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Energy and Security

Summary and Keywords

A substantial amount of scholarly literature about the relationship between energy and security, and how it has changed over time, has been produced before the early 1970s through the 2000s. Relatively few scholarly works were written on energy and security prior to the 1970s, and few scholars paid attention to the growing dependence of the United States and its allies on oil, whether imported or not, and its potential political, economic, and security ramifications. During the 1970s, two major oil shocks prompted two overlapping waves of scholarship on energy and security. The first oil shock began in 1973, when the Arab members of OPEC cut back production and embargoed exports to the United States and several other countries that were deemed too sympathetic to Israel during the October War. A closely related theme was Western cooperation on energy security. In the late 1980s and 1990s, there was a notable decline in the amount of scholarship published on the theme of energy and security, probably due to an overall improvement in the oil security situation. The 2000s witnessed a renewed interest in the relationship between energy and security owing to a variety of factors, such as the run up in oil prices that occurred in 1999 and 2000, and the reemergence of resource nationalism. Despite the significant volume of scholarship on energy and security, it could be argued that the important relationship between them has yet to be fully explored and deserves more research.

Keywords: energy, security, oil shocks, OPEC, energy security, oil prices, resource nationalism, United States


What is the relationship between energy and security, and how has it changed over time? More importantly, for the purposes of this essay, what have scholars written about the relationship over the years? Which topics has the literature emphasized, and what has been neglected?

Energy and energy policy are frequently studied independently of security. Since early in the twentieth century, however, the two subjects have often been closely related in practice. Industrialized and industrializing states without reliable access to adequate supplies of energy at affordable prices have often felt insecure. And, in response, they have often taken strong measures, up to and including the use of military force, in order to provide for their energy security.

Despite the often close nature of the relationship between energy and security, scholarly interest in the subject has waxed and waned. Indeed, the literature has been driven to a remarkable extent by current events. Little was written on energy and security before the early 1970s. Each of the two oil shocks of that decade, however, triggered a large outpouring of works. During much of the 1980s and the 1990s, when energy prices were low and relatively stable, scholarly interest again faded, only to be followed by a new and still continuing wave of studies in response to the renewed turmoil in energy markets that has characterized the 2000s.

Correspondingly, much of the literature on energy and security has been focused on the concerns of the moment. In addition to providing analyses of current conditions, it has often offered policy prescriptions for enhancing energy security. As a result, most works on the subject have been highly time-bound. They may be useful for understanding past or present challenges but shed little light on the problems of different time periods. Relatively few studies have been of a more general or theoretical nature that can speak to enduring questions.

Scope of the Review

Before beginning this review of the scholarly literature on energy and security, it might be useful to delineate the boundaries of the subject. Which topics are included and which are not? In order to answer this question, we must first say a few words about the meaning that is attached here to the often contested concept of security.

In the context of this essay, security certainly includes a concern for violent conflict, the use of military power, and the operation of armed forces. It also encompasses the more general economic welfare of groups, typically states, especially their ability to meet the basic material needs of their citizens and subjects. Falling outside the scope of this essay, however, are environmental and human dimensions of security, except perhaps where the very existence or political survival of a group is at stake.

Of particular interest to this essay are works that explore the relationship between energy and military conflict. The desire to control energy resources can be an important motive for aggression and hostilities, both between and within states. And at least since the advent of steam power and the mechanization of transport, it has played an important role in the conduct of military operations. Thus energy related considerations may be a key determinant of the aims, strategies, tactics, and outcomes of modern war. Also of interest are works that address the more general relationship between energy and national security, in peace as well as war. Large amounts of energy are vital to the operation of industrialized societies. Thus, where sufficient energy resources are not readily available, the imperative to gain access to them can exert considerable influence over a state’s foreign, military, and security policies. Conversely, those who control energy resources that are needed or coveted by others may be able to use them as tools of national security policy or even as political weapons.

Excluded from this review are more general works on energy resources, the role of energy in international relations, and national energy policies. To merit consideration here, such works must contain a significant component that deals more or less explicitly with security issues. It becomes harder to draw the line with works that deal with the politics of security within particular oil producing regions or the foreign relations of states toward countries and regions on which they are dependent for energy imports. For example, not all studies of US policy toward Saudi Arabia are primarily motivated by an interest in the security implications of that relationship, but some are (e.g., Long 1985; Baer 2003; Bronson 2006).

Outside the scope of this review are works primarily concerned with the environmental, social, or human impacts of the normal operation of energy systems, including production, transportation, and consumption. Thus it does not address the causes or consequences of climate change per se. Nor does it address works focused on the risks of nuclear accidents, the security of nuclear energy facilities, and their vulnerability to sabotage and attack. Perhaps more controversially, not covered here are studies of the security implications of the spread of civilian nuclear power. Although a case could be made for its inclusion, nuclear proliferation is not seen primarily as an issue of energy security and is best treated as a separate subject.

Finally, a word on the types of works considered in this survey may be in order. The literature on energy and security, broadly defined, includes a tremendous number of what would not normally be regarded as scholarly works. Among these are studies by the departments and agencies of the US government and its foreign counterparts, the hearings and reports of the US Congress and other national legislatures, the publications of international organizations such as the International Energy Agency, conference proceedings, policy analyses and briefs by think tanks and advocacy organizations, and articles in more policy oriented journals. For the purposes of many studies of energy and security, these constitute vital source materials that merit careful consultation. Nevertheless, this essay focuses on books and articles that are primarily scholarly in nature and purpose.

Before the Oil Shocks

Relatively few scholarly works were written on energy and security before the 1970s. This neglect reflected the general absence in the West of acute concerns about access to energy, at least in the public discourse. Nevertheless, scholars did produce a few notable works that foreshadowed several issues that were to dominate the literature in later years.

Until early in the twentieth century, even the first countries to industrialize were able to meet most if not all of their energy needs from indigenous sources, which consisted primarily of wood and coal. This initial state of energy independence began to erode shortly before World War I with the shift, led by Great Britain, to the use of oil as the fuel of choice for naval vessels and the increasing motorization of ground transport that took place during the war itself. For the first time, oil played an important role in determining the outcome of a major conflict. In the words of the British Foreign Secretary, the allies had “floated to victory on a sea of oil.” Thus, after the war, those major powers that lacked adequate petroleum resources of their own, notably Great Britain, France, Italy, and Japan, anxiously sought to gain access to foreign oil supplies. This new international scramble for oil and the potential for international conflict that it entailed prompted some of the earliest works that can be said to concern energy and security (e.g., Fischer 1926; Mohr 1926).

Oil played an even more decisive role in World War II. Gaining, maintaining, and denying access to petroleum was a key objective of the principal combatants. Not surprisingly, the war spawned a new literature on the influence of oil over wartime planning, strategy, and outcomes that has been steadily added to over the years (e.g., Spaight 1949; Jensen 1968; Deese 1981; Goralski 1987). Perhaps the most valuable single work in this category is Ian Lesser’s Resources and Strategy (1989), which was concerned primarily with perceptions of resource vulnerability and their influence over the formulation of strategic plans and policies over the years. It provided a historical examination of the role of resources in war and as a component of military potential in peacetime, although most chapters concerned the twentieth century and, accordingly, placed considerable emphasis on oil. The end of World War II and the early postwar era also saw the appearance of the first scholarly studies of how oil related considerations had begun to shape US foreign and national security policy during the interwar years (e.g., Feis 1946; DeNovo 1956).

During the postwar era, the United States and its allies grew increasingly dependent on oil. In 1950, petroleum overtook coal as the most important single source of energy in the United States and by 1973 accounted for nearly half of US primary energy consumption. The shift in Western Europe and Japan, whose economies had lagged behind the United States in the conversion to the universal use of oil, was even more dramatic. By 1973, Great Britain relied on oil for half of its energy needs, France for nearly 70 percent, and Japan for a staggering 78 percent. And while the United States continued to produce a high if declining percentage of the oil it used, virtually all of the petroleum consumed in Western Europe and Japan was imported, primarily from the Persian Gulf.

Surprisingly, however, few scholars paid attention to this growing dependence on oil, whether imported or not, and its potential political, economic, and security ramifications, and even fewer anticipated the day of reckoning that in retrospect appears inevitable. One article (Nakasian 1953) criticized the US government for lacking a conscious policy for promoting secure access to foreign oil reserves. And in the early 1960s, Harold Lubell (1961; 1963) analyzed the risks of Western Europe’s growing dependence on Middle Eastern oil and noted the potential for a serious disruption of the region’s oil supplies.

Even Lubell, however, was optimistic about Western Europe’s ability to compensate for the sudden loss of Middle Eastern oil through increased imports from the Western Hemisphere. And other authors failed to recognize or understand the warning signs. In 1970, for example, Peter Odell published the first edition of a widely read and otherwise insightful analysis of the evolution of the political economy of oil after World War II, especially in the Middle East. Yet he exaggerated the degree to which consumers of Middle Eastern oil had insulated themselves against future oil shocks, and to which Middle East producers had acquired an interest in maintaining a steady flow of oil exports. In his view, they “would seem intent on guaranteeing the future availability of all oil that can be sold out of the area” (Odell 1968:109). And as late as 1971, a book on Strategic Energy Supply and National Security expressed optimism about the availability of adequate supplies of energy at reasonable costs, thanks to new technologies (Vansant 1971). For most scholars and others, energy was still not yet a security issue.

With the benefit of hindsight, it is difficult to understand how so many people could have been so sanguine about the West’s growing oil dependence. And yet at the time such an attitude seemed reasonable, even compelling. Inexpensively priced oil had been increasingly abundant. Indeed, in the late 1950s the United States imposed a quota on cheap imports in order to protect domestic producers. The world oil market was still dominated by a handful of Western-controlled integrated companies, the so-called “majors.” And the “free world” had successfully weathered several oil supply disruptions in the 1950s and 1960s, thanks to spare production capacity in the United States, Venezuela, and elsewhere. It was difficult for many to imagine that the situation was about to change drastically, notwithstanding the formation of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), the retreat of British power from the Persian Gulf, and the growing importance of smaller, independent oil companies that were willing to offer the governments of oil-producing states more lucrative terms.

The First and Second Waves: Scholarly Responses to the Oil Shocks

But change it did. The 1970s saw two major oil shocks, which in turn prompted two overlapping waves of scholarship on energy and security. The first oil shock began in 1973, when the Arab members of OPEC cut back production and embargoed exports to the United States and several other countries that were deemed too sympathetic to Israel during the October War. Although the major oil companies were able to mitigate the effects of the embargo by rerouting oil from other sources, the reduction in supply allowed OPEC to quadruple the price of oil in a matter of weeks. The economies of developed and developing countries alike were hit hard. Economic growth slowed greatly or even stalled altogether, unemployment jumped, and inflation became the scourge of policy makers.

The industrialized world had barely recovered when a second shock roiled the oil markets, albeit for very different reasons. Initially, striking oil workers in Iran brought production in the country to a virtual standstill in late 1978. Then, fearing a potential shortage, various actors in the oil market panicked and sought to build up their stocks, thereby helping to make their fears a reality. Although the causes were quite different, the consequences were similar to those of the first oil shock. Oil prices more than doubled over the course of 1979, and the combination of economic stagnation and inflation (stagflation) once again reared its ugly head.

Not surprisingly, given the magnitude of the consequences, the oil shocks precipitated an outpouring of scholarly works. A number of these were primarily descriptive and explanatory in nature. Many sought to elucidate the causes and consequences of the oil crises as well as the responses of oil consuming states. Some focused on individual countries, especially the United States (e.g., Mancke 1976; Bohi and Russell 1978; Goodwin 1981; Temkin 1983; Bull-Berg 1987) but also Japan (e.g., Wu 1977; R. Morse 1981), and even Sweden (Carlsnaes 1988). But quite a few offered insightful comparative analyses of how industrialized countries dealt with the oil shocks (e.g., Stockholm International Peace Research Institute 1974; Vernon 1975; Menderhausen 1976; Lindberg 1977; Krapels 1980; Kohl 1982; Yergin and Hillenbrand 1982; Lieber 1983).

A closely related theme was Western cooperation on energy security. In 1974, the United States and a number of other industrialized countries created the International Energy Agency (IEA) in 1974 for that purpose. Although the IEA quickly established an emergency system of demand restraint and oil sharing to help its members cope with future supply disruptions, the adequacy of this arrangement has been questioned over the years, and little to no collective progress was made on the equally important goal of limiting oil imports (e.g., Walton 1976; Willrich and Conant 1977; Keohane 1978; 1984; Cowhey 1985; Horwisch and Weimer 1988; Scott 1994). More generally, the overall record on cooperation, both before and after the oil shocks, was uneven and seemed increasingly problematic. Thus some scholars thought it imperative to understand the obstacles to cooperation as well as its future prospects (e.g., Lieber 1983; Jentleson 1986; Kupchan 1987; Kapstein 1990).

The years following the oil shocks in particular also saw heightened interest in OPEC. A large number of works focused on the operation and policies of the organization itself (e.g., Rustow and Mugno 1976; Ghadar 1977; Seymour 1981; Ahari 1986; Skeet 1988), while a handful explored the dynamics and effectiveness of cartels more generally (e.g., Klass et al. 1980; Moran 1987; Spar 1994; Claes 2001). Not surprisingly, especially after the Arab oil embargo, a few scholars sought to analyze the utility of the so-called “oil weapon” and compared the vulnerability of the industrialized countries and other types of oil importers (e.g., Maull 1975; Krapels 1977; Licklider 1988). And several examined the likely availability and security of oil supplies in the future (e.g., Fagen 1979; Dafter 1979–80).

Nevertheless, perhaps the largest number of works spawned by the oil shocks was primarily prescriptive in nature, with the bulk of these directed in particular at US energy policy. A few early works (e.g., Newlon and Breckner 1975; Bohi and Russell 1975; Kuenne, Higgins, Michaels, and Sommerfield 1975) emphasized the value of oil storage and stockpiles in meeting a future supply disruption, proposals that were answered with the creation of the US Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR). Other analyses of the 1970s were more comprehensive, suggesting a range of policy responses (e.g., Teller, Mark, and Foster 1976; Conant and Gold 1978; Stobaugh and Yergin 1979). One of the most interesting works of this period, written by Joan Spero even as the first oil shock was still unfolding, offered a thorough analysis of the principal threats to US energy security as well as an overview of the possible policy responses (Spero 1973).

The works that appeared after the second oil shock expressed even more certainty that the United States would again face an energy crisis, if only because the range of imaginable precipitating events was more numerous. Not only had the Iranian revolution demonstrated the possible unintended consequences of internal upheavals, but the subsequent Soviet move into Afghanistan in late 1979 and the outbreak of the Iran–Iraq war in 1980 had raised entirely new sets of concerns. Correspondingly, the prescriptive works of the early 1980s offered a wider range of policy proposals. As before, some emphasized emergency measures that could mitigate the impact of a future oil supply disruption, with opinions divided over whether to rely on government intervention or market mechanisms (e.g., Alm 1981; Corrigan 1981; Horwich and Mitchell 1982; Alm and Weiner 1984; Horwich and Weimer 1988). Of particular interest was the implementation and improvement of US oil stockpiling policies (e.g., FAS 1980; Madison 1980; Weimer 1982; Hogan 1983). Others stressed the need for taking action to reduce oil imports; the concept of an oil import fee or premium received particular attention during this period (e.g., Conant 1982; Ross and Williams 1981; Bohi and Montgomery 1982). Others focused on what they saw as needed changes in US foreign and defense policy in order to ensure access to Persian Gulf oil (e.g., Bucknell 1981; Ebinger 1982). And yet others addressed all three areas, attempting to put forth comprehensive US strategies for energy security (e.g., Deese and Nye 1981; Plummer 1982; Franssen et al. 1983; for a useful review of some of these works, see Nye 1982).

Within a few years of the second oil shock, however, the initial sense of alarm began to dissipate. After all, even the Iran–Iraq war, which temporarily removed nearly 10 percent of the noncommunist world’s oil supply from the market, had resulted in only a relatively small and fleeting rise in oil prices, which then began a steady decline. Thus, although works continued to appear through the mid-1980s that noted the persistence of risks and challenges to Western energy security, they seemed to be less marked by a sense of urgency (e.g., Schuler 1984; Gasteyger 1985; Gonzalez et al. 1985). Nevertheless, the 1980s also saw steadily increasing US military involvement in the Persian Gulf largely for the purpose of defending the region’s oil supplies, beginning with the enunciation of the Carter Doctrine following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which generated a number of studies (e.g., McNaugher 1985; Kupchan 1987; Olson 1987; Cordesman 1988; Acharya 1989).

It should be noted that the literature on energy and security during this period was not limited to works that focused on the immediate problems of the United States and other industrialized countries. At least three other strands are worth noting. First, a few scholars were able to rise above the imperatives of the moment to explore, for the first time, the more general relationship between energy and security. In a chapter on energy and national security in his book Energy and World Politics, for example, Mason Willrich (1975) considered the perspectives of both consumers and producers of oil. And David Deese was one of the first scholars to offer a definition of energy security in an analysis seeking to identify the central issues and questions surrounding the concept. Deese defined energy security as

a condition in which a nation perceives a high probability that it will have adequate energy supplies at affordable prices. Prices are defined as affordable if they stop short of causing severe disruption of normal social and economic activity. Leaders must perceive months in advance that their countries will have adequate energy supplies at affordable prices. (1979–80:140)

Another useful and very similar formulation was offered some years later by Daniel Yergin: “The objective of energy security is to assure adequate, reliable supplies of energy at reasonable prices and in ways that do not jeopardize major national values and objectives” (1988:111).

Another group of scholars began to examine the relationship between the control of energy resources and conflict. Of these, some focused on the potential for regional competition and conflict over oil reserves, especially in East and Southeast Asia (e.g., Harrison 1977; Morales Siddayao 1980). Others sought to situate the issue within the broader question of resource scarcity as an impetus to war, sometimes making little distinction between energy and nonfuel minerals (e.g., Tanzer 1980; Maull 1984).

Finally, the oil shocks combined with the increasing availability of declassified documents from the 1930s, 1940s, and early 1950s to prompt a new generation of historians to delve into the formative years of US foreign oil policy. Perhaps not surprisingly, these sometimes painstakingly researched histories took somewhat longer to emerge. But the early 1980s saw an outpouring of historical studies of the origins of American involvement in the Middle East or, as some saw it, the establishment of US control over the world oil market and the influence of the oil industry in the development of American policy (e.g., Hoskins 1976; Miller 1980; Stoff 1980; Anderson 1981; Chester 1983; Shaffer 1983; Randall 1985; Painter 1986; Karlsson 1986; Venn 1986).

Despite its size and diversity, this burgeoning literature on energy and security was marked by several distinct limitations. Perhaps understandably, given the nature of the events that had spawned it, the literature focused almost exclusively on the security risks and challenges associated with petroleum dependence, despite the frequent use of the word “energy.” Although this emphasis may have made sense at the time, it resulted in a number of potentially misleading titles. A related limitation was the great degree to which the literature sought to address immediate policy issues. Very few works (e.g., Maull 1984) attempted to explore the relationship between energy and security at a more elevated conceptual and theoretical level. Not least important, most works were written from the perspective of the industrialized consumer countries, especially the United States. Although developing countries suffered greatly, and perhaps even more, as a result of the oil shocks, their problems were rarely described.

Hiatus: The (Temporary) Decline of Energy Insecurity

The late 1980s and 1990s witnessed a notable decline in the amount of scholarship published on the theme of energy and security, although relevant works continued to appear on a regular basis. This decline reflected what appeared to be an overall improvement in the oil security situation, at least from the perspective of the oil consuming countries. Whereas global demand for oil had resumed its upward climb two years after the first oil shock, the second oil shock was followed by a prolonged decline in consumption as a result of conservation efforts and a shift to alternative sources of energy, especially in the industrialized countries. Meanwhile, the much higher oil prices helped to stimulate increased production in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and non-OPEC countries in the developing world. The resulting oil glut caused the price per barrel to drop steadily from more than $80 in 1980 to around $50 in 1985 and then to collapse to less than $20 the following year (2005 dollars). For the next decade and a half, oil prices remained low, generally in the range of $20 to $30 per barrel (2005 dollars), while the world could count on at least several million barrels per day in spare production capacity in the event of another supply disruption. It may be also worth noting that a few economists had begun to question whether energy price shocks actually had significant adverse effects on the economy, suggesting that government policies to promote energy security lacked adequate justification (e.g., Bohi 1989).

As a result, many concluded, in the words of a widely read conference report, that the issue of oil security had “lost its urgency” (Fried and Blandin 1988). Although informed observers recognized that the United States and others could become increasingly dependent once again on Middle East oil, the potential for damage from a supply disruption was not expected to rise to the level of past crises, and a set of long-term, low-cost measures were deemed sufficient to maintain US oil security. Even in the early 1990s, leading experts were able to express a “comparatively sanguine outlook” (Fried and Trezise 1993). Based on supply and demand considerations, they expected the real price of oil to remain stable through 2010, and they estimated that damage from future oil shocks could be limited in all but worst case scenarios at comparatively modest cost.

Not all observers were quite so optimistic, however, and at least a few underscored the likely return of acute concerns about energy security. A 1987 study, for example, noted that because of low oil prices and the deep reservations about nuclear power prompted by the Chernobyl disaster the previous year, both the share of total energy demand satisfied by oil and the share of OECD imports from the Middle East would increase and that, given the tensions in that region, periodic oil supply crises should be anticipated (Belgrave et al. 1987). Similarly, Daniel Yergin argued in a 1988 article that newly rising global demand, as a result of the price collapse, and declining surplus production capacity meant that a future energy crisis could not be ruled out (Yergin 1988).

Such concerns were further revived by Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait and the resulting spike in oil prices, which temporarily doubled. Although prices quickly came back down as a result of a surge in Saudi oil production and the rapid success of Operation Desert Storm, the Gulf War episode prompted a number of analyses of the real motives of the United States and the war’s implications for global energy markets (e.g., Aarts and Renner 1991; Doran and Buck 1991; Lieber 1992; Pelletiere 2001). In view of the increased US military presence in the region following the war, the following decade also saw a spate of efforts to estimate the military costs to the United States of defending Persian Gulf oil supplies (e.g., Kaufmann and Steinbruner 1991; Ravenal 1991; Greene and Leiby 1993; Koplow and Martin 1998; Losman 2001). Nevertheless, through the remainder of the 1990s, few scholars expressed alarm about the West’s growing dependence on oil in general and imports from the Persian Gulf in particular (e.g., Martin et al. 1996).

Instead, at least as much attention was devoted to other energy security issues during this period. In the 1980s, before the end of the Cold War, one such issue was Western Europe’s growing imports of oil and especially natural gas from the Soviet Union. Somewhat paradoxically, the emergence of this issue was partly the result of the region’s efforts to reduce its dependence on Middle Eastern oil. And during the 1970s, increased East–West energy trade was viewed as a way to promote détente as well as to enhance energy security. By the end of the decade, however, increasing US–Soviet tensions began to call into question the wisdom of this strategy. Some observers feared that the Soviet Union might seek to exploit Western Europe’s dependence as a source of political leverage. Others, however, argued that the Soviets had considerable financial and other incentives to be reliable suppliers (e.g., Stent 1982; Franssen et al. 1983; Stein 1983; Stern 1987).

Another issue that received a good deal of attention, especially in the 1990s, was energy security in Asia. Thanks to rapid economic growth in the region, energy use rose at a rate that was several times the global average. By the middle of the decade, oil consumption had doubled over the previous 10 years and China had become a net oil importer. As a result, a number of scholars expressed and analyzed concerns about the potential for heightened competition and conflict in the region, especially where overlapping territorial claims to potential energy reserves existed (e.g., Calder 1996; Salameh 1995–6; Valencia 1997; Stankiewicz 1998; Manning 2000; Stares 2000).

Two other noteworthy publications from this period merit mention. One is Daniel Yergin’s The Prize (1991). Although not specifically about energy security, this Pulitzer Prize winning volume remains the most comprehensive history of the development of the global oil industry. The other is Bohi and Toman’s The Economics of Energy Security (1996), which represented the culmination of more than two decades of valuable work on related topics by Douglas Bohi and several associates. This book provides a thorough economic analysis of energy security externalities, especially with regard to oil. Individual chapters cover the conceptualization of such externalities, empirical measurements of them, and policy prescriptions for reducing them. As with previous works in this research program, the principal limitation was its focus on the economic dimensions of energy security, to the exclusion of other important aspects.

The Third Wave

The 2000s saw a resurgence of interest in the relationship between energy and security, one that is roughly comparable in magnitude to that of the 1970s and early 1980s. In contrast to that earlier period, however, this renewed interest cannot be attributed to a single cause like the oil shocks of the 1970s. Rather, it had multiple, if mutually reinforcing, origins.

The first of these, chronologically, was the run up in oil prices that occurred in 1999 and 2000, when they topped $30 per barrel for the first time since the Gulf War. The immediate cause was production cutbacks by OPEC. But in the background more farsighted observers could already discern an overall tightening of the world oil market as growing global demand whittled away at what was left of the spare production capacity created in the 1980s. One consequence was the growing importance of new oil producing regions, especially the Caspian Sea and the Gulf of Guinea in West-Central Africa, which many hoped would reduce the West’s dependence on oil from the still conflict-wracked Persian Gulf. Yet these regions faced serious problems of their own.

These unsettling overall trends were reinforced by the shock of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and the subsequent unleashing of the US war on terror, including the American-led invasion of Iraq. Although oil prices initially dropped to less than $20 per barrel because of the downturn in the US economy, they soon began an inexorable rise that within six years would see them pass the symbolically important $100 mark. Terrorist attacks, the prolonged war and occupation in Iraq, and international tensions over Iran’s nuclear program heightened preexisting concerns about the stability of the Persian Gulf. And for the first time in many years, tankers, pipelines, and other elements of the region’s oil infrastructure came under direct attack.

The resulting literature on energy and security reflected this diverse set of concerns. Several works addressed the overall stability of the world oil market. As early as 2001, Edward Morse and Amy Myers Jaffe described what they regarded as a crisis in energy production growth due to underinvestment and political difficulties in producer countries. As a result, they concluded, the world faced a greater risk of a major supply disruption than at any time in two decades. In contrast, Steve Yetiv (2004) argued that despite the continuing volatility of oil prices, a variety of long-term developments had actually increased oil stability, which he defined as the ability to deter, mitigate, and contain threats to the world supply of oil.

A number of other works picked up the theme of the relationship between energy resources and conflict. Of these, some specifically examined the link between oil and war (e.g., Engdahl 2004; Kaldor et al. 2007), while a few sought to situate such struggles within what they viewed as a general trend toward a greater likelihood of conflicts over resources because of escalating global demand, the emergence of scarcities, and disputes over ownership (e.g., Klare 2001; Le Billon 2005). Nevertheless, whether they viewed resources as a means or a motive of conflict, even these works were primarily concerned with oil. As Michael Klare acknowledged, “Of all the resources discussed in this book, none is more likely to provoke conflict between states in the twenty-first century than oil. Petroleum stands out from other materials […] because of its pivotal role in the global economy and its capacity to ignite large-scale combat” (2001:26). Indeed, Klare subsequently argued, growing competition over increasingly scarce energy supplies, with its concomitant risk of great power conflict, would be the dominant dynamic of international affairs in the twenty-first century (Klare 2008).

Complementing these more general analyses were a number of studies of regional conflicts over energy. Whereas such works had previously been limited to the Persian Gulf and Asia, however, the new literature reflected the growing importance of other regions as sources of energy supplies. The Caspian Sea and Central Asia, where great powers now vied for influence over fledgling post-Soviet regimes, received particular attention (e.g., Ebel and Menon 2000; Karagiannis 2002; Kleveman 2003; Akiner 2004). But scholars also examined sub-Saharan Africa (e.g., Omeje 2006; Forest and Sousa 2006), where substantial offshore discoveries and rapidly increasing output had drawn considerable Western interest, and Asia (e.g., Wesley 2007), where the rise of China continued to raise concerns.

This period also saw the reemergence of resource nationalism, although in a somewhat different guise (see also Klare 2008). While OPEC continued to be the subject of much attention, of increasing concern was the actual and potential manipulation of energy dependence by Russia and a few other newly empowered energy producers (e.g., Smith 2004; Stulberg 2007; Baev 2008; Goldman 2008; Lucas 2008). At the same time, many observers feared that China and possibly other import-dependent states would attempt to obtain preferential access to energy supplies, undermining in the process efforts to promote human rights, democracy, and good governance in developing countries and possibly triggering new international conflicts (e.g., Downs 2000; Andrews-Speed et al. 2002; Jaffe and Lewis 2002; Ebel 2005; Zweig and Jianhai 2005; Wesley 2007).

As in the 1970s and early 1980s, however, the most common subject was US energy security. A number of works sought to describe and explain America’s dependence on foreign oil and how it has shaped US foreign and military policy, both in general and toward specific regions (e.g., Bahgat 2003; Pelletiere 2004). For example, Klare (2004; see also Klare 2001) argued that as a result of the centrality of cheap and abundant oil to the vigor and growth of the US economy and American way of life, oil had come to be treated differently from other traded commodities and that the United States had frequently used military force to guarantee access to foreign sources of oil. Similarly, Ian Rutledge (2005) explored the causes of America’s “addiction” to large amounts of reasonably priced oil and how it had influenced US foreign policy, going so far as to claim that the purpose of the Iraq War was to establish a friendly and compliant oil protectorate in the Middle East. The author sought to provide a comprehensive analysis of the costs of US foreign oil dependence, arguing that they should include not just the economic costs but also those resulting from American policy responses (Duffield 2008; see also Deutch et al. 2006). And Bruce Beaubouef (2007) provided the first thorough scholarly treatment of the contributions of the SPR to US energy security. At the same time, at least a few scholars questioned whether US energy security was in fact endangered by increasing reliance on oil imports (e.g., Auerswald 2006; Gholz and Press 2007).

Paralleling these critical analyses were a number of primarily prescriptive works on how to reduce US energy insecurity. Some of these focused on the external aspects of American policy, emphasizing the foreign energy security policy challenges and options (e.g., Kalicki and Goldwyn 2005). Others stressed the demand side, looking at how the United States could reduce its foreign energy dependence by, among other things, lowering consumption (e.g., Sandalow 2007; Zubrin 2007; Hakes 2008). Yet others sought to improve the US ability to respond to future oil shocks, for example by improving the management of the SPR (e.g., Victor and Eskreis-Winkler 2008). And a few sought to take a comprehensive approach, combining elements of both domestic and foreign policy (e.g., Klare 2004; Yergin 2006).


Although this survey lists a large number of sources, it could be argued that the important relationship between energy and security remains understudied and deserves greater attention. As evidence in support of this claim, one could point to the fact that at most a handful of articles on the subject have been published in the leading scholarly journals of international relations and security affairs in the past quarter century. Given the importance of energy to the security and economic wellbeing of industrialized and industrializing states and the geographically uneven distribution of many energy resources, concerns about reliable access to adequate amounts of energy on economically, politically, and environmentally affordable terms has been and will continue to be an important determinant of foreign and national security policy.

To be sure, judging by recent events, much more is likely to be written on the subject of energy and security in the coming years. If the past is any guide, however, the literature will continue to be driven primarily by immediate policy concerns rather than by more enduring questions about the relationship between energy and security. Likewise, it will be largely aimed at influencing policy rather than at addressing more general issues. This bias suggests the existence of considerable room for work of a more conceptual or theoretical nature. The possibilities for exploring energy as a cause of conflict or a source of security (and insecurity) would seem to be far from exhausted.

A further limitation is that the literature has been written largely from the perspective of the industrialized countries, especially the United States, and the societies that they represent. The impact of the oil shocks and more recent rises in energy prices on the resource-poor parts of the developing world has received much less attention. In examining the relationship between energy and security, we need to consider not only different forms of the former but also alterative conceptions of the latter. What types of security – national, economic, human, etc. – do we mean? And for whom?


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                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        I am extremely grateful to Sean Ding for his considerable research and editorial assistance.