Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet: The New Geopolitics of Energy, by Michael T. Klare
Reviewed By Dick Platkin
In his new movie "W," a biopic about outgoing President George W. Bush, director Oliver Stone has Dick Cheney (played by Richard Dreyfuss) narrate a series of large-screen slides that demonstrate how the countries adjacent to the Persian Gulf and Caspian Sea contain most of the world’s proven oil and gas reserves. As the Cheney-Dreyfuss presentation unfolds, we see the locations where the U.S. government has constructed dozens upon dozens of Middle East military installations since the first Gulf War. We are also told that the country which controls these Middle Eastern oil and gas reserves will control the Eurasian continent. This, in turn, will become key for the U.S. to maintain its dominant position in the global economy.
Much of Cheney’s program for the United States to retain its imperial role as the hegemonic world power can be understood in detail from a close reading of Michael T. Klare’s most recent book, Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet: The New Geopolitics of Energy, (Metropolitan Books, 2008). For those not familiar with Klare, he is The Nation’s Defense Editor and also a professor of Peace and World Security Studies at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts.
Klare’s current volume, as well as his previous books, Blood and Oil and Resource Wars, are essential reading for anyone who wants an accessible but scary take on the oil and gas component of the U.S. military build up of the past 12 years, as well as the ongoing Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the likely wars in Pakistan and Iran, superpower conflict, and the looming environmental crises already expressing themselves through climate change and global warming.
Building on his previous arguments, Klare carefully documents how all sources of non-renewable energy—oil, gas, uranium, and coal—are, in that order, being depleted, with oil already at or approaching peak production. While coal might last the longest, it is also the least efficient and dirtiest source of non-sustainable energy and therefore, in Klare’s view, a deplorable way to maintain our technological dependence on hydrocarbons.
Klare is clear that private and public sector efforts to develop renewable, sustainable sources of energy, as well as alternatives to a vast array of commercial products based on oil or gas, from fertilizers to fabrics, are strictly token. The primary response of all governments to these new and imminent energy shortages, in particular Washington—from President Jimmy Carter in 1980 to the next presidential administration and the beyond—is to respond to peak oil and peak gas, and eventually peak uranium and coal, through energy wars.
Klare argues that even if the public and private sectors devoted the trillions necessary to develop and implement renewable sources of energy and chemical processes, it would take at least 30 years to complete the transition to a non-hydrocarbon based technology. But, with those trillions devoted to militarism and energy wars for the foreseeable future, Klare’s predictions are extremely grim.
The only caveat is that a deep recession might slightly extend the time line for hydrocarbons by reducing industrial and consumer demand. While an optimist might therefore conclude that fewer energy wars are, therefore, in the offing, the pessimists’ response is that deep financial crises are just as dangerous, historically, as energy competition, in ushering in wars. In some cases, including both WWI and WWII, the energy and economic components of modern war merged, such as the successful efforts of the British to defeat the Ottoman Empire in WWI in order to gain control of the oil fields of the Middle East.
As for the United States, Klare points out that the most important policy declaration—that the oil and gas of the Persian Gulf was an ongoing strategic U.S. interest and that our government would use military force to secure it—was articulated by President Jimmy Carter in his 1980 State of the Union address—long before Dick Cheney became Vice-President or Richard Dreyfuss was able to conjure an imagined Cheney speech in "W." Moreover, the portion of Dreyfuss-Cheney’s movie scene on the strategic importance of controlling the Eurasian content came from the same author of the Carter Doctrine, Carter’s National Security Advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski.
In other words, most of Cheney’s movie presentation had its intellectual roots in the work of the Democratic Party’s most prominent foreign policy specialist. Klare also points out that since the Carter presidency, the Carter Doctrine has been the basis of all U.S. government policy in the Middle East, including its expansion under Bush-Cheney to the Caspian Sea and Afghanistan-Pakistan areas, as well as its obfuscation as a “war on terrorism” rather than a war for oil and gas.
By implication, then, Klare’s analysis leads to the uncomfortable conclusion that at present U.S. elections do not offer an effective political path to thwart energy wars, militarism, or skewed bi-partisan domestic priorities derived from these priorities, in particular zealous policing, spying and surveillance, and bloated prisons. Furthermore, in Klare’s universe there is little reason to expect domestic change under a Democratic administration because of this country’s long, bi-partisan record of suppressing civil liberties during war-time and national emergencies, such as Truman’s post-WW II repression of the U.S. left and LBJ’s use of Cointelpro against the anti-war movement of the 1960s.
To the extent that the book has a weakness, it is Klare’s poor articulation of the non-parliamentary political alternatives available to those willing to roll up their shirt sleeves to create a world free of regional energy wars, possible world wars, domestic political repression, food shortages, and climate change. Let us hope that in his next study on the geopolitics of energy, Klare will discuss the small-scale energy pioneers creating the alternative technologies and life styles which might demonstrate real technical solutions. He also needs to pay serious attention to those non-electoral political activists taking the lead on the closely related issues of the environment and the war machine through forums, rallies, marches, direct actions, community and campus organizing, and out-reach to current and prospective soldiers.
Dick Platkin, a city planner in Los Angeles who did graduate studies in sociology at UCLA, is a cofounder of the group LA Jews for Peace.