President Donald Trump poses for photos with ceremonial swordsmen on his arrival to Murabba Palace, as the guest of King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia, Saturday evening, May 20, 2017, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)
This is no time for new oil wars

The scent of destiny is in the air. The COVID-19 crisis — which has sent shockwaves through the global economy, triggered a collapse in the price of oil, and revealed the decay at the heart of the American administrative state — heralds a potential shake-up in the international order.

Harvard University’s Meghan L. O’Sullivan wrote this week that the effects of the pandemic on the global oil price will usher in a “geopolitical reset.” O’Sullivan —  a former Bush administration official whose portfolio included Iraq and Afghanistan — points to the rippling economic and political impact of the oil price crash, echoing historians Nicholas Mulder and Adam Tooze, and warns of further global instability, unless the United States takes bold action.

The rise of the U.S. as a major oil exporter offers opportunities for reshaping the global fossil fuel economy. O’Sullivan suggests that cooperation with oil-producers like Mexico, Saudi Arabia, and Russia is possible, pointing to the OPEC+ agreement to cut production on April 12. Efforts to guide global oil production could be used as a basis upon which to build “more lasting areas of détente” with adversaries like Russia and allies like Saudi Arabia, the two largest non-U.S. oil-producing states.

While she suggests a program of outreach to Maduro’s Venezuela based on the Oil for Food program of the 1990s, O’Sullivan also argues for more military interventions, modeled after the “behind the scenes” deployments of U.S. troops in Syria. “Limited military partnerships” would constitute a new, assertive role for the United States in areas threated by oil-linked instability. Such interventions, she argues, will be critical in managing the foreign policy “fallout” from the oil price crash.

O’Sullivan’s call for greater diplomatic engagement with oil-producers is commendable. There is much in her piece that reflects an appreciation for the U.S. role in the global system, as well as the new reality of U.S. oil and gas production.

But her recommendations would commit the United States to an increasing dependence on petroleum, as well as ushering in a new cycle of overseas interventions propping up an existing, overburdened, and outdated system of U.S. military hegemony.

Take, for example, her recommendation that measures to assist impacted oil-producing states be modeled on the U.S. experience in Syria. Putting aside the fact that this policy has failed to achieve its stated objectives, O’Sullivan’s recommendation elides the reality of U.S. military supremacy in the world’s oil-producing regions.

There are currently 165,000 U.S. troops stationed in nearly 800 bases and scattered throughout 150 countries worldwide. Since 1980, the United States has committed itself to a permanent military presence in the Persian Gulf, the center of global oil production, as part of the so-called Carter Doctrine, ensuring the region’s security against states that threaten the free flow of oil.

Despite President Trump’s apparent skepticism of this policy, the United States has not altered the fundamental precepts of the Carter Doctrine. Today, there are 60,000 troops in and around the Gulf region, with plans to deploy 120,000 in the event of a conflagration with Iran, the imagined U.S. antagonist and a nation against which the current administration has been waging a vigorous campaign of military, economic, and political pressure. The U.S. commitment to the Persian Gulf is decades-old: it is difficult to imagine how it could be expanded further.

O’Sullivan points to growing domestic anger over the actions of Saudi Arabia as a problem to be solved through more assertive use of executive power. Congress, she argues, must get out of the way of oil policy, which Trump could orchestrate through greater cooperation with OPEC+. Trump continues to deploy the basic premise of the U.S.-Saudi relationship — in which access to oil is guaranteed in exchange for security — as a cudgel against Riyadh. As historian Ellen Wald has argued, the United States holds considerable leverage over the Kingdom, which faces immense financial challenges. Joining OPEC+, a group where Saudi Arabia wields considerable influence as the “swing producer” would reduce this U.S. leverage.

Saudi Arabia has become a problematic ally, led by men who take rash action and launch destructive wars with little thought to the consequences. Assisting Saudi Arabia in efforts to stabilize the global oil economy would encourage closer ties precisely at the moment when the U.S. should be distancing itself from Riyadh and reevaluating the tenets of the U.S.-Saudi relationship.

Furthermore, O’Sullivan overstates the U.S. role in the April 2020 production cuts agreement. True, President Trump engaged in the negotiations surrounding OPEC’s decision to cut 9.7 million barrels/day from the global market. But apart from taking credit, Trump did little to cut U.S. oil production, which is expected to fall due to collapsing demand and the financially perilous circumstances of many U.S. shale oil companies.

While the U.S. has increased its production of oil and gas, it is not yet dependent on that industry for its economic survival. Low gas prices are still good for American consumers. Rather than pushing more money into oil, the U.S. should consider investing in safer, more reliable, and cleaner energy technologies. Wall Street has already begun to see wind and solar as safe havens amidst the COVID-19 storm, while a number of major energy companies have committed themselves to achieving “net zero” emissions by 2050.

Joining OPEC and launching new military interventions designed to stabilize oil prices — an idea disturbingly close to “taking the oil” — are not likely to attract domestic support. O’Sullivan is aware of how difficult such a policy would be for an American audience to accept, particularly at a time of economic uncertainty. She recommends greater efforts to dissociate such interventions from the noxious notion of the “forever war,” an idea that has grown only more popular as evidence of waste, mismanagement, and official deception becomes more readily available.

Rather than expanding the U.S. military presence to encompass even more of the world’s oil fields, U.S. policy-makers, as well as the fossil fuel industry and leading financial institutions, should reflect upon the long-term lessons of the oil price crash. The volatility of the global oil market is a fact of life that cannot be escaped, no matter how many producers fall in behind the Saudi-Russian production cuts. Should the U.S. join in such efforts, it would accelerate its progression towards petro-statehood, embracing an economy dependent upon exploiting and exporting fossil fuels, even as the deleterious ecological and environmental effects of that dependence become more and more apparent.

It is true that the oil price crash marks a moment of immense geopolitical import. But the U.S. should take this opportunity to re-assess its energy future, as well as its continued willingness to underwrite the security of petro-states who are themselves at the mercy of a fickle and volatile substance

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