Security Studies Program Seminar

International Security Implications of Energy Dependence and Vulnerability

Prof. Charles Glaser
Professor, Elliott School of International Affairs and Dept. of Political Science
Director, Elliott School Institute for Security and Conflict Studies, The George Washington University

April 27, 2011

Prof. Glaser described his project as a framing exercise seeking to identify what are the threats that arise from energy dependence. Frequently, people would frame energy security as a problem and then link it to national security, but since this is either muddled or underspecified, there is a need to define the mechanisms through which national security is implicated or conflict could potentially occur.

The question to be answered is this: “How does US energy dependence, or the energy dependence of other countries, influence national security and the likelihood of getting into conflict?” Energy security is generally assumed to involve the physical security of supply.  But then what is the link between energy vulnerability and U.S. national security? While it is most often discussed as oil dependence and vulnerability and the presentation will focus on this, the mechanisms may travel to gas imports or coal imports as well.

Prof. Glaser then proceeded to describe the potential mechanisms that would link energy security to national security and conflict.

Mechanisms that Link Energy Dependence and Conflict

I. The first set of mechanisms focuses specifically on U.S. energy dependence.

1. If the U.S. ability to fight a war is based on the flow of oil, then this poses a combat vulnerability. In the Cold War when trying to prepare to fight in Europe, we did have that vulnerability. If the sea lines of communication (SLOCs) were vulnerable, it created a security problem. Right now that is not a real danger.

2. Threats to U.S. prosperity from energy security that are sufficiently great might require the US to fight to restore prosperity.

3. Energy-motivated alliances -- Another link between energy security and U.S. prosperity stems from the alliances the U.S. creates specifically for energy interests.

4. There is a potential mechanism linking national security to energy security through the relationship between U.S. energy needs and terrorism.

II. The second set of mechanisms deals with the influence of other states’ energy dependence on U.S. national security.

5. Alliances entering energy conflicts -- Alliances, forged out of non-energy motives, could get entangled in conflicts over energy that would require the U.S. coming to the defense of their allies.

6. Security dilemma mechanism – A country with a resource dependence that seeks to protect it with military power (e.g. China) may end up challenging other states’ and/or U.S. naval capabilities.

7. Energy dependence reduces U.S. foreign policy leverage  - If other great powers are major importers of oil, the U.S. is less able to pressure those oil-exporting countries. The U.S. has a hard time getting China to impose sanctions on Iran due to proliferation because of China’s imports from and investments in Iran.

The China Scenario (mechanism #6) is a relatively new situation:
China is a relatively new importer of oil -- it was an exporter until about 15 yrs ago. This will continue to grow in the next few decades no matter what. China’s oil imports are vulnerable to the U.S. navy because much of its oil comes from the Persian Gulf and it has no military ability between the Persian Gulf and Strait of Malacca. It is not a fluke that the U.S. controls the seas, but we have security and energy interests (and regional commitments) to make sure Japan and South Korea are supplied with oil. However, both countries cannot control the SLOCs since it’s a shared space that needs to be controlled. Any country that vulnerable would be concerned, but China is specifically worried about a conflict over Taiwan where the U.S. can coerce China by threatening access to the sea lanes and oil. To fight to protect Taiwan, China also needs a navy that can protect its maritime access and this is a multi-decade project.

The U.S. is already concerned about the growth of the Chinese navy. This itself may not lead to conflict but it will be one of the many things that can poison the U.S.-China relationship. The damage from this vulnerability will strain relations to make the crisis more likely (over Taiwan) and may escalate early. This is not simply resource wars but where energy is playing a role in the background that may make conflict more likely.

A Variant of Mechanism #2
Another potential example is Iran seeking to inhibit the U.S. ability to access Gulf oil for prosperity reasons. The case of Iran gets more interesting if/when it acquires nuclear weapons.

Based on analysis by Caitlin Talmadge, if Iran were to close the Strait of Hormuz, we could open it, but to open the strait, we would need to get involved in fairly extensive conventional operations on land and sea that could escalate. Iran wouldn’t think of using nuclear weapons to close the strait but the U.S. operations to open the strait could escalate rapidly causing their use to be more thinkable at later stages.

Iran is more likely to retaliate against U.S. coercion if/when it has nuclear weapons. Most of its current threats are undermined by a lack of a deterrent but it becomes less vulnerable to coercion if it if it acquires nuclear weapons and it could use them in a bargaining manner. Moreover, the most likely danger is that the targets the U.S. is attacking to re-open the straits are land targets and command and control nodes that, as Posen details, could lead to inadvertent escalation.

Broader points/takeaways
It is not clear that U.S. insecurity has increased in the past two decades, but if it has, energy security is less a problem for the reasons people often point to (like high energy prices) and more likely a problem for reasons like instability in the Gulf. The scenarios with China and nuclear Iran are newer problems and these dangers do not arise out of standard resource war arguments. It is also possible that energy self-sufficiency may abate some of the dangers.

Energy dependence may be replacing the value of territory and the terrain of energy transport is becoming more like territory, which invokes a more traditional set of mechanisms for conflict. China naval expansion seems to be triggering a real security dilemma, which is always exacerbated by bad inter-state relations. We have to decide whether we want China to be vulnerable over oil. It certainly gives us leverage. But it may be more dangerous than the value of coercion. China is buffering itself with a large petroleum reserve. The further it can push back the window of energy coercion, the better for stability.  Thus we should be encouraging China to do this.

Rapporteur: Sameer Lalwani

back to Wednesday Seminar Series, Spring 2011