Wednesday, August 16, 2006

1942ism vs. 1972ism

There's nothing I like better than finding an article that changes the way I look at the world. Although perhaps not quite up to that level, yesterday's Wall Street Journal (subscription required) included a very clever analysis of changing US political views on foreign policy and the War on Terror. The author, an editor at the Atlantic Monthly, proposes substituting what might be called era-based positions for the traditional liberal/conservative or isolationist/internationalist labels that are proving less useful today. As I absorbed Mr. Douthat's descriptions, they struck me as constituting mini-scenarios that go beyond explaining some of the political shifts we're witnessing. They also contain interesting implications for our possible energy futures.

The article sets up five distinct reference periods as a way of categorizing the views of politicians across the traditional spectrum, in the process accounting for some "strange bedfellow" groupings. Each period evokes a previous crisis to serve as a model for how we ought to manage the current situation. Briefly, these are

  • 1972ism sees Iraq as Vietnam redux, George W. Bush as Richard M. Nixon, and the threat to our civil liberties outweighing the risks to our security.
  • 1948ism regards the current international challenges as more suitable for containment than confrontation, with diplomacy and new or revamped multinational institutions preferred over a series of wars.
  • 1942ism puts us in the midst of this generation's version of World War II, in for a tough fight against an uncompromising ideology, but with a clear victory at the end of it.
  • 1938ism has us on the verge of a great struggle, with Iran's nuclear program and regional influence substituting for Nazi Germany's ambitions.
  • 1919ism sees the last several years as a reckless Wilsonian adventure, the antidote to which is to hunker down in our continental fortress.

These ideological perspectives create a set of neatly divergent scenarios for the period ahead. For each, it's not difficult to propose the kind of energy environment that would be consistent with the premised approach to foreign policy:

  • 1972 suggests a rapid disengagement from Iraq and a reduction in US assertiveness abroad. At home we would see dramatic shifts in fiscal policies and priorities, including a greater emphasis on renewable energy and windfall profits taxes on oil companies, along with new fuel taxes or carbon taxes, driven by a commitment to address climate change. We would need alternative energy, because the Middle East would become even more unstable than today, with civil war in Iraq spilling over into neighboring countries. Oil prices would soar, providing more incentives for home-grown energy.
  • 1948's emphasis on Realpolitik could bring significant relief on the energy front, with a renewed focus on international cooperation and a premium on stability over change, especially in the Middle East. Energy policy might even become a tool in this effort, with acceptance of Kyoto Treaty emissions limits and a greater emphasis on efficiency providing a quid-pro-quo for participation in new international security alignments.
  • 1942 looks a lot like the path we've been on, post-9/11. Our energy challenges won't ease soon, subjecting us to ongoing price volatility and periodic disruptions. There'll be little opportunity for supply to catch up with demand, unless the latter began to fall, as part of an economic contraction. Energy policy continues in the shadow of security concerns, and its impact would be modest, at best. Alternative energy grows at the margins.
  • 1938 bodes much worse ahead, as the West chooses between confronting Iran now or risking a more dangerous confrontation later, should diplomacy (read appeasement) fail and a nuclear Iran emerge. A cutoff of Iranian oil exports would be the least of our concerns, in the event of a war that could slow oil and LNG exports from the Persian Gulf to a trickle. Even if the shooting phase were brief, damage to oil and gas facilities in the region could hamper energy supplies for years. Deft use of OECD strategic petroleum reserves could dampen the impact, but would not protect consumers from severe price spikes and everything that entails. Every imaginable form of alternative energy would benefit, including those based on coal.
  • 1919 might involve a similar disengagement to "1972", but this would likely be a more muscular version, in which energy security gets nearly equal billing with homeland security. We'd see a dedicated effort, on a Manhattan Project scale, to roll out plug-in hybrid cars and ramp up ethanol, coal-to-liquids, wind power and any other domestic energy source, especially if clean ones. The Geo-Greens would own this scenario.

If the above analysis stretches Mr. Douthat's premise beyond its limits, it still offers some interesting insights. How we choose to deal with Islamo-fascism--for lack of a better term--and how it develops from here will have a strong influence on energy prices and policy, because of the location of the world's largest remaining oil reserves, along with a large part of the natural gas. Are we on the verge of a change in national strategy that would reduce the intensity or emphasis of the War on Terror, and in the process shift the status quo path for energy? Or will events such as last week's airliner plot reinforce our 1942ist resolve to "stay the course"? Are the mid-term elections shaping up as a choice between 1942ism and 1972ism? I look forward to your comments on this.

Finally, the article reserved one further era as a sort of "wild card." While I continue to regard 1914 as a poor fit to current circumstances, we can't entirely dismiss the possibility that we stand on the "edge of an abyss" as profound as World War I, with unfathomable consequences for how we access and use energy.

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