13 November 2015

Energy Independence: Realpolitik, Neo-Conservatism and Nativism

While perusing a financial magazine in a waiting room I stumbled upon an article about billionaire T Boone Pickens, a name that's been floating around for some time. I've heard him interviewed on NPR from time to time and was already pretty familiar with his controversial energy plan. In fact not long ago while reading Steve Coll's book on Exxon, I recalled Pickens argument for energy independence. It was pertinent and represented a mindset in Conservative circles less than appreciated by representatives of Big Oil.

This provides another example of internal dissent within Conservative circles, the battle over so-called Energy Independence. There's a Nativist streak that wants to end America's relationships with international oil. They would argue that it's depleting the tax coffers and dragging the United States into military quagmires.

They argue that if the US would just develop domestic resources and deals with our immediate neighbours like Canada, then the US can wave a dismissive hand at the Persian Gulf and other troubled regions of the world. It will no longer be subject to OPEC and the manipulation of energy prices.

A couple of things need to be pointed out.

One, some of those advocating this viewpoint are in a position to profit from it and very handsomely at that. Pickens would certainly be one of them. It's amazing to see a man pushing 90 who can't quit, who can't stop scheming and playing the game. His plan while promoting renewables and thus earning a few accolades from the Green sector is in reality a reconfiguring of US energy toward a Natural Gas rather than Petroleum base. This is misleading to some degree. While oil refinement for gasoline and other products might wane, natural gas cannot completely replace it. We would still have oil refineries and all the issues that go with oil extraction and the refinement process. But then in addition we would have a whole new industrial sector and all the issues that come with that.

Two, this viewpoint ignores or misunderstands the complicated nature of US geopolitical strategy. This touches on several areas. While the US did not like to see the formation of OPEC and the energy squeeze of the 1970's, these folks have missed that the nature of the arrangement has changed. The US cut numerous deals with the Saudis by the late 1970's and established the alliance that continues to exist to this day. The relationship is now used to manipulate the markets as is now all but evident in the low prices that are devastating the economies of US opponents from Venezuela to Iran and most certainly Putin's Russia. The latter two nations are essential to the survival of the Assad regime in Syria.

This divide echoes (in some aspects) the difference in approach demonstrated by the Realpolitik camp vs. the Neo-Conservatives and other ideologues.

The Nativist camp is simplistic in their understanding and reductionist in the geopolitical paradigm. While hardly agreeing with the Realpolitik school or any of these schools for that matter I can understand their broader viewpoint. It's malicious but logical. And in terms of their calculus a withdrawal from the world scene is a form of acquiescence and weakness. Giving up on those regions means allowing others to gain access and thus score victories.

At this point the US doesn't need Middle Eastern or even Central Asian oil and gas. That's not the point and that's something these Nativist types don't understand. Keeping in the game allows for geo-political leverage and influence and it keeps Russia, China and others out. The US doesn't want them to develop their economies and expand their markets.

The Neo-Conservative wing which (at times) has affinities with the Nativist wing is on this point opposed to them and their position is closer to that of the Realpolitik camp. They too are strident internationalists and imperialists. They don't believe in just doing business with the oil and resource nations. They believe in subjugating them and if need be conquering them. This is why the Realpolitik group opposes them, believing in the end they do more harm. On this point the Neo-Conservatives and the Realpolitik wing stand in opposition to the Nativists and for some it affords an opportunity to point out that the schism between the Realpolitik and Neo-Conservative wings is a false one. Their division is not over goal but over method and style.

In light of all this the Nativists can seemingly claim the moral high ground and argue for Isolationism. Not so fast, says the advocates of both Neo-Conservatism and Realpolitik. As previously mentioned they would argue US withdrawal strengthens the hand of America's enemies and in the end it will hurt the US economically and harm US standing vis-à-vis its allies and commitments. The Nativist-Isolationist route is an admission of defeat and a pullback from the Unipolar World the US has sought to dominate since 1989. For them it's not just a question of vision or economics. It's a moral question and they would argue Isolationism is irresponsible. Right or wrong, as far as they are concerned the debate between Isolation and Interventionism ended at Munich.

Imperial Calculus knows no end. The equations can never be solved. It's like a chess game of infinite complexity. A checkmate just means a new and more complex board is set-up. It never ends.

The Nativists may be content with pulling back so to speak. But if you listen to them, very few of them truly are. As I mentioned in another piece, you can't have isolationist and localist economic policies and yet project military and cultural strength coupled with wielding geopolitical sway and influence. They don't go together and frankly such assessments expose a lack of intellectual depth and a shallow analysis and understanding of the nature of modern techno-industrial society, let alone the nature of modern warfare and the infrastructure it requires.

Finally, it must be noted that not only do the policy people reject Energy Independence, so do the oil companies themselves, the very companies that reap record profits and issue impressive dividend payments to their stockholders. It's ironic because many of the supporting voices for Energy Independence in the end would take a financial hit on a personal level. They might counter it by investing in the right companies that would develop the new Natural Gas economy but that puts their money at a significant risk.

The oil companies want to produce internationally. While occasionally losing some money to strife and corruption, for the most part it's very lucrative and they're able to secure much more profitable deals in overseas markets, far away from prying eyes and regulators.

I'm reminded of the Nativist arguments with regard to industry. People like Santorum and Trump want to punish China and bring industry home. They forget that China was courted and it was US Corporate greed that went there in the first place. It's not the fault of the Chinese. But they've also failed to realize or wish to mask the fact that returning these industries to the US will mean a rise in costs and massive inflation for the US economy. And that's true even if wages are slashed as they have been in the auto industry. There has been something of a renaissance in the US auto market. The price has been the wages of the workers. Jobs that once granted access to the middle class are now in many cases low-wage working class jobs. This trend was exacerbated by Obama's post 2008 policies with regard to GM and the auto industry in general. His supposedly ultra-liberal policies have all but completed the 30 year project to destroy the unions. Obama is hated by the Left, the true Left, not the Center-Left of the Democratic Party which on many issues is actually Center-Right.

One industry would tremendously benefit from a US energy boom. The environmental remediation and engineering industries that deal with clean-up will do very well when twenty or thirty years from now they have to work on developing technologies to clean tar sands sludge from river bottoms and filtration systems that will attempt to render polluted aquifers somehow usable.

The answer (if there is one) to all of these problems is in some ways complicated and in other aspects quite simple. The problems could be eradicated by a change in culture and lifestyle and thus in energy use. But such a change would quite literally bring down the United States. Not just its economy. That might be first but it would be followed by the whole of the political structure as well.

No, our society is like a drug addict. The withdrawal is likely to prove deadly. Many realize this and thus try to find workable long-term solutions that will begin a slow process of reversal. Radical solutions like Energy Independence or a new Green lifestyle and culture will in the end create as many problems as they solve.

A consumer culture shift would hurt and destroy the US economy but frankly so would Isolationist Energy Independence. At least at this point. The economic retraction, a return to republic instead of empire would bring down the US economy and unleash unrest. The US economy is in one sense built on oil but it's striking to what degree it is dependent on its status as a warfare state. That's what the core of the US system is all about. Oil is just part of the equation. The bringing down of the Military-Industrial-Intelligence Complex as glorious as it might be to see would in fact break US society and lead to its implosion and collapse.

Britain gave up its empire incrementally and suffered for it and was reduced to a second-tier power wholly dependent on its US master. I doubt the US has the same option. Its geography and cultural divides are too vast. It would not survive the process.

We as Christians have to work out the ethics and live accordingly. It's not easy and requires a great deal of thought and some grudging admissions of insolubility. We do the best we can, but we recognize the evil nature of the world system. We have to live in it but not be of it.

But at the same time we need to beware two extremes.

1. The indifferent attitude of compliance. We can't just say this is how it is and there's nothing we can do about it. Therefore just like everyone else we seek a good position on the pyramid... not at the top, but not too low either. This is the worldly compromise.

2. Radical manmade solutions. We need to avoid jumping onto bandwagons that proclaim a solution rooted in some man-inspired model that overcomes the Curse, or perhaps on an even more dangerous level solutions that seek to synthesize or integrate Christian Scholastic models with human systems. These false solutions can prove as spiritually toxic as worldly apathy. They lead Christians into worlds of sorrow and destruction and perversions of ethics and ultimately a loss of the transcendent nature of Christ's Kingdom. Don't be fooled, Pickens and DeMint don't have the answers either. They are in the end seekers of power. Their down-home and common-sense packaging is a fraudulent facade. They seek wealth and power by trying to capture one economic and political sector by appealing to the emotions of bitter but simple people.

As Christians we live as sojourners, strangers, exiles and pilgrims and that should deeply affect how we address all such questions. It is also a recognition that under no conditions can this world be fixed, made righteous and thus somehow be made more Home-like.