Guarding Oil, Restraining Allies

Dominant powers are rarely content just to subdue or deter their enemies. They also try to contain their friends.

Since World War Two, the United States has pursued a pretty consistent strategy of discouraging their allies from re-arming and strengthening themselves as rival powers. It is also known as ‘reassurance.’

There is some prima facie logic to this. In Asia, it is argued, America’s presence is a ‘cork in the bottle.’ It keeps a forward presence in Japan and South Korea partly to prevent the intensification of rivalries, arms races and hostilities.

This strategy also helps explain why America cares so much about the Middle East and its oil. Despite the fact that the US derives most of its oil from other regions, such as its own continent (Alaska, Canada and Mexico), and South America (eg Venezuela), it still regards the oil-rich Gulf as central to its interests.

Christopher Layne and Benjamin Schwarz explained this years ago, arguing a point I hadn’t fully appreciated. It is more subtle than a resource-grab. It is a means to dampening its allies’ insecurities and ambitions:

Washington assumes responsibility for stabilizing the region because Western Europe and Japan are heavily dependent on its oil, and because soon China, owing to rapid economic growth, will be as well—and America wants to discourage those powers from developing the means to protect that resource for themselves.

In an interview on National Public Radio early in October, Walter Russell Mead, a senior foreign-policy analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations, explained the basis of U.S. policy in the terms that NSC staffers, think-tank analysts, and State and Defense Department policy planners have used for years: “We do not get that large a percentage of our oil from the Middle East. Japan gets a lot more … And one of the reasons that we are sort of assuming this role of policeman of the Middle East, more or less, has more to do with making Japan and some other countries feel that their oil flow is assured … so that they don’t then feel more need to create a great power, armed forces, and security doctrine, and you don’t start getting a lot of great powers with conflicting interests sending their militaries all over the world.

Michael Lind makes a similar point, but a little more brutally. After the Cold War,

The other great powers chose not to compete with the “New Rome” because they had better things to do with their wealth. The Europeans slashed their military spending after the Cold War to pay for welfare and amenities for their people. The Chinese, having discarded communism in practice, threw their energies into building up a world-class industrial base. If Americans insisted on sacrificing American blood and American treasure to protect oil destined mostly for Europe and East Asia rather than the U.S., well, the Europeans and East Asians were not going to object.

Why would they? But as all this suggests, there are some problems with this strategy.

First, its extremely expensive in many ways, making America an onshore giant at a time when such commitments exceed its power, sp0nsoring dubious regimes and placing the US directly in the path of conflict in that region. America is on a collision course with Iran partly because of these geopolitical realities.

Second, it enables other states to ‘free ride’, enjoying the benefits of secure and cheap oil without assuming a large share of the burden.

Third, by discouraging regions from developing their own sufficient military power, it means that other problems (North Korean proliferation, genocide in the Balkans, the status of Taiwan) become America’s problems.

Fourth, it may not ultimately work. Despite America’s reassuring shield, there are signs that Japan is embracing nationalism again, expressed in its growing military investment and a sense of its own independence. And America’s forward presence in Asia and the Middle East, as we have seen this week with its arms deals with Taiwan and Gulf Arab states, could help fuel renewed insecurity all round, and dangerous confrontations.  

Fifth, it diverts attention into ensuring cheap oil, rather than the more fundamental task, of seeking alternative energy strategies to avert a potential catastrophe of resource shortage and disentangle itself a little from this part of the world.

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