April 30, 2013

National Security Advisor Tom Donilon's Speech on Foreign Policy in the Modern Energy Era

Last week, Tom Donilon, National Security Advisor to the President, spoke at the launch of Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy. In his speech, Donilon discussed the interplay of increased domestic production of oil and gas with U.S. national security and foreign policy. Donilon highlighted 5 key themes in this interrelationship:

1) A stronger domestic economy. Donilon tied the economic benefits of cheap and abundant natural gas, including job creation in the form of a manufacturing renaissance in energy-intensive and gas-dependent sectors, to American influence abroad: “Our strength at home is critical to our strength in the world, and our energy boom has proven to be an important driver for our economic recovery—boosting jobs, economic activity, and government revenues.” 

2) Increased flexibility and leverage in foreign policy. In particular, increased domestic production of oil helped to maintain the stability of global oil prices by offsetting the reduction of 1 million barrels of Iranian crude from the international market due to increased sanctions on Iran. Greater flexibility in global supply allowed the United States and the EU to tighten sanctions and further discourage Iran from pursuing nuclear weapons. And they were effective – Iran’s oil exports fell by 39 percent in 2012, which will not go unnoticed by a government that is dependent on oil for over half its revenue.

3) A more globally robust natural gas market. The benefits of a more robust global gas market  include a diversity of supply, delinking of gas prices from oil indexed contracts, less leverage of “traditional dominant natural gas suppliers” (i.e. Russia over Europe), and natural gas “bridging” to a less carbon-intensive economy. Ultimately, DOE’s upcoming decisions whether or not to approve the construction of LNG export terminals will determine the extent of a globally integrated gas market.

4) Maintained commitment to the Middle East. Increased domestic production is not an excuse for global retrenchment. Reduced dependence on Middle Eastern oil does not negate other U.S. security interests in the region. In Donilon’s words:

We have a set of enduring national security interests in the Middle East, including our unshakeable commitment to Israel’s security; our global nonproliferation objectives, including our commitment to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon; our ongoing national interest in fighting terrorism that threatens our personnel, interests and our homeland; our strong national interest in pursuit of Middle East peace; our historic stabilizing role in protecting regional allies and  partners and deterring aggression; and our interest in ensuring the democratic transitions in Yemen, North Africa and ultimately in Syria succeed.

It is important to note that Donilon does not mention “energy independence” in his speech. Despite politicians’ consistent rhetoric to the contrary, “energy independence” is a misnomer. Oil is a global commodity, and international events that hinder supply will affect the price of oil in the United States. As a result, continued U.S. engagement in the world is necessary to ensuring greater stability in energy markets.

5) Climate change as a national security challenge. Donilon views the increased frequency and severity of natural disasters domestically and internationally as a threat to national security. The potential instability wrought by climatic changes can be a threat multiplier and can impact military installations around the world. For Donilon, “this underscores the need – for the sake of our national security -- to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that drive climate change and to ensure that we are as prepared as possible for the impacts of climate change.”

*            *          *

For national security and foreign policy practitioners, the U.S. energy boom is ultimately a story of determining how to address challenges and seize opportunities. In his speech, Donilon recognizes several of these opportunities. The United States can leverage its expertise in unconventional energy resources to enhance its strategic partnerships and build constructive global engagement by leading bilateral and multilateral exchanges in technical and regulatory capabilities. As Steve Levine at Quartz claims, helping China in particular to unlock its natural gas potential could reduce the carbon intensity of China’s economy and serve U.S. national interests in the long run.

While the new energy era is rife with opportunity, it is not without its challenges. As Donilon acknowledges, these challenges include managing shifting global markets, maintaining public support for an internationalist foreign policy (at a time when U.S. leadership may be even more vital to global stability), and mitigating and adapting to climate change. While the new energy era comes with a set of evolving challenges in foreign policy and statecraft, the overall take away of Donilon’s speech was that the U.S. energy boom provides an opportunity to revisit domestic priorities and strategic engagement with our international partners. 

Photo: President Obama speaks with National Security Advisor Tom Donilon aboard Air Force One. Courtesy the White House. 

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