Tony Blair’s loyalty to George Bush looks like slow political suicide. His preparedness to follow him over every precipice jeopardises Britain’s relationships with its allies, conjures up enemies all over the world and infuriates voters of all political colours. And yet he never misses an opportunity to show what a trusting friend he is.
There are several plausible and well-established explanations for this unnatural coupling. But there might also be a new one. Blair may have calculated that sticking to Bush is the only way in which our unsustainable economy can meet its need for energy.
Britain is running out of time. According to the Oil Depletion Analysis Centre, the UK’s North Sea production has been declining since 1999. Nuclear power in Britain is, in effect, finished: on Saturday, the EU revealed that it had prohibited the government’s latest desperate attempt to keep it afloat with massive subsidies. But, partly because of corporate lobbying, partly because of his unhealthy fear of “Mondeo man” or “Worcester woman”, or whatever the floating voter of Middle England has now become, Tony Blair has also flatly rejected both an effective energy reduction policy and a massive investment in alternative power. The only remaining way of meeting future energy demand is to import ever greater quantities of oil and gas.
And here the government runs into an intractable political reality. As available reserves decline, the world’s oil-hungry nations are tussling to grab as much as they can for themselves. Almost everywhere on earth, the United States is winning. It is positioning itself to become the gatekeeper to the world’s remaining oil and gas. If it succeeds, it will both secure its own future supplies and massively enhance its hegemonic power.
The world’s oil reserves, the depletion analysis centre claims, appear to be declining almost as swiftly as the North Sea’s. Conventional oil supplies, it suggests, will peak within five or ten years, and decline by around two million barrels per day every year from then on. New kinds of fossil fuel have only a limited potential to ameliorate the coming crisis. In the Middle East, the only nation which could significantly increase its output is Iraq.
In 2001, a report sponsored by the US Council on Foreign Relations and the Baker Institute for Public Policy began to spell out some of the implications of this decline for America’s national security. The problem, it noted, is that “the American people continue to demand plentiful and cheap energy without sacrifice or inconvenience”. Transport, for example, is responsible for 66% of the petroleum the US burns. Simply switching from “light trucks” (the giant gas-guzzlers many Americans drive) to ordinary cars would save nearly a million barrels per day of crude oil. But, as the president’s dad once said, “the American way of life is not up for negotiation”.
“The world,” the report continues, “is currently precariously close to utilizing all of its available global oil production capacity”. The impending crisis is increasing “U.S. and global vulnerability to disruption”. Over the previous year, for example, Iraq had “effectively become a swing producer, turning its taps on and off when it has felt such action was in its strategic interest”. If the global demand for oil continues to rise, world shortages could reduce the status of the US to that of “a poor developing country”.
This crisis, the report insists, demands “a reassessment of the role of energy in American foreign policy … Such a strategy will require difficult tradeoffs, in both domestic and foreign policy. But there is no alternative. And there is no time to waste.” By assuming “a leadership role in the formation of new rules of the game”, the United States will prevent any other power from exploiting its dependency and seizing the strategic initiative.
The US government has not been slow to act upon such intelligence. Over the past two years, it has been seizing all the Caspian oil it can lay hands on, cutting out both Russia and Iran by negotiating to pipe it out through Azerbaijan, Georgia and Afghanistan. Last week, though all the sages of the British and American right insisted during the Afghan war that it couldn’t possibly happen, the presidents of Afghanistan, Turkmenistan and Pakistan met to discuss the first of the Afghan pipelines. American soldiers have now been stationed in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Georgia, all of which are critical to the Caspian oil trade. According to the security firm Stratfor, “the U.S. military presence will help ensure that a majority of oil and gas from the Caspian basin will go westward — bypassing the United States’ geopolitical rivals, Russia and China.” The reason why Vladimir Putin is so determined to keep Chechnya under Russian control, whatever the cost to both the Chechens and the Russians may be, is that Chechnya is one of the last available routes for Caspian oil.
The US has been playing the same game in the Middle East. A recent report by the Brookings Institution notes that “U.S. strategic domination over the entire region, including the whole lane of sea communications from the strait of Hormuz, will be perceived as the primary vulnerability of China’s energy supply.” Last month a senior US general, Carlton Fulford, visited Sao TomÃ© and Principe, the islands halfway between Nigeria and Angola, to discuss the possibility of establishing a military base there. Both nations see the base as a threatening staging post, which the US could use to help gain exclusive access to West African oil. Earlier this year, George Bush negotiated a “North American Energy Initiative” with Canada and Mexico. The US is hoping to extend the arrangement to the rest of the Americas, which could help to explain the coup which nearly toppled Venezuela’s president in April.
Oh, and there’s the small matter of the one nation in the Middle East whose oil production could be substantially increased, with the help of a little external encouragement. Last week the leader of the exiled Iraqi National Congress met executives from three major American oil companies, to start negotiations about who gets what once the US has taken over. This carve-up would mean cancelling the big contracts Russia and France have struck with Saddam Hussein. Lord Browne, the head of BP, warned that Britain might also be squeezed out of Iraq.
The United States, in other words, appears rapidly to be monopolising the world’s remaining oil. Every government knows this. Ours appears to have calculated that the only way it can obtain the energy required to permit the men and women of Middle England to stay in their cars is to appease the United States, whatever the cost may be. Britain’s role in the impending war is that of the egret in the crocodile’s mouth, picking the scraps of flesh from between its teeth.
In 1929 the novelist Ilya Ehrenburg observed that “the automobile can’t be blamed for anything. Its conscience is as clear as Monsieur Citroen’s conscience. It only fulfills its destiny: it is destined to wipe out the world.” Our struggle over the next few months is to prove him wrong.