Dec 10th 2012

Energy Independence - Free at Last?

by Michael Brenner

Dr. Michael Brenner is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations. He publishes and teaches in the fields of American foreign policy, Euro-American relations, and the European Union. He is also Professor of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh. Brenner is the author of numerous books, and over 60 articles and published papers on a broad range of topics. These include books with Cambridge University Press (Nuclear Power and Non-Proliferation) and the Center For International Affairs at Harvard University (The Politics of International Monetary Reform); and publications in major journals in the United States and Europe, such as World Politics, Comparative Politics, Foreign Policy, International Studies Quarterly, International Affairs, Survival, Politique Etrangere, and Internationale Politik. His most recent work is Toward A More Independent Europe, Egmont Institute, Brussels.

There is a current of excitement running through the foreign affairs community sparked by the prospect that the United States will cease being a net energy importer within 25 years. The International Energy Agency's annual World Energy Outlook 2012 projects that by 2035 or so, the country will produce enough oil and natural gas to dispense with most foreign supplies. New extraction techniques rather than discovery of new sources is the deus ex machina that is slated to work this startling turnabout. Were this seeming potential to be realized, some imagine the United States gaining freedom of action in dealing with the oil-rich states of the Middle East as well as troublesome commercial partners elsewhere like Venezuela. We might choose to ignore them altogether. Moreover, as a net exporter itself, the United States could gain leverage on other parties. That is the happy vision that is tantalizing to global strategists.

How justified is this celebration of a euphoric future? Is it premature? Should we worry about irrational exuberance?

The liberation of America from the coils of world energy politics thanks to a newfound self-sufficiency is a nice theme for a magazine cover story. However, it is a gross over-simplification of the still uncertain, and certainly complex, realty that awaits us. Here are a few prudent considerations to keep in mind before jumping to radical conclusions.

First, energy experts are not of one mind as to the odds on achieving complete independence. There are several variables that must be factored in to the equation, and predictions about most have wide confidence margins. They are technical: the relative ease of deep water, hydraulic fracturing and sand tar extraction technologies on a massive scale. They are economic: Can oil produced by using these costly methods compete with lower cost oil from traditional sources if world prices drop? They are environmental. They are political, possible domestic political constraints being the most prominent.

Second, there is no readily definable magic threshold beyond which the balance of dependency between supplier states and consumer states, and thereby reciprocal influence, shifts drastically. That is to say, the energy trade, like most international commerce, is symbiotic; it has its own logic. However, the motivations of governments are not solely economic. There are realpolitik and nationalist sentiments at play as well.

Third, the United States' relations with major suppliers in the Middle East and elsewhere are multi-dimensional. They involve a host of national interests. Have we forgotten the "war on terror," "the war on proliferation," the democracy promotion project and our national dedication to shaping the world's affairs according to our own lights? Then there is the open-ended commitment to Israel's security and well-being.

Fourth, in a world of economic interdependence, it makes no sense to speak of the United States economy as if it were autarkic. So long as other major economies remain energy dependent, their vulnerability to supply disruption is our problem as well. Economic security in today's world cannot be achieved within one's sovereign boundaries, by dint of one's own efforts alone. There is no such thing as economic security in one country -- whatever its energy situation. And energy is still the most crucial element needed to sustain the global economy.

Economic conditions in one country are heavily dependent on economic performance in other major national economies. If the European Union, Japan or China experiences a severe downturn, it quickly will have serious repercussions on the United States. The precise degree of sensitivity to external developments cannot be calculated. Some countries, e.g. Germany, have a larger share of their economic activity directly associated with imports and exports than some others, e.g. the United States. For the former it is 44 percent, for the latter it is 16 percent. But even the United States is unable to insulate itself from macro economic developments among the largest national economies. The global financial crisis of 2008 demonstrated vividly both the fragility of current interdependence, the weakness of coordinating mechanisms, the flawed abilities of their managers, and the swiftness with which seismic effects race around the globe. So, by implication, energy security for the United States encompasses the energy security of the developed world generally -- if the measuring rod is performance and stability of the global macro economy.

The last thing we need is another sudden change in the cyclical pattern of euphoria and dread that has marked American thinking about its place in the world. The vision of energy independence carries that unfortunate potential.

So, save the high fives.

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Oct 30th 2020
EXTRACT: "At this stage, the Trumpian personality cult has completely dispensed with the need for actual plans and proposals (indeed, the Republican Party, which Trump now controls, did not even bother to offer a policy platform for the election). Trump embodies whatever his supporters want, even when they themselves don’t know what that is. This is all too typical of fascist leaders, who usually function as a father figure for those susceptible to the appeal of an authoritarian personality. As the father of the “MAGA” nation, Trump decides what is best for his children, and it is this patriarchal authority that provides the rationale for violence, lies, and even dictatorship."
Oct 28th 2020
EXTRACT: "One thing is certain: a highly contested election would cause further damage to America’s global image as an exemplar of democracy and the rule of law, eroding its soft power. Particularly over the past four years, the country has increasingly come to be regarded as a political basket case. While hoping that the chaotic outcomes outlined above do not come to pass – polls still show a strong lead for Biden – investors should be preparing for the worst, not just on election day but in the weeks and months thereafter. "
Oct 27th 2020
EXTRACT: "China’s approach today is similar: first, insulate its citizens from a virulent pathogenic contagion with draconian public-health measures aimed at containing and mitigating the spread of the disease, and then – and only then – make judicious use of monetary and fiscal policy to reinforce the post-lockdown snapback. This is very different from the approach taken in the US, where the post-lockdown debate is more about using monetary and fiscal policies as front-line instruments of economic liberation, rather than relying on disciplined public-health measures aimed at virus containment........ This underscores the sharp contrast between China’s COVID-first strategy and the America-first approach of US President Donald Trump’s administration. In China, unlike the US, there is no political and public resistance to masks, social distancing, and aggressive testing as requisite norms of the COVID-19 era. Meanwhile, the US is in the midst of its third serious wave of infection while China continues to exercise prompt and effective control over new outbreaks. Earlier this autumn, for example, some nine million citizens in Qingdao were tested in just five days after a relatively small outbreak affecting fewer than 20 residents. By contrast, Trump wears his own experience with COVID-19 infection as some perverse badge of courage, rather than as a warning of what may lie ahead."
Oct 20th 2020
EXTRACTS: Disney has announced a significant restructuring of its media and entertainment business, boldly placing most of its growth ambitions and investments into its recently launched streaming service, Disney+…. From a corporate strategy perspective, the move is remarkable on two fronts. Firstly, the sheer velocity of this pivot for a company the size and age of Disney is, for lack of a better word, unprecedented….Let’s not forget that it was just last year that Disney held a near 40% revenue share of the US box office….. The fact that in just seven months of the pandemic breaking out, Disney decided to reinvent itself primarily around streaming speaks volumes about its expectations regarding the pandemic length. Clearly the group decided that waiting it out was no longer an option.”
Oct 10th 2020
EXTRACTS: "Strange as it is to say, but it is no longer uncommon to hear talk of insurrection, martial law, and civil war in the United States......... Apocalyptic warnings that next month’s election will descend into crisis are coming hard and fast....... While the atmosphere in the US is already alarming, it is worth considering just how bad things could become. There is ample reason to worry that an election-related conflict could devolve into atrocity crimes against black and brown civilians on US soil........ Genocide and mass atrocities have happened all too often, including in America. The question is not whether it could happen here, but whether it can be prevented."
Oct 9th 2020
EXTRACT: "Fifty years ago, Milton Friedman published an article in the New York Times that articulated what has come to be known as the Friedman doctrine: “the social responsibility of business is to increase its profits.” It was a theme he had developed in his 1962 book Capitalism and Freedom, where he argued that the “one and only” responsibility business owes to society is the pursuit of profits within the legal rules of the game. The Friedman doctrine put its stamp on our era. It legitimized the freewheeling capitalism that produced economic insecurity, fueled rising inequality, deepened regional divides, and intensified climate change and other environmental problems. Ultimately, it also led to a social and political backlash. Many large businesses have responded by engaging in – or paying lip service to – the notion of corporate social responsibility."
Oct 7th 2020
EXTRACT: "China is well on its way to becoming a cashless society. More than 600 million Chinese already use Alibaba’s Alipay and Tencent’s WeChat Pay to pay for much of what they purchase. Between them, the two companies control approximately 90% of China’s mobile payments market, which totaled some $17 trillion in 2019. A wide variety of sectors throughout China have since adopted Blockchain to pay bills, settle disputes in court and track shipments. The Chinese government understands that, via Blockchain, the issuance of its own cryptocurrency is an excellent way to track and record the movement of payments, goods and people."
Oct 6th 2020
EXTRACT: "The American Republic was founded by Protestants, and American elites were for a long time largely Protestant........But something extraordinary has happened since the republic was founded by Protestants in 1776. Five of the eight current Supreme Court justices are Catholics, and soon there may be six. The one Protestant on the court, Neil Gorsuch, was raised Catholic. (The other two justices are Jewish.) Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House of Representatives, is Catholic, as is the US attorney general, William Barr. And Joe Biden, who might be the next president, is Catholic, too."
Oct 5th 2020
EXTRACT: "...... the economic pain inflicted by COVID-19 is not being borne by publicly traded companies. It is falling on small businesses and individual service proprietors – from dry cleaners to restaurants to entertainment providers – that are not listed on the stock market (which leans more toward manufacturing). These smaller players simply do not have the capital needed to survive a shock of this duration and magnitude. And government programs that have helped keep them afloat for a while are beginning to lapse, raising the risk of a snowball effect in the event of a second wave."
Oct 4th 2020
EXTRACT: "Trump’s disinclination – and perhaps inability – to reach beyond his right-wing base, which is insufficient to elect him, also calls into question his political acumen, and is one of many reasons to doubt his basic intelligence (an issue on which he is quite sensitive). But one thing about the president is now clearer than ever: in order to perpetuate his hold on power, Trump is testing the constitution in unprecedented ways. "
Sep 30th 2020
EXTRACT: "With the US presidential election barely a month away, former Vice President Joe Biden and his advisers are devising his national-security policy and creating shortlists to fill the cabinet’s ranking positions in the event that he defeats President Donald Trump. But while presidential hopefuls traditionally have focused first on contenders to run the state, defense, and treasury departments, this time is different. With the intelligence community in an increasingly perilous state, Biden should choose a top spymaster before making any other personnel decisions."
Sep 29th 2020
While today's mounting global disruptions have accelerated an ongoing shift in global power dynamics, neither China's rise nor the emergence of COVID-19 can be blamed for the West's lost primacy. The United States and the United Kingdom took care of that on their own, with a complacent Europe watching it happen.
Sep 28th 2020
EXTRACT: "One thing is clear: the world cannot trust Xi’s dictatorship. The sooner we recognize this and act together, the sooner the Beijing bullies will have to behave better. The world will be safer and more prosperous for it."
Sep 27th 2020
EXTRACT: "Four years of political turmoil under Trump may well end with massive violence akin to a civil war. Trump is priming his base to act violently, and with over 390 million firearms in the hands of Americans, one can only imagine the calamitous consequences if violence is to erupt between his supporters and those who oppose him..... The Republican leadership in every state and every municipality are the prime body that can stop this potential calamity from occurring. Time is of the essence. Should the Republican Party as a whole fall short of taking a stand against Trump at this juncture, they will subject the nation to turmoil unseen since the Civil War. Not a single Republican leader will be able to claim that he or she were not warned."
Sep 27th 2020
EXTRACT: "I continue to expect this broad dollar index to plunge by as much as 35% by the end of 2021. This reflects three considerations: rapid deterioration in US macroeconomic imbalances, the ascendancy of the euro and the renminbi as viable alternatives, and the end of that special aura of American exceptionalism that has given the dollar Teflon-like resilience for most of the post-World War II era."
Sep 26th 2020
EXTRACT: "Covid-19 essentially hit the “fast forward” button on emerging trends in a variety of sectors of national economies, hastening the demise of the shopping mall, laying bare how unnecessary being physically located in commercial work spaces is, and sounding the death knell for numerous 100+ year-old brands that had failed to adapt to the blistering pace of change in the digital economy. Failure to contemplate and embrace the future is leaving carnage in its wake.......The onslaught of dramatic change that has accompanied Covid-19 reminds us that fragile systems crack when exposed to unexpected events while antifragile systems have the ability to resist shocks."
Sep 24th 2020
EXTRACT: "China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, recently declared that aggression and expansionism have never been in the Chinese nation’s “genes.” It is almost astonishing that he managed to say it with a straight face. Aggression and expansionism obviously are not genetic traits, but they have defined President Xi Jinping’s tenure. Xi, who in some ways has taken up the expansionist mantle of Mao Zedong, is attempting to implement a modern version of the tributary system that Chinese emperors used to establish authority over vassal states: submit to the emperor, and reap the benefits of peace and trade with the empire."
Sep 16th 2020
EXTRACT: "Seventy-five years ago, the prestige of the United States and the United Kingdom could not have been higher. They had defeated imperial Japan and Nazi Germany, and they did so in the name of freedom and democracy. True, their ally, Stalin’s Soviet Union, had different ideas about these fine ideals, and did most of the fighting against Hitler’s Wehrmacht. Still, the English-speaking victors shaped the post-war order in large parts of the world. The basic principles of this order had been laid down in the Atlantic Charter, drawn up in 1941 by Winston Churchill and President Franklin D. Roosevelt on a battleship off the coast of Newfoundland."
Sep 14th 2020
EXTRACT: "After Trump’s inauguration in January of 2017, millions demonstrated their disapproval. We can expect the same, no matter how this election turns out. With both sides framing this election in “end of the world” terms; with the president calling into question the legitimacy of the vote, even before it happens; and with the president warning his supporters that they may have to take up arms to defend him – we have a recipe for disaster that may occur in the days that follow this election. This may very well be the Armageddon election of our lifetime."
Sep 8th 2020
EXTRACT: "The Huawei case is a harbinger of a world in which national security, privacy, and economics will interact in complicated ways. Global governance and multilateralism will often fail, for both good and bad reasons. The best we can expect is a regulatory patchwork, based on clear ground rules that help empower countries to pursue their core national interests without exporting their problems to others. Either we design this patchwork ourselves, or we will end up, willy-nilly, with a messy, less efficient, and more dangerous version."