The Politics of Energy and Oil

As one instructor of an “Asian Security Issues” course I took a few years ago told our class in a rather quizzical and subdued manner, even if one were to resolve all the dilemmas and issues of the “international community,” the one dilemma or issue which would be left outstanding would be the issue of energy and oil. The overall situation is such that industrialization and modernization automatically translate into dependence on energy and oil. As a result, energy and oil constitute one out of the three “Commanding Heights” of the international economy aside from finance and manufacturing, and is quite possibly the most important out of the three.

Moreover, current events show that the price and supply of energy and oil also impact the price of basic goods and services such as food and transportation in industrialized and modern societies. Thus, without a guaranteed, steady, and sufficient supply of energy and oil, an industrialized and modern economy and society would not be able to function and operate efficiently or properly. Arguably, the control and competition over energy and oil is ‘zero-sum’ in nature, in the sense that one party’s gain is another party’s loss, which in turn makes the energy and oil dilemma the most difficult one to solve for corporations and governments. 

In turn, the Western foreign policy strategy of ‘regime change’ is largely oriented towards achieving the aim and goal of guaranteeing a steady and sufficient supply of energy and oil. For instance, central to the CIA-led coup in Iran during the early years of the Cold War was the issue of energy and oil. Arguably, what was central to the NATO military assault on Libya a little more than a decade ago was also the issue of energy and oil. Arguably, Iraq also had something to do with energy and oil. Neocolonial policies in Algeria, Tunisia, and Nigeria, for instance, are also linked to control over energy and oil. 

But what complicates matters is that just three out of the two-hundred or so countries in the world – namely, Russia, Iran, and Qatar – control half of the world’s natural gas supply. What complicates matters even further is that these three countries – in addition to Venezuela, which wields the largest oil reserves in the world – do not necessarily approve of the politics and social positions of the United States, even though the United States depends on these producers to put their energy and oil on the market. 

It follows that political and social issues are deeply intertwined with the economic issue of energy and oil, in addition to being deeply intertwined with other aspects of economics and trade such as capital flows and currency exchange rates. For instance, virtually overnight, the price of a gallon of gas doubled in the United States because of Russia’s war in Ukraine. “Compulsory Commerce” between the West and ‘The Rest’ is such that the former is dependent on the latter, and this context or situation is obviated by energy and oil. And as a result of the emerging military and economic equilibrium between the West and the East along with the rise of China, the dependence and the consequences of dependence may exacerbate themselves as long as the political and social issues between the two sides remain outstanding. And for Europe, the situation is made worse by the fact that about half of its energy supply comes from Russia alone. 

What adds bitterness and virulence to the positions and sentiments towards the political and social issues behind the economic issue of energy and oil is the fact that Western countries care for the energy and oil of other countries, but not necessarily for the cultures and peoples of the countries from which they extract and exploit energy and oil. Extraction and exploitation of Gulf Arab energy and oil, for instance, is topped off with a slap in the face by virtue of unconditional support for Israel.

One person who belonged to such a country once openly expressed in a panel discussion in Washington that the relationship between the United States and the resource-rich countries of the Middle East is merely “transactional” with no meaning or values or sense of friendship behind the relationship. Colonial and hegemonic attitudes and behaviors ironically beset the sense of dependence and need which prompt the extraction and exploitation of the energy and oil from other countries. The sense of dependence and need is then concealed and shrouded with the cheap talk of “democracy” and “human rights” as well as the demonization and stereotyping of other cultures and peoples. It is almost as if the cultures and the people to whom the energy and oil belong are invisible and non-existent in the eyes of the colonial and hegemonic powers. But the disdain and reaction to such attitudes and behaviors on the part of energy and oil producers are then reflected in the politics of energy and oil to a certain extent, which is what we are witnessing as of late. 

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