The Geopolitics of U.S. Energy Independence: A symposium of Views
Phil Verleger always makes an interesting argument. At this stage, one can only speculate about the geopolitical effects. Clearly, the strengthening of the U.S. economy enhances American economic power and runs against the current fashion of portraying the United States in decline. But one should be cautious about jumping to conclusions. A balance of imports and exports is only a first approximation of independence. As I argue in The Future of Power, interdependence involves both sensitivity and vulnerability. The United States may be less vulnerable in the long run if it imports less, but oil markets are fungible and our economy will remain sensitive to shocks from sudden changes in world oil prices. A revolution in Saudi Arabia or a blockage of the Straits of Hormuz could still inflict damage upon us, as well as upon our allies. Even if we did not have additional interests in the Middle East such as Israel or non-proliferation, it is unlikely that a balance of energy imports and exports will free us from military expenditures to protect oil routes that some experts estimate at $50 billion per year.
At the same time, America’s bargaining position in world politics should be enhanced. Power arises from asymmetries in interdependence. You and I may both depend on each other, but if I depend less than you do, my bargaining power is increased. For decades, the United States and Saudi Arabia have had a balance of asymmetries in which we depended on them as the swing producer of oil and they depended on us for ultimate military security. Now the bargains will be struck on somewhat better terms from our point of view. In the area of natural gas, Russia has enjoyed leverage over Europe and its small neighbors through its control of supply through pipelines. As North America becomes self-sufficient in gas, liquefied natural gas from various regions is freed up to provide alternative sources for Europe and this will diminish Russian leverage. In East Asia, which has become the focus of American foreign policy, China will find itself increasingly dependent on Middle East oil. American efforts to persuade China to play more of a role in producing public goods of stability in the region may be enhanced, and China’s awareness of the vulnerability of its supply routes to American naval disruption in the unlikely case of conflict could also have a subtle effect on the balance of bargaining power.
A balance of energy imports and exports does not produce pure independence, but it does alter the power relations involved in energy interdependence.