The Endangered Asian Century
America, China, and the Perils of Confrontation
The debate over whether U.S. interests abroad are better served by hard power—coercive means such as military force—or soft power—less aggressive means of persuasion, such as diplomacy, economic aid, and propaganda—is perennial. Since becoming president, Barack Obama has emphasized soft power, suggesting that an over-reliance on military force has alienated many of the United States’ friends and allies without achieving much in return. But many Republicans, and even some Democrats, accuse him of overcorrecting and, in turn, inviting bad behavior from the likes of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and Russia’s Vladimir Putin. For all their finger-pointing, both parties have, in reality, come to embrace an intermediary approach—what can best be called “energy power.”
Energy power is the exploitation of a nation’s advantages in energy output and technology to promote its global interests and undermine those of its rivals. This could mean, for example, providing energy to friends and allies that have become heavily dependent on supplies provided by a hostile power, as in U.S. efforts to wean Europe off its reliance on Russian natural gas. It can also mean deploying an oil rig in disputed waters as a means of asserting control, as in China’s drilling operations in the South China Sea. Energy power can be used to bolster ties with a geostrategic partner, as in the nuclear agreement forged between the United States and India, or to punish a recalcitrant neighbor, as in Russia’s repeated shut-off of natural gas supplies to Ukraine. Although not as harsh as hard power, energy power can entail policies that rise above the level of soft power.
Energy power has, of course, long been a feature of international statecraft. As Japan extended its prewar empire in Asia, for example, the United States, which was then Japan’s leading supplier of oil, imposed increasingly severe sanctions on energy exports to that country in an (ultimately unsuccessful) attempt to deter further Japanese aggression. In 1973–74, the Arab members of OPEC sought to discourage foreign support for Israel by imposing an embargo on oil deliveries to the United States and the Netherlands, triggering a global economic slowdown. In each example, hard power was never far from the minds of key policymakers; what makes the situation different today is that energy power has come to be seen as a viable alternative to hard power at a time when the use of military force—at least among the major powers— appears highly unlikely.
Consider the U.S. response to Russia’s incursions into Ukraine. In the past, this sort of behavior would have provoked stentorian warnings of possible U.S. military action and the conspicuous deployment of warships and fighter jets in nearby areas. But today, even the most hawkish of Republicans are ruling out the use of force. Instead, Democrats and Republicans alike have appointed the energy sector as their favored channel for scolding Putin. The Obama administration, for its part, has sought to deny Western financing and technology to Russian energy firms, hoping that doing so will slow the economy; the Republicans, preferring something more muscular, want to accelerate the delivery of U.S. natural gas to countries now reliant on Russian supplies. “The ability to turn the tables and put the Russian leader in check lies right beneath our feet,” House Speaker John Boehner proclaimed last March, “in the form of vast supplies of natural energy.”
U.S. leaders have also sought to apply energy power to other foreign policy puzzles. The recent surge in U.S. oil production has been cited as helpful for compelling Iran to seek a negotiated solution to the dispute over its nuclear enrichment activities. Whereas Iran was once able to counter the economic sanctions imposed by Washington by exploiting the worldwide thirst for its oil, it now finds itself increasingly isolated as rising U.S. output counteracts the impact of diminished Iranian exports.
There are a number of reasons why energy power is taking center stage, beginning with the reluctance to resort to hard power, especially against major powers. At the same time, however, many in Washington have become unsatisfied with soft power alone, and so seek more potent tools of influence. To these considerations, add growing fears about energy security and the safety of international supply networks.
Even more significant, perhaps, is the dramatic surge in U.S. oil and gas production. According to the Department of Energy, U.S. crude oil production jumped from a low of 5.0 million barrels per day in 2008 to an estimated 9.2 million barrels in January, a remarkable increase of 84 percent. Assuming that prices rebound from their current lows, U.S. production is expected to continue rising over the next few years, reaching a projected 9.6 million barrels in 2020. Domestic gas production is also on a growth spurt, rising from 20.1 trillion cubic feet in 2008 to 24 trillion in 2015, and with output expected to reach as much as 36 trillion cubic feet in 2035.
At the very least, many analysts agree, the extraordinary energy boom means reduced U.S. dependence on Middle Eastern oil, freeing Washington from its long-term subservience to the major petro-states. And not only that: As the boom has gained momentum, observers have realized that, just as Middle Eastern petro-states have sometimes done, the United States can use its oil and gas as a cudgel to promote its overseas interests. Alluding to Iranian threats to provoke a global oil crisis in the dispute over nuclear enrichment, for example, Daniel Yergin, author of The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, and Power and The Quest: Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World, suggested that “new supply in North America becomes all the more important as a potential offset” to any such moves.
This logic has had wide appeal among members of both parties. At the White House, Tom Donilon, former U.S. national security advisor, proclaimed the strategic advantages of increased U.S. oil and gas production: “America’s new energy posture,” he declared, “affords us a stronger hand in pursuing and implementing our international security goals.” Among the Republicans, Senator John McCain and John Hoeven, to name just two, have used similar language. In a Wall Street Journal editorial entitled “Putting America’s Energy Leverage to Work,” they advocated an increase in natural gas exports to Europe. We must, they said, “deploy our own natural resources to weaken the Putin regime and strengthen our allies.”
Republicans often contend that the White House is impeding their efforts to use U.S. energy power—for example, by not accelerating the construction of facilities to export gas in liquid form (liquefied natural gas, or LNG)—but the fact is that Obama is just as enamored of energy power as they are. Not only has the administration hastened the approval of LNG export facilities, it is also offering technical assistance to Bulgaria, Poland, Romania, Ukraine, and other former Soviet satraps that seek to develop their own energy resources and otherwise reduce their reliance on Russian gas. On January 15, for example, Secretary of State John Kerry met with Bulgarian officials and promised U.S. support for efforts to develop new energy sources. “No country in the world should be totally dependent for its energy supply on one other country,” he declared in Sofia. “We are committed to try to help attract investment and provide assistance” for Bulgaria’s diversification drive.
The administration’s embrace of energy power is also on display in the new National Security Strategy, released by the White House in early February. “America’s energy revival is not only good for growth,” the document states, but it also “offers new buffers against the coercive use of energy by some and new opportunities for helping others transition to low-carbon economies.” In terms not unlike the ones Republicans use, it asserts a need for concerted action to overcome the dangers posed by “Ukrainian and European dependence on Russian energy supplies.”
It appears, then, that the Democrats and Republicans are much closer in their views on security strategy than the current debate in Washington would suggest. Although discord will persist over the relative emphasis to place on hard and soft power in confronting the United States’ adversaries, both sides are eager to increase reliance on energy power as an instrument of foreign policy. In addition to the initiatives already underway, such as Kerry’s drive to promote energy diversification in the former Soviet expanse and the recent nuclear deal with India, U.S. leaders are likely to seek other opportunities to exploit the United States’ energy clout in furthering its objectives abroad.
As an alternative to hard power, energy power communicates the United States’ seriousness of intent, but without inviting the perils of military action; as an alternative to soft power, it provides a degree of leverage not available from diplomacy alone. But the use of energy power is hardly risk free. The United States may enjoy some advantages in this realm due to its prolific oil and gas output, but other countries (among them, Russia) also possess significant reserves and are just as likely to wield the energy cudgel, possibly to the United States’ disadvantage. At the extreme, such action could provoke a military response. China’s May 2014 deployment of an oil-drilling rig in Vietnamese-claimed waters, for example, led to a naval standoff in the South China Sea and deadly anti-Chinese riots in major Vietnamese cities. There is also a significant environmental dimension to this issue: Any further increase in U.S. oil and gas production will require extensive use of hydro-fracking, a technique that requires vast amounts of water and poses a threat to the safety of municipal and agricultural freshwater supplies. At the very least, though, there is some good news to be found in the fact that Democrats and Republicans are able to agree on something, especially in the foreign policy area.