Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet:  The New Geopolitics of Energy by Michael T. Klare.  Holt Paperbacks, New York, 2009.

Michael T. Klare has written a comprehensive study of energy on a global scale.  Energy from hydrocarbon fuels is essential to our modern way of life.  The demand for energy leads to competition for these finite resources, driving up the price.   Klare notes that a modern industrial society cannot function in isolation from the global economy. Competition between countries over energy supplies could well lead to military conflicts.

The book begins with an overview of global energy resources, especially oil, natural gas, coal, and uranium.  Just where are these resources located?  Which countries are highly dependent on energy imports?  How long will oil last at current consumption rates?  Klare addresses these questions from various governmental and private sector sources on energy and economic trends.

To supply the rising international demand, the U.S. Department of Energy (DoE) anticipates that the next quarter century requires an increase of 57% in energy supplies.  World oil production is at or near peak levels, and expected to decline in coming years. For transportation, there is no widely available alternative to petroleum.  Without adequate fuel for transportation, globalization will fall apart.

The military uses huge amounts of oil.  During World War II, the U.S. used one gallon of petroleum per day per soldier.  This rose to 4 gallons by the Gulf War I, to 16 gallons for the Afghanistan war. It would not be surprising if the military at some point took firm control of energy resources in the name of “national security.”  Remember World War II gas rationing?

Separate chapters focus on specific countries and regions that are large energy suppliers, consumers, or both. Russia plays an important role in global energy, supplying natural gas to former Soviet Republics and much of Western Europe.  With some of the world’s largest reserves of coal, oil, and natural gas, Russia is reasserting itself economically on the world stage after a period of decline.  Another chapter focuses on Chinese-Japanese competition for resources in the South China Sea.  Further chapters focus on the quest for energy resources in the Caspian Sea basin, Africa, and the Persian Gulf.

The Caspian Sea

The Caspian Sea is a focal point of current exploration and development of oil and natural gas.   After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, many Central Asian “Soviet Republics” became independent states: Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia.  These countries, along with Russia and Iran, are all involved in developing regional energy resources.

Energy resources here were largely undeveloped during the Communist era, as resources in Russia received higher priority. Today, Caspian Sea energy development is intense and complex.  There is strong interest in the region from multi-national energy corporations, China, Russia, the U.S. and India.   Disagreement over placement of future pipelines is based on economics and security.  For example, a pipeline to the Arabian Sea for easier access to India and Asian markets is problematical due to continuing war and political instability in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Corruption, authoritarianism, and outside intervention are all short- to medium-term problems.   The long-term legacy for the Caspian Sea basin will likely be environmental degradation and unrelieved poverty.  The U.S., Russia, and China are likely to come into direct competition over Caspian Sea resources.  Economic alliances may lead to military alliances and a regional arms race.  Increased tensions could lead to direct military conflict between various players, in an area expected to be a major global energy supplier for about three decades.   

The Persian Gulf—An American Lake

Close U.S.--Middle Eastern ties began in earnest after World War II, with U.S. military bases established in Saudi Arabia in 1946, and in Bahrain, in 1948. 

As the British reduced their forces in Southwest Asia, the U.S. assumed a greater role.  During the 1970s, the Shah of Iran, with strong U.S. support, was a key player in the region. The Iranian Revolution turned the status quo upside down.  The crisis of the American hostages in Iran, combined with the Soviet Union invading Afghanistan, prompted the Carter Doctrine. 

In his State of the Union Address of 1980, President Jimmy Carter told Congress, “Let our position be absolutely clear.  An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region would be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States” and it would “be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.”   This has been a basic premise of American foreign policy ever since.

The Persian Gulf is metaphorically an American Lake, in the news called simply “the Gulf.”  There are many U.S. forces and bases in the region, from long before current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  The Gulf Region has nearly 2/3 of the world’s known oil reserves, and various conflicts over these resources remain a very real possibility.


Africa has a long colonial history, the shackles of European Colonialism broken from the late 1950s to the 1970s. Independence often led to protracted civil war.  Few countries have evolved to stable governments free of military domination.  Serious corruption is the norm.

Several sub-Saharan countries-- Sudan, Nigeria, Gabon, and Angola—have oil in modest amounts.  While not huge, these reserves are significant.

Nigeria has a 50-year history of oil production.  Oil spills and lax environmental regulations have left a toxic legacy of dying coastal areas and heavily polluted waters.  Corruption has made a few very rich, with little economic benefit for most who live there.  Similar trends are evident in Angola and other African oil producing states.

Klare outlines several economic initiatives China has undertaken Africa, in exchange for assurance of future access to oil and other resources.  Diplomatically and economically, the Chinese government has pragmatically been wooing many African countries, hoping to diversify its energy supplies, needed to continue China’s rapid economic expansion.   The Chinese have tended to ignore human rights abuses and political rights, making deals with countries like Sudan and Zimbabwe, while Europe and the U.S. see these countries as near pariah states.  

Some in Africa see these Chinese initiatives as beneficial and hopeful, leading to improvements of infrastructure and economic development, based on the Chinese model.  Others fear that the Chinese, like the Europeans, just want their resources and nothing will really improve.

Cooperation Among Large Energy Consuming Nations

In his conclusion, Klare offers a hopeful solution.  As the world’s largest economies, energy consumers, and responsible for nearly 2/3 of the emissions contributing to global warming, the U.S. and China need to address these issues together.  There is a weak precedent for this approach with the various Cold War summits between the U.S. and Soviet Union leading to arms reduction negotiations.

Cooperative investment and development of existing energy reserves should be combined with bilateral scientific research and development projects on hydrogen vehicles, biofuels, geothermal, and other potential alternative sources of energy.

This calls for international cooperation may be naïve, as history tells us that there have been many wars fought over vital resources.  However, Klare rightfully points out that the alternative--militarization and geopolitical maneuvering--would postpone the necessary task of developing alternatives to oil and carbon based energy sources.  This would further aggravate global warming, increasing the severity of coming climate change.

For anyone interested in energy issues, this is a sound analysis of present and future trends.  In addition to a well-annotated text, there are many charts, maps, and graphs.  It clearly states the risks of continuing along our current path.  There are, however, two major weaknesses.

The first is Klare’s call for Chinese and American cooperation on energy planning and development.  In theory, this is an excellent idea, but naive.  Such cooperation between adversaries is unlikely without the public demanding it happen. It is unlikely that environmentalists with few funds could successfully gain enough public support to challenge the deep pockets of big oil on a political level.

The second point is Klare’s ignoring the negative role the private automobile plays in our energy policy. He proposes better fuel efficiency, and smaller, lighter cars.  There is little mention of changes in urban / suburban design, with mass transit (and walking) taking the place of the automobile in most cases.  Most Americans would not even consider giving up the perceived unlimited independence the car provides.   This is a significant factor contributing to the current era of energy insecurity. 

Global cooperation on energy and limiting private vehicles may be naïve.  It is also naïve to think that military force, using huge amounts of oil to protect the same oil, is the answer to our energy problems. Militarization will only hasten the day of its depletion. It is the same mentality that required destroying a village to protect it during the Viet Nam War. However, the era of the oil wars has already begun.

We must seriously address these energy-related issues on an individual, national, and global scale.  Research and development, conservation, greater efficiency, renewable sources of energy, diplomacy, and common sense are all desperately needed.  Otherwise, the militarization of acquiring energy supplies will lead to global environmental and economic bankruptcy.  

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