Understanding geopolitics for climate activism



(This article is based on an address given to the Ngara Institute’s Politics in the Pub, 24thApril, 2019)

Thanks to the work of the Ngara Institute and other progressive organisations, we are building a critical mass of knowledge to address issues of significance to us all. I acknowledge that we meet on Aboriginal land and pay my respects to Elders (Traditional Custodians) past, present and emerging of the Arakwal and Bandjalung nations. 


At this moment, world order is shifting. Yet one can be forgiven for a sense of déja vu. The atomic clock has been returned to two minutes to midnight (the first time since 1953), the nuclear superpowers have withdrawn from a key nuclear arms control treaty, and the United States has committed to a $US1.5 trillion upgrade to its nuclear arsenal. Unlike in the 1950s, humanity is now faced with two existential threats: annihilation from nuclear weapons and slower mass extinctions from global heating/climate disruptions. 

What are thecore drivers that have brought us to this point? 

In the following, I outline how oil, as the world’s most actively traded commodity, has played a central role in the US-led reshaping of world order since the turn of the 20th century. When US leaders lay claim to US ‘exceptionalism’ as the ‘indispensable nation’, they have at the same time asserted its military role as guarantor of ‘free trade’. 

If carbon emissions are a central causal factor in global heating and climate disruption, then reducing the reliance of the global economy on fossil fuels (including oil in particular) and shifting to renewable energy systems, will make significant cuts in carbon emissions and reduce justifications for ‘securitization’ (a significant source of carbon emissions in its own right and a major distraction). If climate activists focus on oil as a key source of militarization and climate disruption, we might make a significant contribution to reduction of suffering for billions of people on the planet.

If climate activists focus on oil as a key source of militarization and climate disruption, we might make a significant contributionto reduction of suffering for billions of people on the planet.

Here, I’ll address some significant recent events in the strategic landscape between major powers in the world, followed by an outline of the centrality of oil and hydrocarbons in the US-led world order in the 20thand 21stcenturies. 


What is happening? 

The disintegration of the Soviet Union (25 December 1991) offered a real chance to end a major bipolar nuclear confrontation and the existential threat of global annihilation that loomed throughout the Cold War period. As the Soviet Union was disintegrating in the late 1980s, contrary to verbal assurances given to President Mikhail Gorbachev, Western leaders took advantage of a demoralized and effectively leaderless Russia to steadily encroach on and further integrate states within Russia’s traditional sphere of influence. 

Since then, 

the US has continued to maintain a ‘peace keeping’ presence around the world with overwhelming military superiority

served by 800+ American foreign military bases (Russia has 10, China has 1) and more than half of global military spending (greater than the next 8 nations combined). Russia spends only a fraction of this and its military budget actually reduced in 2016.

Despite all of this ‘security’, in the last two decades we have seen increased territorial and security disputes in East Asia; invasions and conflicts in the Middle East and parts of Africa; and ongoing destabilization in Eastern Europe.

A crisis of nuclear confrontation reached fever pitch on the Korean peninsula in August-September 2017 and is now in hiatus with summit talks ended abruptly in Vietnam in 2019. 

In the Middle East, Washington unilaterally withdrew from the multilateral nuclear agreement with Iran and, in April 2018, declared the Iran Revolutionary Guard to be a Foreign Terrorist Organisation and Iran a State Sponsor of Terrorism. It then declared a global ban on Iranian oil exports and business with Iranian companies (including by countries granted special exemption) as enforced by a US blockade. 

Less concerned with human rights, ‘terrorism’ or ballistic missile development, however, the US and its allies focused their attention on Iran’s partial control over the Strait of Hormuz, which carries 20-30 percent of the world’s petroleum and all of the natural gas from lead exporter Qatar on the only waterway linking the Persian Gulf to the open sea. As Iran’s oil exports comprise 40 percent of its economy, these sanctions (not new against Iran) are a form of economic warfare to weaken the state, slow economic and military development and sew local unrest.

The US has also withdrawn from two major arms control treaties: the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty in 2002 so it could contain Russia and China with ‘missile defense’ systems; and the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty in 2019, which helped end the Cold War and reduced the world’s nuclear weapons stockpile from 70,000 to 15,000. The US claims it wants China to be included in a new treaty due to its new weapons technologies.

Both Russia and China have returned Cold War nuclear capabilities to service and are developing new weapons systems.

They have fortified borders, forged economic alliances and developed alternative resource supply routes. This includes, China’s Belt and Road Initiative or the Silk Road economic belt launched in 2013, in which Russia is a key player. Russia has also worked with OPEP since the end of 2016 to reduce hydrocarbon production and raise prices so as to minimize the worst impacts from sanctions. This could lead to a re-division of the globe once more.

Since Ukraine’s Maidan uprising in February 2014 and Russia’s corresponding annexation of Crimea in March 2014 for which the US and EU have imposed sanctions on Russia, the US and 21-member NATO coalition have built up a strong military force along Russia’s eastern border. Similar US-led joint-operations are regularly conducted along China’s coastlines (South China Sea, Korean Peninsula, East Sea). There are also military formations being built along the New Silk Road trade routes. The US Senate is currently mooting the designation of Russia as a sponsor of terrorism which would allow it to impose further sanctions that could lead to war. 

As I outline below, the world’s increased reliance on oil and combustion engines in petro-economies from the turn of the twentieth century has been central to an interlocking system of power relations primarily led by the United States in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. This period can be broken into 4 or 5 stages. 


US-led world order I

The genesis of US-led world order begins from the Spanish-American War in 1898. Propelled by its own indigenous supply of oil from invasion and acquisition of Mexican lands in 1845 and native American lands from the 16thcentury, the new foreign holdings in the oil-rich Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean region (Cuba, Puerto Rico, US Virgin Islands and for some time Haiti and the Dominican Republic) as well as Guam, the Philippines and also already Hawai’i, the US could expand its naval power and bases across the Pacific and the Atlantic Oceans.  

Consistent with 19thcentury ‘World Island’ theory set out by Mahan, Spykman, Mackinder and others who developed the discipline of political geography, the US pursued becoming a great maritime power that could encircle and contain from the “Rimlands” and littorals any emerging power from the Eurasian “Heartland”. 

US control over corridors and choke points for the distribution of vital resources to western Europe, the world’s largest market at the time, gave it the leverage for world hegemonic status.

With the switch from coal to oil-fired engines (and other machine systems) prior to World War I, the US’ primary inter-imperialist competitors for oil control were: 

  • ·     the Russian empire, which in 1900 accounted for over 50 percent of the world’s oil production but which had dropped by World War I and the Russian Revolution;

  • ·     Great Britain, which had discovered oil in Persia in 1908 (Anglo-Persian Oil Company) and with its Royal Navy, presided over the Middle East, the Mediterranean and North Africa; and 

  • ·     Imperial Germany and Japan, which had significant military power yet lacked control over large oil reserves. Germany, in coalition with the Ottoman Empire, was building the Berlin-Baghdad railway for access to suspected oil fields in Mesopotamia and to avoid the British-French controlled Suez Canal through Basra on the Persian Gulf. 

In the Sykes-Picot agreement between the British and French (May 1916 leading to Balfour on 2 November 1917), Arab provinces formerly under the Ottoman Empire (ended 1918) were re-shaped into weak administrations that could not form unified resistance to control oil reserves. The San Remo agreement of 1920 gave Britain control over Mesopotamia (and Basra and the Baghdad-Berlin railway) and the French control over the German share in the Turkish Petroleum Company. By 1928, in the ‘Red Line Agreement’, Britain, France and the US agreed to split Iraqi oil on the basis of relative power. 

With access to oil in its new republics (Caucasus), the Soviet Union became the world number two producer by 1938, ahead of Venezuela. 

The British controlled major reserves in the Middle East with its Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (100,000 barrels per day in the 1930s), but Standard Oil (Esso Socal) secured concessions in Dharan on the Saudi peninsula in 1938 giving it control east of Suez (Arab American Oil Company – Aramco) by 1944. 

Following the 1948 coup d’etat led by military dictator Marcos Jimenez, Exxon and Mobil gained privileged access to Venezuelan oil (in return for large private profit and political support) and the US consolidated its oil hegemony.


US-led world order II 

Relative to nations of Europe and Asia, the US escaped the destruction and ruination from WWII. At war’s end US wealth amounted to: 

  • over 50 percent of world GDP (as large as the next six major powers combined); 

  • 70 percent of world monetary gold and the US dollar fixed as major world reserve currency ($35 per ounce of gold, Bretton Woods, New Hampshire conference, June 1944); 

  • guaranteed oil supply from Saudi Arabia (Quincy agreement), unhindered access to Venezuela’s vast oil reserves, Israel as a close ally; 

  • monopoly over atomic weapons, testing data and delivery systems (US Air Force).

From 1945, this new wealth was invested in domestic infrastructure and economic productivity – manufacturing, widespread roads and highways, petrochemicals for agriculture, plastics and pharmaceuticals. 

The US launched a strategy of containment of the USSR (based on Kennan’s Long Telegram). Boosted by an anti-Communist ideological campaign, the US set out to re-design world order in a ‘division and alliance’ system: US bilateral and multilateral agreements with other nations (NATO, UK, West Germany, Italy, Spain, Portugal in West Europe, Hawai’i, the Marshall Islands, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Philippines, Guam, Mariana Islands and Tinian in East Asia and the Pacific) which allowed US presence on either side of the Eurasian supercontinent.

Nuclear weapons (and nuclear energy) were an important component in this equation.

As the Soviet Union struggled to catch up with the US nuclear capability, a domestic climate of fear of Soviet nuclear attack on the US and Soviet invasion of western Europe helped the US commit to large military spending on nuclear stockpiles and tests at home and abroad. 

Rather than to deter Soviet and Chinese aggression, the aim was to achieve nuclear primacy – the ability to fight and win a nuclear war. By 1960, the U.S. could simultaneously target and obliterate almost all Soviet and Chinese cities in a coordinated nuclear attack using a triad of military forces (Army, Navy, Airforce). 

Following China’s successful atomic test in 1964, the UN Security Council Permanent 5 states (US, SU, UK, France, China) formulated a ‘grand bargain’ which led to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1969. Those with nuclear capabilities agreed to denuclearize in good faith and in a timely manner in return for those without such weaponry agreeing to not seek to possess nuclear arms. 

Only by the mid-70s did the Soviets actually catch up with the US in comparable technical nuclear capability.

However misplaced, a short-lived period of détente ensued based on the concept of mutually assured destruction (MAD).

Subsequently, four more nations acquired nuclear capability outside the UN Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty: Israel 1960s?, India 1974, Pakistan 1998, North Korea 2016. Under NATO, 5 European nations were beneficiaries of ‘nuclear-sharing’ on US bases, and 3 more Asia-Pacific nations (Australia, Japan, South Korea, with more informal security guarantees for Taiwan, Thailand and Singapore) were covered by U.S. ‘extended nuclear deterrence’ (END). Some of these became latent nuclear powers (that is, the capacity to develop nuclear weapons in a short period – West Germany, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan). 


US-led world order III

Already by 1960,exploited oil fields were drying up and OPEC states had displaced the power to set prices from oil companies. In a series of oil-shocks in the 1970s, thedomestic economies in the United States, west Europe and Japan were hit, beginningwith an OPEC oil embargo following the Israel-Egypt-Syrian war (Yom Kippur War) in October 1973. As US oil-reliance increased and national deficit spiked due in part to its military engagement in Vietnam, several industrial economies (West Germany, Japan, France) sought a return of their gold security deposits from the U.S. Federal Reserve. Rather than devalue the dollar and lose its status, the Nixon administration withdrew from the gold-backed system. 

In these years the US arranged a financial mechanism for all OPEC nations to trade oil exclusively in US dollars in return for guaranteed military protection and privileged access to contracts with US weapons corporations(e.g. Gulf states including Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, Bahrain). With this guarantee of petro-dollars, the US could ignore national debt and print money at will to finance its military operations. 

A turn began around1978-1979: major economic reforms in China and official US recognition of Beijing as the capital; an Islamic revolution and national control over oil in Iran, a Saudi Wahabbist uprising at Mecca; the US-supported installation ofSaddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party in Iraq; an Islamist government in Pakistan under General Zia al-Haq; Israel’s renewed access to the Suez Canal in a peace accord with Egypt; the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan;and discovery of the world’s ‘deepest producing super oil field’ in the Caspian Sea (Tengiz Basin).

The US announced the ‘Carter Doctrine’ in 1980, which declared that oil-rich Gulf countries that refused to sell oil or use cost as leverage could expect a US military response. To enforce the Doctrine, US Central Command (CENTCOM) was established which patrolled the waters surrounding Iran with aircraft-carrier strike groups. The US aided Hussein’s Iraq but also Iran (and Syria) during the 8-year Iran-Iraq War from 1980.

At this point, the neoliberal revolution launched by the Thatcher and Reagan administrations,

undermined the welfare state model through the demise of independent trade unions and implementation of austerity measures in their own countries as part of a wider economic deregulation and privatization regime. Together with a boom in financial speculation with electronic exchange, the IMF and World Bank introduced loan packages to developing countries to permit selling public assets to private operators and increasing productivity by outsourcing manufacturing to cheaper wage markets and tax exemption havens. This moved wealth upward while increasing impoverishment of millions of people in developing countries.

The end to the Cold War took place on televisions around the world in 1989.

US-led world order IV 

After several iterations by President Gorbachev, US President George H.W. Bush announced Washington’s plan for a ‘new world order’ on September 11, 1990. The US promised to liberalise capital so as to enrich fellow citizens in former Soviet states and China. The end of the Warsaw Pact and final collapse on 25 December 1991 was an opportune moment to close US foreign bases and drawdown its troops, ratify UN disarmament treaties and dismantle NATO, a Treaty established to face the Soviet threat. 

In January 1991, President Bush Sr. formed a coalition to launch the Persian Gulf War against the Iraqi government. Iraq had tried to recover what it saw as its sovereign right to control Kuwaiti oil wells, previously denied in the British colonial demarcation of Kuwait, Iraq and Qatar in 1923. Rather than the mediated justifications of stopping dictators, saving babies in hospitals or keeping domestic gas prices down, the US blizzard of ‘shock and awe’ and prolonged economic sanctions was to protect the primacy of Saudi oil production in the region and US bases in Saudi Arabia. At the same time, the US could use the opportunity to increase corporate profit from increased control over Iraqi oil distribution.

In 1992, President Bill Clinton and Vice-President Al Gore inherited a unipolar world. They drew up a map of new corridors and infrastructure across the world and the military operations to secure them.

Consistent with Cold War destabilization methods, the US assisted in fomenting ‘Color Revolutions’ in former Soviet-aligned states (Yugoslavia, Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova) to allow greater western influence.

One example is the Yugoslav Wars (1992-1999). Among the many complex factors that triggered and sustained this conflict, hydrocarbons are too often overlooked. In July 1993, the US sent troops along the northern borders of Macedonia to secure the Trans-Balkan pipeline (Corridor 8 east-west transportation infrastructure project). Planned to run from the Black Sea, through Bulgaria, Montenegro, Albania to Italy (750k bpd at $600m a month), US diplomats cultivated commitment from surrounding states claiming that US control of Caspian oil would prevent ‘strategic inroads by rivals’ and relieve pressure on the Bosphorus shipping lane. In return for his support, the Albanian president demanded that Kosovo be wrested from Serbian control. 

In 2001, in the Rumsfeld-Cebrowski plan, US strategists re-adjusted the US method of control. This plan divided the world into groups of stable ‘core’ states and ‘gap’ states. Gap states were regarded as reservoirs of vital resources whose sovereign rights and structures were to be eroded to enable easier or unhindered access. The US would assume the role of guarantor over resource distribution from gap to core states. 

The worldwide hunt for the terrorist perpetrators of the attacks on September 11, 2001 became more of a pretext for a series of military invasions under a new US doctrine of ‘preemptive intervention’ in a ‘Global War on Terror’.

The US-led invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001 crushed the Taliban resistance and a hand-picked President Hamid Karzai with former links to US oil company Unocal was installed and US bases established. With Russia in the north-west, Xinjiang/China in the east, Iran in the west, Pakistan in the south-east, US forces were positioned to secure greater shares for US companies in the pipeline projects coming from Tengiz and Turkmenistan in the central Asian ‘Heartland’. 

Similarly, with no proven links between terrorists and the Hussein regime and no Weapons of Mass Destruction found, the Iraq War was launched in March 2003. The US sought to break up the secular Iraqi state (offering cheap oil to re-aligned religious and ethnic groups) for greater control over the distribution and financialization of Iraqi oil. 


US-led world order V 

Since the 1970s, a new iteration of globalization has steadily coopted the international system of sovereign nation-states.

A group of core states aiming to secure and protect the interests of transnational concentrations of capital seek to steadily weaken the control of non-compliant states over their sovereign resources.

As these actions become more overt and punitive, there is a steady accumulation of excess capital accrued by a shrinking population of super-wealthy executives who seek ways to invest. Employing investment management firms (top 17 trillion-dollar firms control around $41.1 trillion dollars in 2017), these managers mostly from the US and nearly all from capitalist countries, are directly involved with supranational institutions to determine the investment opportunities this capital. With more capital than there are safe investment opportunities, transnational capital seeks new investment markets wherever they can be found. These include:  

·      risky speculative ventures;

·      weapons and related companies;

·      the privatization of the public domain;

·      political destabilization, sanctions, regime change and wars.

In short, permanent war is driven by the (il)logical imperative of capital growth at all costs. This is now even more evident in the present in the existential crisis of global heating and climate disruption, whereby degrees of poverty, war, starvation, mass alienation, mediated propaganda, and environmental destruction and despoliation are threatening the future of humanity (and everything else). 

As we know, climate change hasn’t happened overnight.

The first warnings of carbon emissions causing global warming can be traced to the 1890s. Nuclear weapons have been around since 1945, and we have understood their existential threat for over 70 years. Both threats have been produced by a system the central logic of which is based in the military securitization of capitalist growth. Rather than tinkering with minor adaptations to the sheer scale of the problems looming from climate disruption, the challenge is to identify and unlock the structural supports in this system so as to re-shape it in the most civil and timely manner possible for a more habitable planet. We may have no choice but to try.


*Dr Adam Broinowski is a researcher and lecturer at the Australian National University. He is also a theatre director. He is the author ofCultural Responses to Occupation in Japan: The Performing Body during and after the Cold War(Bloomsbury Academic, 2016). This paper is drawn from a longer chapter which can be foundhere. For more of his articles and book chapters see: