Ben Alter (who has done yeoman’s work editing the last couple of pieces I’ve written for Foreign Affairs) and Ed Fishman wrote an insightful op-ed for the New York Times this past Sunday in which they argued that American energy independence – which may be a reality by the end of the next decade – will have a downside too, which is that it will lead to massive destabilization in states that rely on high global energy prices. States like Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain depend on revenues from oil and natural gas to maintain to dole out patronage and co-opt the opposition, but the introduction of U.S. shale gas into the global marketplace will lower energy prices worldwide, and Alter and Fishman argue that it will create domestic unrest and even regime change in petrostates, which will in turn put shipping lanes in harm’s way, endanger counterterrorism cooperation and efforts to deal with Iran between the U.S. and Arab Gulf monarchies, and force Russia into a more aggressive and territorial foreign policy. The upshot here is that energy independence will not allow the U.S. to withdraw from the world as it is no longer dependent on Middle Eastern oil producing states, but rather the U.S. will still have to act as the liberal hegemon guaranteeing the safety of global trade, maintaining great power stability, and working to spread democracy so that the international system remains relatively stable.
Writing in Forbes in response, Christopher Helman says that Alter and Fishman baked a faulty assumption into their argument since the price of oil will never get as low as $50 a barrel (and he accuses them of taking liberties with the report that they presumably cite), and that even if the global price did hit that floor, it wouldn’t remain there as unrest in petrostates would cause global prices to skyrocket once more. Another scenario is that OPEC states would cut their production in order to inflate prices back up to $90-$100 per barrel in order to maintain their current levels of government spending. While this criticism may be accurate, Helman is misreading the important takeaway from Alter and Fishman’s piece, which is that there are unintended consequences that emanate from even what appear to be the rosiest of scenarios. In short, U.S. energy independence and lower energy prices will be a great development for the U.S. in many respects, but it will also create a host of negative externalities that will require the U.S. to stay on its toes.
While reading the Alter/Fishman piece, I couldn’t help but think about how their argument applies to Iran and the question of whether a nuclear arms race in the Middle East will ensue should Iran achieve nuclear status. There is a wide-ranging debate over whether this scenario is a realistic one, with no less than President Obama (and thus presumably the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies) warning that a nuclear Iran will set off a regional nuclear arms race, and analysts such as my close friend Steven Cook arguing that nuclear dominoes will not fall in the Middle East as Turkey, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia either don’t have the scientific capability and infrastructure or the cash on hand to build their own bombs. I do not claim to have any expertise in this area at all, and Steven certainly knows his stuff, but let’s assume for a moment that of these three candidates, Saudi Arabia could conceivably go nuclear given that the Saudis have the cash to buy the technology and build the infrastructure they would need in a hurry. Let’s also assume that Alter and Fishman’s predictions unfold, and U.S. energy independence destabilizes Saudi Arabia in fifteen years and leads to the fall of the ruling family and the government. Isn’t this in many ways the ultimate nightmare scenario – not that the current governments in the Middle East will become nuclear powers, but that whomever or whatever replaces them will be nuclear powers?
Anyone who knows anything about U.S. foreign and defense policy knows that the most pressing problem facing the U.S. right now is not the rise of China or the fight against al-Qaida. It is the possibility that the Pakistani government will fall and that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons will be taken over by extremists. Only slightly less worrisome is that the lax command and control structure that exists for Pakistan’s nuclear stockpile – and for those who don’t pay close attention to these things, it turns out that the Pakistani government moves its nukes in and out of traffic in barely guarded civilian vans so that we won’t steal them – will lead to a nuke being stolen or even accidentally launched. This is the reason that the U.S. keeps on propping up the Pakistani government and throwing money into a Pakistani black hole despite mountains of evidence that Pakistan is not our ally and actually works to undermine the U.S. in Afghanistan and other places.
Now let’s replicate this situation in Iran, or Saudi Arabia, or any other slightly shaky Middle Eastern state that may be inclined to try and acquire nuclear weapons in response to Iran, and that later falls due to the instability unleashed by the Arab Spring or the instability unleashed by falling oil prices. Or imagine the nightmare that we would be dealing with right now in Syria if Israel had not bombed the Syrian reactor a few years ago and Syria had somehow made a successful mad dash for a nuke, and that instead of worrying about missing Syrian chemical weapons, we were worrying about missing Syrian nuclear weapons. I am not someone who worries about the current Iranian regime actually using a nuke should it develop the capability to build one – although I do worry about the cascade effects of Iran having the bomb and thus making its support for international terrorism and groups like Hizballah largely untouchable – but I certainly worry enormously about what would happen to an Iranian nuke in the chaos following the current regime falling, or a Saudi nuke in the chaos of the monarchy falling. Maybe I have missed the conversation on this issue, which would be understandable since I am not a nuclear policy person, but shouldn’t the conversation surrounding Iran and its nuclear program be a little more focused on the Pakistanization of this problem in a regional context when energy prices fall rather than solely on whether the Iranian regime can be trusted not to nuke Tel Aviv?