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.
- For now, China does not have the ability to interrupt the flow of oil.
- Iran does have ability to cut off for an specific amount of time.
- Maybe a story about China-Iran alliance could claim this. This is likely far-fetched but projecting a few decades forward might make this possible, though unlikely.
2. Threats to U.S. prosperity from energy security that are sufficiently great might require the US to fight to restore prosperity.
- This may not be classified as “security threat” but it involves U.S. fighting in response.
- The Gulf War offers an example -- the oil cutoff did not hurt security, only prosperity, but we fight a war for it.
- The threat is not greater now than it was 10-15 yrs before that. And recently the threat is lower since 1991.
- This may be harder to say now with the recent Middle East uprising.
- The major cutoff scenario that would pose a threat is the cutoff of Saudi oil under four possible scenarios:
- Saudi Arabia simply decided not to sell oil
- However, they are unlikely to do this. Could they afford it? They probably could for a bit making it within range, but unlikely.
- The collapse of Saudi regime
- A year ago many said it was unlikely and it still is, but it is perhaps more possible due to recent uprisings. This is a real danger here. Press and Gholz identify a Saudi cutoff as large enough threat to justify the use of force. But could the U.S. effectively intervene and restore the flow of oil if there was a clear disruption? This is uncertain.
- The prospect of Saudi facilities being attacked
- This poses a possible source of outside disruption.
- Another possible scenario is a cutoff of oil supply from the Strait of Hormuz
- This scenario has been examined but not with a nuclear Iran, which would be more capable than a conventional Iran of cutting off this supply.
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.
- Conflicts may not be over energy but energy may be the reason the U.S. is drawn into an alliance and thus into conflict.
- An example of this would be bringing Georgia into NATO.
- The claim for NATO expansion to Georgia is energy interests, though this may be an opportunistic rationale since there’s no strategic or inherent reason for the relationship.
- However, if a Georgia-Russia conflict were to occur, it would not stem over oil but still might cause NATO to intervene to honor its commitments. Though this may not be likely, it is a real possibility. In other words, if this became a threat to US national security or involved it in conflict, it would be because of initial energy considerations.
4. There is a potential mechanism linking national security to energy security through the relationship between U.S. energy needs and terrorism.
- The U.S. need for energy leads it into Middle Eastern involvement, particularly in Saudi Arabia, and in conflicts like the Gulf war, which does generate some energy for al Qaeda in opposing the U.S. forward bases present largely based on energy. There is a case to be made that less involvement in the Middle East results in al-Qaeda having less interest in us. Anti-Americanism and terrorism may stem out of such energy interests, but it is still possible to assess that, even accepting this, al-Qaeda may not pose much of a danger.
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.
- This possibility exists if China and Japan to get into conflict over energy resources in the East China Sea. If this conflict occurs, the U.S. would get drawn into that conflict potentially resulting in major power conflict.
- This conflict over the maritime boundary was much less intensive before it was discovered that oil and gas may be present. Thus the role of energy and increasing value intensifies competition and the claims over boundaries and islands.
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.
- This could spark competition and though it does not lead to war itself, it could strain political relations and drive a military expansion, making war more likely. As a result, China’s dependence on oil offers potential leverage as well as a source of danger for the United States.
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.
- Nuclear proliferation is generally bad for security, particularly with Iran, and there is a belief that energy interests/relations inhibit our ability to crack down on this, thus resulting in a security problem.
- In broad terms it undercuts our leverage. A similar pattern has emerged with Russian economic interests in Iran with regards to nuclear reactor sales.
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.
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