influence “disproportionate to their size and condition.”

Klare’s emphasis on the state as his chief unit of analysis is noteworthy. After all, in recent years many academics and journalists have remarked on the waning importance of the national state in international affairs, as transnational commerce and communication (“globalization”) have superseded national boundaries. State sovereignty has also been eroded somewhat by the growth in numbers, and corresponding influence, of non-governmental organizations, and by the rise of certain supra-national entities such as the European Union.

However, Klare reasserts the importance of the nation-state as a centrally important actor in international affairs. This resurgence of the state is partly attributable to what Klare broadly refers to as the “characteristics of energy” in the post-Cold War era.

During the Cold War, Klare observes, governments for the most part relied on privately owned, international oil companies (IOCs) and market forces to secure adequate supplies of energy. However, in the post-Cold War world the high rates of economic growth experienced by the world’s most populous industrializing countries, such as China, India and Brazil, have prompted “a degree of hysteria” among policymakers of all major energy importers (including, of course, those of China and India). Explaining this hysteria, Klare remarks that “[t]wo themes…predominate: fear that global energy supplies will fall short of anticipated demand and that the rising industrial powers of the developing world—with their booming economies, surging middle classes, and new automotive cultures—will trigger a brutal struggle for whatever energy there is.”


Such anxieties—which, all things being equal, are not completely unfounded—have therefore compelled states to assume more and more control over energy procurement in the post-Cold War era. Consequently, of the world’s 15 largest (in terms of proven oil reserves) oil companies, 13 are now government-owned “national” oil companies (NOCs). Klare notes that other scholars have described this resurgent “statist” behavior as “neo-mercantilism” or “resource nationalism.” However one phrases it, it is clear that state leaders are increasingly understanding national “security” as energy security—reliable energy procurement—and not as something achieved only through the barrel of a gun.

The preoccupation of states with securing the reliability of energy through exploration and extraction might seem benign enough (leaving aside for a moment the weighty issues of diminishing and increasingly remote supplies). But understood as a matter of state security, energy procurement is inextricably bound up with military proliferation. Hence Klare’s “new geopolitics of energy” is fraught with the potential for conflict, especially given the urgency that state leaders attach to finding new sources of energy.

Energy competition among what Klare calls the “energy deficit” states typically involves arms-for-energy tradeoffs with their suppliers, the “energy surplus” states. In the case of oil, arms transfers to the governments of surplus states pave the way for the deficit states’ NOCs (and any IOCs headquartered in their countries) both to exploit their hosts’ oilfields and to search for new ones. For deficit states, the top priority accorded to “energy security” renders considerations of surplus states’ integrity (Do they respect international norms? Do they allow their citizens to exercise civil liberties?) irrelevant, for the most part.

Not surprisingly, the accelerating militarization of energy procurement increases the possibilities for armed international conflict. Klare explains how nationalism lends momentum to this process: “The long-term risk of escalation is growing even more potent because major energy importers and exporters regularly appeal to that most dangerous of emotions, nationalism, in making their claim over the management of energy flows. Nationalistic appeals, once they have gripped a populace, almost invariably promote fierce emotion and irrationality. Add to this fact that the leaders of most countries involved in the great energy race have come to view the struggle over hydrocarbon assets as a ‘zero-sum’ contest—one in which a gain for one country almost always represents a loss for others. A zero-sum mentality leads to a loss of flexibility in crisis situations, while the lens of nationalism turns the pursuit of energy assets into a sacred obligation of senior government officials.”

The “competitive arms transfers” that represent the militarization of energy procurement also have another disturbing upshot: strengthening and legitimizing repressive, corrupt foreign regimes. In the case of U.S. arms recipients, the list is long and growing. It includes long-time allies in the Persian Gulf region—most notably Saudi Arabia—whose anachronistic social policies effectively reduce women to the status of second-class citizens; corruptible African governments in Nigeria, Chad, and Angola, where—along with off-shore drilling sites along the continent’s west coast—U.S.-based oil companies such as Exxon and Chevron currently operate; and more recent allies in the energy-rich Caspian Sea region, including those Klare refers to as the “autocratic regimes” of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.

While the governments of the oil-rich Persian Gulf have long been wooed with energy deficit countries’ military largess, the emergence of the Caspian Sea region’s governments as coveted allies may come as a bit of a surprise to some. Klare soberly sketches out a “three-way struggle for geopolitical advantage” in the Caspian Sea basin, as the U.S., Russia (Caspian states having formerly been Soviet republics) and China funnel arms and other forms of military assistance into the region in competition for influence there. Again stressing the dangers of an escalation of conflict, Klare notes that “This three-way struggle…is militarizing the Caspian basin, inundating the region with advanced arms and an ever-growing corps of military advisers, instructors, technicians, and combat-support personnel. [It will] heighten traditional suspicions and rivalries that have long plagued the region. The Great Powers are not only adding tinder to possible future fires, but also increasing the risk that they will be caught in any conflagration.”


Another source of “tinder” is the very real and increasing gap between the supply of and demand for energy. Klare cites energy trade journals’ characterizations of the jump in energy use from 2004-2030 as “extraordinary.” (China and India—”Chindia,” in the parlance of some energy analysts—will play a “conspicuous role” here, representing the source of the aforementioned “fear” among policymakers of major energy importers.)

At the same time, specifically in the case of oil, Klare warns that rates of output in mature fields continue to decline; the track record regarding the discovery of new sources of “easy oil” has been disappointing; and investors have been reluctant to risk new ventures for “tough oil” in remote, hazardous or otherwise hostile environs (deep in the Gulf of Mexico, for example).

Moreover, over the long term, nonrenewable alternatives to oil are insufficient as substitutes. As he explains: “…a growing number of critical materials, including natural gas, coal, uranium, and several key minerals, also appear to be approaching their maximum levels of sustainable output. As suggested by scientists at the Army Engineer Research and Development Center of the Army Corps of Engineers, ‘The earth’s endowment of natural resources are [sic] being depleted at an alarming rate—exponentially faster than the biosphere’s ability to replenish them.'”

As the world’s largest energy consumers, China and the U.S. would seem to be the logical starting points from which to begin redirecting the increasingly militarized global race for nonrenewable energy sources. Accordingly, Klare asserts that a change from “competition to collaboration” in the U.S.-China energy paradigm could serve as an example for the rest of the world. Transcending commonly held notions of the “inevitability” of conflict between the two nations will be necessary for such collaboration to occur, along with recognizing and emphasizing what they have in common: shared status as oil-dependent energy consumers, and what Klare describes as “…a common interest in tackling the global warming dilemma. Together, [the United States and China] are projected to account for a staggering 45 percent of worldwide carbon dioxide emissions by 2030—a truly terrifying prospect, given the grievous harm in the form of intense storms, floods, droughts, fires, and pestilence that climate change is likely to inflict on both countries.”


Students of international relations will recognize Klare’s perspective on the geopolitics of energy as liberal and therefore internationalist, in contrast to both the realist perspective, with its emphasis on solely self-interested states vying for power in an anarchic, zero-sum world, and the unilateralist neoconservative perspective. No doubt some realists, and (needless to say) many neo-cons, would take issue with Klare’s bi-and multi-lateral prescriptions for the energy challenges facing our “shrinking planet.” Indeed, conservatives routinely dismiss liberal notions of the possibilities of international cooperation as “naive.”

But are they really so? After all, if the United States and the Soviet Union were able to de-escalate their arms race during the Cold War, why couldn’t the United States and China similarly defuse the climate of competitive tension surrounding energy procurement? Klare elaborates: “The Cold War-era arms control analogy, in fact, provides a concrete model for bringing Washington and Beijing together. At the start of the arms-control process, the United States and the Soviet Union were highly suspicious of each other. They nevertheless managed to develop negotiating forums and other mechanisms that allowed them, over time, to achieve tangible arms-control breakthroughs. A similar process should now be initiated in the energy field.”

Klare then goes on to enumerate initiatives already underway that may promote U.S.-China energy cooperation. These include an ongoing mid-level discussion forum between the U.S. Department of Energy and China’s National Development and Reform Commission, titled “U.S.-China Energy Policy Dialogue”; the U.S.-China Oil and Gas Industry Forum, “a periodic colloquium among industry and government officials from both countries”; and top economic officials’ establishment (in late 2007) of a joint U.S.-China working group to come up with a 10-year plan for cooperation on energy and environmental issues. Following the formation of this group, former U.S. Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson expressed “excitement” about the prospects of “[the U.S. and China] working together toward progress” on “issues of energy security and environmental sustainability.”

Clearly, then, when it comes to the prospects for cooperation between the U.S. and China on energy, the countries are not starting from scratch. More important, it is not hard to see how, given the size of their respective populations and economies, the U.S. and China could leave an indelible impression on the rest of the world’s nations by translating into action the “excitement” expressed by Paulson about the possibilities for collaboration.

Whatever the prospects for geopolitical collaboration in energy procurement, the “sustainability” Paulson refers to will clearly require a substantial transformation of national energy policies from their current preoccupation with nonrenewable energy sources to concentration on renewables, including solar and wind sources. Additional measures, such as promoting energy efficiency in the construction of buildings, and even the cleaner burning of coal—the demand for which, as oil and natural gas sources begin their decline, is expected to rise in the foreseeable future—are among those advocated by Klare in the book’s aptly titled last chapter, “Averting Catastrophe.” (While the debate over “clean coal” need not be reviewed here, it is worth noting that many scientists and environmentalists refute the notion that coal can be burned “cleanly.”) Illustrating that “considerable research and development on energy renewables is already underway in both the United States and China,” Klare makes convincing cases both for the viability of renewable energy and for a new international energy paradigm in which the United States and China play leading roles.

While overcoming the “zero-sum, ultra-nationalistic impulses” that inform the energy policies of industrialized nations will be no small task, Klare is certainly not naive in appealing to our better natures by urging a “more collaborative approach to solving the world’s energy challenges.” Indeed, the very real and growing catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico brutally underscores the need to transform the policies and practices of energy procurement into something akin to Klare’s more sustainable, collaborative approach. The grievous costs of not doing so—the destruction of the Gulf’s wildlife habitat and, along with it, the source of its socioeconomic sustenance—become increasingly evident with each passing day.”

Jim Cabral teaches international relations and political science in the Social Science Department at Landmark College in Putney, Vt.


Author: Jim Cabral

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