A conversation with Michael Klare, author of Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet

April 15, 2008

Your last book, Blood and Oil, warned of the United States’ growing dependence on imported oil and the dangers it brings to Americans at home and abroad. Has there been any change in the world’s resources since that book was published?

Two things have happened: First, the intensity of demand has increased dramatically as China and India (and other rapidly industrializing developing nations) have stepped-up their consumption of oil, coal, natural gas, and uranium to meet the rising energy needs of their booming economies. Second, energy experts have become increasingly pessimistic about the future availability of petroleum, due to an increased rate of decline of many of the world’s existing oil fields and a failure by the major energy firms to discover many new giant fields to replace those in decline.

Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet argues that international power will no longer depend solely on a nation’s military might, but instead on its energy reserves. How has this already played out on the international stage? And how will it continue as resources become more scarce?

Surely the most dramatic indication of this trend is the emergence of Russia as an “energy superpower” by dint of its massive reserves of oil and natural gas. Although widely viewed as a marginal world player following the collapse of the USSR in 1992, Russia has emerged as a self-confident world power in the years since Vladimir Putin assumed the presidency and reasserted state control over Russia’s major oil and gas companies. Putin has used this power to influence and intimidate neighboring states such as Ukraine that rely on Russia for vital energy supplies. Now, with his protégé, Dmitry Medvedev, ensconced in the Kremlin, he plans to extend Russia’s political sway even further afield, as more and more countries become dependent on Russian oil and gas. In Latin America, Hugo Chávez of Venezuela has also sought to exploit his country’s abundance of oil and gas to achieve political objectives, much to the chagrin of Washington. A similar pattern can be expected in other energy-surplus states as global supplies dwindle and consuming countries must compete with one another for access to whatever remains.

What does this mean for the United States role as the sole superpower?

The United States remains the world’s sole military superpower, but it is unclear what advantage this offers in a world of shrinking energy supplies and intense competition for what remains of them. Because the United States must import the vast bulk of its petroleum supplies, it is exporting hundreds of billions of dollars every year, and this is contributing to the declining value of the dollar and the gradual enfeeblement of the U.S. economy—bad signs for a supposed superpower. Meanwhile, foreign petro-states like Russia, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates are becoming richer in comparison to the United States, enhancing their ability to dominate the world economy—and to buy up valuable segments of U.S. banks and corporations, as the Saudis and Kuwaitis have recently been doing. Thus, while the U.S. remains the world’s sole superpower in military terms, it is no longer the sole superpower in economic terms.

In the book, you warn of the possibility that growing competition among the major energy-consuming powers for shrinking supplies of vital resources will lead in time to violent conflict.  How great is this danger?

I do not believe that the Great Powers would ever deliberately choose to go to war over oil, natural gas, or uranium—the destructive consequences of modern war are just too great for that.  But I do show how they are engaging in behaviors that make the danger of inadvertent or accidental war ever greater.  These include the use of arms deliveries as an inducement to oil producers to sign major supply contracts, or the establishment of military bases in unstable oil-producing regions.  As these activities multiply, there is an ever-growing danger that the major consuming nations will provoke regional arms races and get drawn into local resource disputes, thus increasing the risk of unintended Great Power-conflicts.

What effect does the rapid rise of China and India have on the world’s resources?

Mainly, the rapid rise of China and India are increasing the demand for global supplies of energy and industrial minerals. Until very recently, China and India consumed only a small share of these materials, especially in comparison to the older industrial powers. As the pace of their economic growth has accelerated, however, China and India have begun to compete on equal terms with the older powers in their consumption of vital resources— and in some cases to overtake them. China is now the world’s leading consumer of iron, copper, aluminum, cement, and many other minerals, and is catching up to the United States in its consumption of oil. India’s resource demands are not yet as great as those of China, but as its economy continues to grow, it, too, will overtake the older industrial powers in the level of demand. What this means, of course, is that the world’s natural resource base is being subjected to an unprecedented –and unsustainable—level of demand.

In the book, you show how the increased demand for cars, appliances, and utilities in nations such as China and India having a negative impact on the environment. What does this mean for the future of the world and its resources?

Every time a country has commenced its entry into the Industrial Revolution, beginning with England, France, Germany, and the United States in the 19th century, it has used resources in a profligate manner and dumped its wastes into the surrounding environment causing serious and widespread destruction; eventually, most mature industrialized nations have learned the folly of their ways and adopted strict environmental controls. Now, China and India are following the same trajectory, displaying the careless utilization of resources we associate with the early years of the Industrial Revolution. But unfortunately, due to our own recklessness in previous years, the planet (and the surrounding atmosphere) is less well-equipped to absorb a fresh round of damage on the scale that China and India is about to inflict upon it. Hence, the effects of China’s and India’s environmental insults are likely to be catastrophic not only for their own populations but—in the form of accelerated global warming –the entire world’s.

How can the U.S. and other leading nations convince these countries to clean up their act?

Because, as I’ve indicated, we in the mature industrialized nations bear responsibility for the earlier damage to the environment, we cannot simply criticize China and India for following in our footsteps rather than jumping immediately to our more enlightened (though not always rigorously enforced) policies of the current era. Adopting tough environmental standards entails an economic cost that the Chinese and Indians are not willing to bear alone, especially at this early stage of their economic modernization, and so if we want them to jump ahead to more advanced (and more costly) technologies, we will have to expect to bear some of the burden. Given that we are all at risk from global warming, it seems to me that we could all benefit from cooperative efforts aimed at enhancing the environmental performance of China’s and India’s energy systems—for example, through efforts to reduce the carbon dioxide emissions of their coal-fired power plants.

Another consequence of scarce resources, you write, are the unlikely alliances between energy-deficient nations and energy-rich states. What threat do these coalitions pose to the rest of the world?

I worry about alliances that take on a geopolitical character because I think they introduce new sources of instability in the world. For example, I worry about an energy alliance between China and Russia that also assumes a military dimension. After the United States blocked China’s acquisition of the Unocal Corporation—an episode that I recount in the book—China strengthened its ties with Russia. This was intended in part to increase Chinese imports of Russian oil and gas, but also to bolster Sino-Russian military ties. The two also accelerated their efforts to convert the Shanghai Cooperation Organization—a loose confederation of Central Asian states—into an overtly anti-American security organization. All of this sets the stage for a New Cold War between Russia and China on one side, and the United States and its allies on the other—an unhealthy development with unforeseeable risks.

In many ways, Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet, seems like a gloomy prognostication for the future of our world, one that seems unavoidable. Can anything be done to save our planet?

This prognosis stems from our current determination to consume more and more of the planet’s vital resources and from the major consuming nations’ tendency to view their competition over what remains of these materials as a zero-sum contest, with winners and losers. In the final chapter of the book, I argue that we must turn this competition into a cooperative rather than combative relationship, in which the major consuming nations—especially the United States and China—collaborate in the development of alternative fuels and energy-saving technologies, making all of us winners and slowing the disappearance of vital materials. This is a logical, practical response to the situation we face—and one that could spark an economic revitalization in the United States

You show in your book how our depleting resources will be an important issue for the next president. Are the candidates addressing the issue in their campaign? What should voters know when it comes to deciding on a candidate based on this issue?

Although the 2009 presidential election is not focused specifically on the issues raised in this book, they constitute a significant subtext for the respective campaigns. For example, any discussion of rising gasoline prices, global warming, alternative energy, China, Russia, and the war in Iraq, bears, to some degree, on the Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet conundrum. Essentially, the Republican candidates have largely defended the current energy paradigm—Big Oil, King Coal, nuclear power, and so on—along with the use of military force to protect American access to overseas sources of petroleum. The Democrats, for their part, have stressed a “new energy” paradigm based on conservation and energy alternatives, plus a reduced reliance on military force. Most voters are aware of the difference, and the election’s outcome will depend, to at least some degree, on their preference for one energy paradigm or the other.

Tags: Fossil Fuels, Geopolitics & Military, Oil, Politics