Energy geopolitics deserves center stage

What little-known international issue is key to our relationship with Afghanistan, Iraq, China, Russia, Turkey, the countries of Central Asia and our European allies? Eurasia’s energy geopolitics cut across more U.S. foreign and energy policy priorities than any other topic of discussion in Washington. The problem is that energy in Eurasia is not receiving the kind of high-level attention it deserves from this administration. While Moscow, Beijing and Tehran take the nexus of energy and foreign policy very seriously, Washington is playing catch-up across the Eurasian continent.

Since World War II, European countries and even the substantial bloc of the European Union have not had much of a policy toward China. But over the winter holidays, China’s state-owned energy company, CNPC, completed a natural gas pipeline across Central Asia to Turkmenistan on the eastern shore of the Caspian Sea. An EU-backed consortium is at the same time working on the Nabucco gas pipeline, to reach Turkmen gas reserves from the west. Energy has brought China to the EU’s neighborhood. Energy geopolitics have forced our NATO allies to consider a China policy for Eurasia.

China’s Central Asian coup also has jeopardized plans for energy development in NATO’s other theater of operations, Afghanistan. U.S. companies and the Asian Development Bank have long advocated a gas pipeline from Turkmenistan through Afghanistan to consumers in Pakistan and India. Afghan officials had touted the project as a potential facilitator of stability and rural development, a catalyst for more than 3,000 energy-related small businesses across the country. Now it looks much more likely that Pakistan and India will get their gas through a pipeline from Iran, enriching a regime that may well send the region into a tailspin if its nuclear ambitions are fulfilled.

In mid-January, the EU signed an energy deal with Iraq’s central government that could see gas from the country’s Kurdish areas supplement the gas for Nabucco that was supposed to have to have come from Turkmenistan. It is urgent that consumers in EU and NATO countries gain access to new gas resources because of the West’s relationship with another major Eurasian power, Russia. Much of Central and Eastern Europe is dependent on Russian gas for winter heating, but Moscow has tried to use that uneven relationship to its advantage, splitting energy and foreign policies within the EU and NATO. Russia’s disputes with its neighboring transit states – Ukraine and Belarus – have caused annual gas crises for European consumers since 2006. For key U.S. allies like Poland and Romania, energy security and national security are one and the same.

Three successive U.S. administrations have, in fact, acknowledged the enormous importance of Eurasian geopolitics. President Obama’s point man for the issue is Richard L. Morningstar, special envoy for Eurasian energy. It would be difficult to find anyone with a better background for the job: Mr. Morningstar played a key role in the Clinton administration in opening up the oil and gas fields of the Caspian after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Turkmenistan is on the global energy map largely because of U.S. efforts in the Clinton and George W. Bush eras. In 2010, Mr. Morningstar’s job could not be more challenging.

Russia, China and Iran are all more assertive in their foreign and energy policies across Eurasia. The U.S. and Turkey once walked in lockstep on Eurasian energy issues, but now Ankara seeks to carve out its own regional influence as a global energy hub. NATO allies, uninvolved in the 1990s are interested, but not unified. And major technological and policy changes are tearing old assumptions asunder.

The development of previously inaccessible shale gas deposits in the U.S. has revolutionized the North American energy market. American consumers probably are sitting on 100 years of domestic gas supplies. So all of the liquefied natural gas shipments originally bound for the U.S. are heading to Europe and East Asia. This could tamp down Eurasia’s energy geopolitics – if consumers’ needs are met by sea. But it is more likely to intensify the cross-continental competition as both producing and consuming countries will be looking to find and develop the same kind of shale deposits across Eurasia.

While Mr. Morningstar so far has done yeoman’s work, the White House would do well to acknowledge the escalating severity of Eurasia’s energy geopolitics with the appointment of a National Security Council director to focus solely on the issue. This effort must be complemented by high-level diplomacy to shore up key energy relationships in Eurasia. Energy Secretary Steven Chu should make a point of visiting Turkmenistan, and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton would do well to step up coordination on energy-security policy with our European allies – and China. Finally, our relationship with Russia must address head-on the issue of oil and gas as geopolitical tools. If its focus remains on strategic arms reduction, it will have skirted the most contentious issue in Eurasia.

Energy is not just about conservation or climate change. In Eurasia, it is about power politics at a strategic level. Better policy on most U.S. national security priorities – Afghanistan, Iraq, Russia, China – depends on better understanding of Eurasian energy geopolitics.

Alexandros Petersen, senior fellow with the Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council.