Oil Storms

26.07.2005., utorak

Century of ...?

With the dawn of the 21st century the world has entered a new stage of geopolitical strle.

The first half of the 20th century can be understood as one long war between Britain (and shifting allies) and Germany (and shifting allies) for European supremacy.
The second half of the century was dominated by a Cold War between the US, which emerged as the world's foremost industrial-military power following World War II, and the Soviet Union and its bloc of protectorates.
The US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq promises to be the final geopolitical strle of the industrial period - a strle for the control of Eurasia and its energy resources.

The industrial era differs from previous periods of human history in the large-scale harnessing of energy resources (coal, oil, natural gas, and uranium) for the purposes of production and transportation - and for the deeper purpose of expanding the human carrying capacity of our terrestrial environment. All of the scientific achievements, the political consolidations, and the immense population increases of the past two centuries are predictable effects of the growing, coordinated use of energy resources. In the early decades of the 20th century, petroleum emerged as the most important energy resource because of its cheapness and convenience of use. The industrial world is now overwhelmingly dependent on oil for agriculture and transportation. Modern global geopolitics, because it implies worldwide transportation and communication systems rooted in fossil energy resources, is therefore a phenomenon unique to the industrial era.
The control of resources is largely a matter of geography, and secondarily a matter of military technology and control over currencies of exchange. The US and Russia were both geographically blessed, being self-sufficient in energy resources during the first half of the century. Germany and Japan failed to attain regional hegemony largely because they lacked sufficient indigenous energy resources and because they failed to gain and keep access to resources elsewhere (via the USSR on one hand and the Dutch East Indies on the other).
Yet while both the US and Russia were well endowed by nature, both have passed their petroleum production peaks (which occurred in 1970 and 1987, respectively). Russia remains a net oil exporter because its consumption levels are low, but the US is increasingly dependent on imports of both oil and natural gas.
Both nations long ago began investing much of their energy-based wealth in the production of fuel-fed arms systems with which to expand and defend their resource interests globally. In other words, both decided decades ago to be geopolitical players, or contenders for global hegemony.
Roughly three-quarters of the world's crucial remaining petroleum reserves lie within the borders of predominantly Muslim nations of the Middle East and Central Asia - nations that, for historical, geographic, and political reasons, were unable to develop large-scale industrial-military economies of their own and that have, throughout the past century, mainly served as pawns of the Great Powers (Britain, the US, and the former USSR). In recent decades, these predominantly Muslim oil-rich nations have pooled their interests in a cartel, the Organization of Oil Exporting Countries (OPEC).

While resources, geography, and military technology are essential to geopolitics, they are not sufficient without a financial means to dominate the terms of international trade. Hegemony has had a financial as well as a military component ever since the adoption of money by Bronze Age agricultural empires; money, after all, is a claim upon resources, and the ability to control the currency of exchange can effect a subtle ongoing transfer of real wealth. Whoever issues a currency - especially a fiat currency, i.e., one not backed by precious metals - has power over it: every transaction becomes a subsidy to the money coiner or printer.
During the colonial era, rivalries between the Spanish real, the French franc, and the British pound were as decisive as military battles in determining hegemonic power. For the past half-century, the US dollar has been the international currency of account for nearly all nations, and it is the currency with which all oil-importing nations must pay for their fuel. This is an arrangement that has worked to the advantage both of OPEC, which maintains a stable customer in the US (the world's largest petroleum consumer and a military power capable of defending the Arab oil kingdoms), and of the US itself, which receives a subtle financial tithe for every barrel of oil consumed by every other importing nation.

At the end of WWII, when the US and the USSR emerged as the word's dominant powers, the US had established permanent bases in Germany, Japan, and South Korea, all to hedge in the Soviet Union. America even waged a failed and extremely costly war in Southeast Asia to gain yet another vector of Eurasian containment. When the USSR collapsed at the end of the 1980s, the US appeared free to dominate Eurasia, and thus the world, more completely than had any other nation in world history. The decade that followed was one characterized primarily by globalization - the consolidation of corporatized economic power centered largely in the US. It appeared that US hegemony would be maintained economically rather than militarily.

In contrast with this , the new administration of George W. Bush appeared to be taking a more strident tack - one that took old allies for granted in its unabashed unilateralism. In his shredding of international environmental, human rights, and weapons-control agreements; in his pursuit of a doctrine of pre-emptive military action; and especially in his seemingly inexplicable obsession with the invasion of Iraq, Bush was expending enormous political and diplomatic capital, needlessly creating enemies even among trusted allies. His rationale for war - the elimination of 's weapons of mass destruction - was patently silly, since the US had supplied many of those weapons and Iraq posed no current threat to anyone; moreover, a new Gulf war risked destabilizing the entire Middle East.

What could possibly justify such a risk? What was motivating this bizarre new change in strategy?
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