by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
Think a green transition will free America from high-stakes competition over energy supplies? Think again. Since the Industrial Revolution, changing patterns of energy consumption have propelled international conflict. Today, the world is entering a very messy period, in which rivalry over sources of renewable energy will steadily intensify, even as older clashes over oil and other hydrocarbons continue to play out.
Energy is the lifeblood of civilization: Since the early 1800s, access to coal, oil and other resources has driven economic prosperity and military power. The struggle over energy is, in many ways, the story of modern geopolitics.
In the 19th century, coal was king, so the great empires sought colonies and other territories with rich reserves; they clashed for control over oceanic coaling stations that were the infrastructure of overseas trade and global power projection. In the 20th century, oil displaced coal, and oil-producing regions, from the Middle East to the Caucasus to the Dutch East Indies, became key strategic prizes in two world wars and the Cold War that followed.
US President Joe Biden’s administration is now calling for a green revolution, in part because of accumulated fatigue from America’s role as guardian of the Persian Gulf. But don’t except the deeper pattern to change anytime soon.
For one thing, energy transitions don’t happen quickly or cleanly: Older models of power generation typically persist even as newer models emerge. The shocks caused by the Ukraine war remind us that global oil dependence isn’t going away anytime soon, and neither will the quest for influence in the regions that produce that vital resource.
If anything, the Middle East is becoming more contested, as China invests heavily in Saudi Arabia and other oil monarchies, seeks to build military bases, and develops a blue-water fleet necessary to ensure that Washington can’t simply starve Beijing of energy imports in a crisis.