Over the last few decades, the phrase “energy security” has spread like an oil spot from specialized literature outward into the standard lexicon of reporters and politicians. Like “security” itself, it is a term whose meaning seems transparent but resists precise definition, in part because the meaning is not immediately obvious and in part because the meaning seems to expand as time goes by. What is “energy security”? Why did it become so prominent in discussions of global politics in the late twentieth century and why is it so important today? We asked Toby Jones, associate professor of Middle East history at Rutgers University and an editor of this magazine, to supply some clarity about this concept. Jones is working on a book that will treat this subject in depth.
What is the origin of “energy security”?
The concept of “energy security” dates to the 1970s and emerged out of the oil crisis of 1973, when US intervention on the side of Israel in the Arab-Israeli war prompted the Arab oil embargo. The embargo, of course, is widely believed to have caused wrenching political-economic difficulty globally and for Americans in particular. Long gas lines, drivers’ strikes and hand wringing about the need for conservation and independence helped consolidate the 1960s-era oil company approach to thinking about energy and, especially, about American vulnerability. A handful of observers, including Joe Stork, Bob Vitalis and Tim Mitchell, have punched holes in the story that the embargo was responsible for oil shortages in the US.  There was actually no shortfall of supply and it was domestic manipulation of natural gas markets and President Richard Nixon’s overreaction in mandating hard-hitting austerity measures that stressed American consumers the most.
In the midst of this crisis, Nixon promised to achieve energy independence by the end of the decade. This was absurd, of course, but it set several projects in motion, including the creation of an elaborate bureaucratic order to oversee “energy” needs, the most important being the Department of Energy in 1977. Nixon’s vision also spurred a national discussion about how to protect the supply of oil (now understood as energy) and prevent future disruptions. These are the roots of the idea of “energy security,” which eventually became a fully developed field of expertise that persists to this day.
What is the thrust of your argument about “energy security”?
I encourage readers not to conflate oil, natural gas, coal or even nuclear power with energy. Energy is a system, in which commodities like oil constitute one part. For oil to fuel global industry and transportation, for example, it depends on a broad range of both moving and fixed parts, as well as labor. Popular political discourse and even highly visible pundits like Daniel Yergin too easily treat oil itself as energy. Oil companies and governments, and especially militaries, have long understood that energy is a complex system. Thinking of oil as energy has also had the effect of suggesting that, like oil, energy is a thing that is out there to be had, supplied and, most importantly, secured. The reality is more complicated.
I also want to challenge the binary inherent in the concept of “energy security.” The first element is that the US is too dependent on foreign and particularly Arab sources of oil. That makes the US vulnerable to supply shocks and potential disruption. Second, with this combination of dependence and vulnerability in mind, many believe and have argued that the US needs to use its considerable political and military power to assure access to supply, either its own or someone else’s. These two ideas mystify a fairly important historical development: that since the late 1960s, security has been not just provided for the global energy regime, but built into it.
Basically, the United States, working closely with its oil-producing friends in Riyadh and elsewhere, has helped fashion a political, economic and technical order in which energy and the practices of securing it — war-fighting, transporting, protecting access to supply and so on — have become a structural part of the global energy system. This is all to say that while oil remains critical as a natural resource, its political and economic value is not simply protected. Rather, oil is bound up in much larger system, one in which the tools and instruments of security and war flow alongside it. Since the 1970s and especially since the 1980s, you cannot have one without the other. One of the most important consequences of this pairing is that the security component — the US Navy, the guns and so on — has become as important for its ability to generate money as for the strategic role it ostensibly plays.
How does this understanding of “energy security” shed light on energy politics?
Not seeing energy as a system obscures the specific ways that corporate interests have driven energy politics and shaped national energy agendas. Oil started being militarized when corporate and strategic anxieties converged following the conflicts of the 1960s and early 1970s in the Middle East. This is critical to understand. Anxieties around energy, at least those that have gained the most currency in political discourse, have been framed not by grassroots or popular politics — which have mostly focused on alternatives to oil — but by global oil and energy companies.
This may seem obvious at first glance. But if we think through the basic components of most discussions about energy in the West today — promoting independence, securing supply, ensuring flow — these are not the concerns of consumers, who mostly worry about price. These are the concerns of producers and the global energy go-betweens that profit not just from creating electricity and power, but also from the sale of carbon-based raw resources.
In the 1960s, as Joe Stork has argued, oil companies transformed themselves into “energy companies,” which they accomplished by accumulating control over not just oil, but also coal, natural gas, uranium and even alternative energy capacity. The effect was to destroy public authority over power and anything that resembled a market. Even while building these monopolies in the US, global corporations still sought to continue their dominance over Middle Eastern oil, the most profitable and important natural resource. Challenges to Western companies emerged around the same time, and eventually became a wave in which oil-producing states nationalized Western oil companies and made them their own. Global energy companies did not go quietly.
Although Middle Eastern oil producers did not achieve widespread control over their own natural resources until the 1970s, executives at the global oil and then the global energy companies saw the threat from oil nationalism very early on. As Bob Vitalis has shown, the Arabian American Oil Company smashed demands for democracy and resistance to its Jim Crow-like labor conditions by linking activism in the Saudi oil patch with communism in the early Cold War. While the US-backed coup in Iran made clear American anxieties about the region, Tim Mitchell has shown that it was oil companies confronting the rise of oil nationalism that most vocally championed and successfully linked maintaining their power over Middle Eastern oil with US national security concerns.
Once we understand “energy” as a system, several additional matters become clear. “Energy&rdquo — let’s drop the mystification and call it oil — is not just a thing to the experts. It is a thing that is part of a vast technical, political and geographic system. The reality is that “energy security” is not about protecting oil derricks and pipelines from the weather or ordinary wear and tear, or even about protecting access to a diverse supply of oil. It is about protecting the systems of production and distribution, and the governments that make them possible, especially the oil-rich Arab regimes. And it is about patrolling the sea-lanes traveled by supertankers, which in the contemporary era is achieved through the projection of US naval power, and in turn requires the US to maintain an archipelago of military bases around the globe. A lot of the “energy security” talk of today echoes naval power discourse from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries — chokepoints, interdiction capacities, piracy and tactics that enable states with strong navies to rule the sea.
But it’s more complicated than the framing familiar to liberals — a “security” apparatus that procures “energy,” or “wars for oil,” as though the military and economic domains are separate. Oil tankers and US warships now move through the Gulf as if the former were towing the latter, and the distinction between energy and security has been erased. Both domains continue to need constant protection.
Your point that “energy security” is an intellectual construct sounds similar to Tim Mitchell’s arguments in Rule of Experts.
Yes. “Energy security” is a concept conceived by experts, and it is also a field of expertise. As in other such fields, like economic development, the experts imagined — to use Mitchell’s term — a “sociotechnical world” and then took the steps necessary to bring it into being. Once experts decided that oil supplies, and thus energy, were imperiled, they began doing what experts do — imagining scenarios, gaming out possibilities and building arguments to accomplish core objectives. In the case of Middle Eastern oil supplies, the basic concern was the possibility of future supply disruptions or the potential fall of pro-US governments to radical powers. A range of experts and policymakers helped shape a way of thinking about the Persian Gulf as volatile, unpredictable and vulnerable — and too important to be left to its own devices. All of this followed an era of contentious politics in the 1970s, one that not only included the oil crisis, but also what many saw as a dangerous political vacuum left in the wake of the British empire’s withdrawal from the Gulf in 1971. To preempt these undesirable scenarios, “energy security” experts across the political spectrum helped build a formidable set of arguments that demanded a more robust American role in the Gulf.
I want to add that by considering the history of energy expertise, we can challenge one of the most troubling claims in the world of energy politics, that the US is dependent on Arab oil. We should do away with this notion. When the idea of dependence took hold in the 1970s and 1980s, before the current boom in the US, it described declining American oil production and the need to import oil. In this sense, yes, the US required oil from abroad to fuel industry and transportation. But this is a simplistic way to understand dependence. Even then, experts understood that Middle Eastern oil producers are as dependent on the US as the other way around. The militarized global energy system could not have been built without that consensus.
So, in your reading, too, “energy security” is inextricably bound up with the Middle East and the role of great powers in the region.
Certainly. In order for the system to develop the way it has, US officials and their Gulf allies had first to perceive some kind of threat to business as usual. In fact, it’s been a series of threats — the Cold War, revolutionary politics in the region, whether leftist or nationalist, political Islam and now, arguably, the rise of China and other non-Western nations. The fall of the Shah in 1979 heightened the tensions, of course, but more quietly radical politics in the Arab Gulf mattered profoundly. The Saudi ruling family is afraid, first and foremost, of the restive population of the Arabian Peninsula; likewise, the Bahraini ruling family is worried mostly about domestic dissent. So, “energy security” has long been a counterrevolutionary political project as well as one oriented around protecting the “free flow” of oil.
As you use it, “energy security” seems to be primarily an American concept, tied up with the era of US superpower status. Don’t other great powers also seek “energy security”?
Of course they do. Other states and global powers have their own energy interests that are (or are not) framed through the lens of security. We should not assume, however, that “energy security” is universal or can just be plugged in from one place to the next. For few other states does “energy security” entail a militaristic and expansionist foreign policy that has resulted in so much conflict. My focus on the American approach to “energy security” is mostly a reflection of my interest in the relationship between energy and war in the late twentieth-century Middle East. At least with respect to aggression, this is mostly an American story. This is not to say that the US has not had help from its friends. Following the oil crisis of 1973, the US and Europe cooperated in founding the International Energy Agency, whose primary aim was to chart a common course to prevent future supply disruptions. The agency’s responsibilities have expanded over time, but it could be seen as a counterweight to OPEC. While not all members of the IEA have supported American militarism in the Persian Gulf, many of the most powerful have.
What does the future hold for “energy security” — both the concept and the system it calls into being?
There is little reason to believe anything will change. The US is so deeply enmeshed, materially and politically, in the region that it is difficult to imagine the terms of its exit. There is too much profit and too much power for the US to leave willingly. I have consistently argued that the legacy of America’s position in the Gulf has not been security, but rather widespread suffering for those who live there and the creation of the permanent conditions of crisis that are used to justify a sustained military presence.
Those who disagree offer several arguments. First, they suggest that oil has flowed and so the system of protection has worked. This is a distraction. Oil would flow anyway. None of the producers in the Gulf can drink their oil. It must be sold. The modern energy security regime has never been about ensuring flow, but has always been about maximizing profit from that flow and protecting the system of production and the governments in the region. Second, critics suggest that the withdrawal of American power would leave a vacuum in which the worst actors — Iran or ISIS — would either become hegemonic or carve out violent fiefdoms across the region. These claims are hard to figure. Saudi Arabia has likely done more harm across the region than Iran over the last two decades, including stoking and financing the ideological fires that made the creation of ISIS more, rather than less, likely. Yet its friends widely celebrate Riyadh as a much-needed special partner in the region.
As for a potentially more powerful Iran, it is hard to take such alarm seriously. Most of the concern expressed about Iran boils down to its potential to threaten Israel. I do not find arguments that an American withdrawal from the Persian Gulf might enable Iran to strike Israel compelling. This is contrived, more convenient for Israeli interests than American ones and a reflection of the political work that manufactured fear can do.
The reality is that the US energy security posture has abetted bad behavior across the region — behavior that has come at tremendous cost for those in the region and for the US. Rather than create geopolitical pressures that would encourage states to seek political compromise, the US has provided cover for recklessness by Riyadh and an incentive, historically, for aggression from Tehran. This is not to say that Washington is singly responsible for dangerous dynamics in the Gulf. But the US position and posture have not helped. And, since this often seems to disappear from discussion, the US has been at war in the Gulf since at least the late 1980s. The human and environmental costs have been catastrophic.
 See Joe Stork, Middle East Oil and the Energy Crisis (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1975); Robert Vitalis, America’s Kingdom: Mythmaking on the Saudi Oil Frontier (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2006); Timothy Mitchell, Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil (New York: Verso, 2011).