[VIEWPOINT]The peril of dependencyIs the West finished? At first sight, this is a silly question. Together, the United States and Europe are good for one-half of the global economic product. Together, they have more soldiers, ships and combat aircraft than any other power on Earth, or any combination thereof. Though the West’s population of 750 million lags behind China’s and India’s, the per-capita income between Berlin and Berkeley is a hundred times higher than in China.
And yet, the West (add here Japan and South Korea) suffers from a fatal weakness, as was shown on New Year’s Day in the “gas war” between Russia and the Ukraine, when Russia’s Gazprom briefly interrupted the flow of natural gas to its neighbor ― which immediately led to a supply shortage throughout much of Europe, from Warsaw to Paris.
This was a brutal power-play on the part of Moscow, yet none of Europe’s bigger nations ― neither France nor Germany ― raised its voice in protest. And what were they going to do about it? Forty percent of Germany’s gas supplies come from Russia, as do 35 percent of France’s. At $60 per barrel of oil ― the benchmark price for energy ― you don’t really want to rile the Russians. Nor do you want to risk a political clash on behalf of Poland, Hungary and Czechia, who were hit hardest by the interruption, even though all of them are now members of the European Union.
Yet Putin’s muscular play, designed to cow the westward-leaning Ukrainians into a more accommodating stance toward Russia, is just one example of Europe’s weakness. Iran is an even more ominous case. The other day, Tehran informed the rest of the world that it would resume its uranium enrichment program as of Jan. 9, which is one route to nuclear weapons (the other is plutonium, which can be extracted from the spent fuel-rods of nuclear power reactors).
The Europeans, and of course the Americans, are livid with anger. Had not Britain, France and Germany spent the last three years negotiating with Tehran? Had they not offered all kinds of inducements and bribes to make the Iranians desist from what is clearly a nuclear weapons program?
For their patient efforts, they got worse than nothing. Instead, the Europeans are now facing a new Iranian president who keeps escalating his hateful rhetoric. Over the past three months, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has gone out of his way to tell the world that his regime intends to “wipe Israel from the map” and “destroy America.”
What was the West going to do about a country that is now the greatest threat to peace in the Greater Middle East? Unfortunately, Iran is not only rearming massively but also exporting 4 million barrels of oil a day. The global oil market is already strained to its breaking point. Take away those 4 million barrels, even if only for a short time, and the price of oil might double or triple to $120 or $180.
Iran knows this, and so it is proceeding on its reckless course. There is also a “Russian Connection” here. For $1 billion, Moscow has just agreed to modernize Iran’s aging MiG-29 fighter planes. With energy prices at a historic high, oil and gas-rich Russia need not please the West by cooperating in the containment of Iran.
The irony could not be heavier. Here are two backward, but resource-rich countries ― Russia and Iran ― which can hold the mighty West hostage. Power no longer grows out of the barrel of a gun, as Mao used to say, but out of a barrel of oil. Precisely because the West is so prosperous and advanced, it is so vulnerable to even a small interruption in energy supplies.
The solution is obvious. Its name is diversification. Unfortunately, most of the world’s oil and gas is located in countries that are autocratic (like Russia and Venezuela), despotic (like Saudi Arabia and Algeria) or quite unstable (most Arab regimes, but also Indonesia). Democracy, alas, does not correlate very well with the ample oil and gas deposits (the great exception being Canada).
How to escape from this deadly trap of dependence on the wrong kind of regimes? The U.S. has coal for the next 800 years, and Canada has tar sands with a vast oil-extraction potential. But coal pollutes, and tar sands are very expensive to convert into oil. Which leaves only one serious alternative: The West must rethink its aversion to nuclear power. Finland has been the first; after more than a generation, it is building a new nuclear power plant. Japan is building one and planning to build 12. South Korea intends to build 8 nuclear power plants. Even the U.S. is returning to nuclear power, constructing its first new electricity reactor in almost 40 years. Only Western Europe is still holding back.
But with Putin’s powerplay on New Year’s Day and Iran’s resumption of uranium enrichment, Western Europe has just been given a salutary lesson in the perils of energy dependence. If the EU won’t boost its energy security, it will still be big and rich. But it won’t be a player on the world’s strategic chessboard.
*The writer, the publisher-editor of Die Zeit in Germany, is currently teaching U.S. foreign policy at Stanford University, where he is also a fellow at the Hoover Institution.
by Josef Joffe