Friday, February 26, 2010

NATO and energy security

I. Introduction

Energy is vital to every nation-state in the world. Whether the nation-state relies on natural gas, such as Saudi Arabia, nuclear energy, like some nation-states in Europe, or other forms of energy, each nation-state has an energy interest. For nation-states, energy provides the means to power everything from transportation and telecommunications to individual homes and hospitals. Schools and law enforcement rely on energy to power classroom, vehicles, and databases. The banking industry relies on energy to power the massive computer systems that enable the industry to exist. Factories that provide food and medicine to the world’s population rely on energy. A nation-state’s military relies on energy to power its vehicles and move its troops. Knowing all these things about the impact of energy, and its importance to the nation-state, the question remains; how does energy security fit into the current international relations (IR) theories and globalization theories? Does it?

The United States and European countries have already begun discussing the appropriate policies and institutions that could secure their energy security in the future. The Bush Administration, in February 2006, spoke of energy security at a NATO conference. This speech was given with the support of Germany and Britain (Gallis 2006). The European Union has stated that they believe political and economic measures are the first step to ensuring their energy security, although they have yet to outline what those steps will be (Scaroni 2006). Industrialized countries are recognizing the need for energy security, and they are not alone. Developing countries, such as China and India, are engaged in active discussions with the Middle East to secure their energy security (Luft 2009). With all of these individual participants in the energy security debate, is there room for an international institution? Should an international institution, such as NATO, be a participant in energy security?

This paper argues that energy security can be understood by constructivism and neorealism – both current IR theories. Furthermore, this paper suggests that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) should, based on constructivist and neorealist theories in IR theory and transformationalist and skeptic theories in globalization, make energy security one of its goals. Even though the motivations of the different theories and perspectives are different, the outcome is the same: NATO should be involved in energy security.

II. Energy Security

What is energy security? Energy security has been defined as protecting the way a nation-state produces its energy (Morse and Richard 2002). This means that, for the global north, energy security means protecting the oil coming from the Middle East; keeping the oil flowing (Morse and Richard 2002). Energy security has also been defined as what a country needs, in terms of energy, to keep its economy and military at the same level it is today (Ebinger, 1982).

Energy security rests on three pillars: supply diversity, transportation diversity and fuel diversity (Rosner 2009). In terms of supply diversity, the Middle East continues to be the largest supplier. In 2006, the Middle East supplied 22 percent of U.S. imports, 36 percent of OECD Europe’s, 40 percent of China’s, 60 percent of India’s, and 80 percent of Japan’s and South Korea’s. Even oil- rich Canada is dependent on the Middle East. Forty five percent of Canada’s oil imports originate in the region[1]. This means that supply diversity is low. Fuel diversity, at this point in time, among industrialized nations is also low; they rely on oil for most of their needs, and use nuclear power and natural gas sparingly (Rosner 2009).

Energy security has been threatened, continually, since the oil embargoes of the 1970s and the price shocks of 1973 and 1979 (Wirth, Gray, Podesta 2003). Of the one trillion estimated barrels of oil reserves that exist in the world, two-thirds of that is found in the Persian Gulf (Ibid). Russia holds the bulk of that balance (Measuring Globalization, 2005). Based on where the oil is located, the world’s dependence on oil, and how the world economy (and individual economies) suffered when oil prices spiked, it is in the interests of the world economy to stabilize energy sources so that such shocks do not occur (Goldstein, Huang, Akan 1997). President Carter said that curtailed oil production in the Middle East was a “clear and present danger to our national security” (Bucknell, 1981).

Energy consumption is higher in the global north than the south, although the global south – which holds the Persian Gulf – is the largest exporter of energy (Goldstein, Huang, Akan 1997). As of 1992, the data indicates that the political instability between the global north and the global south will create energy instability (Ibid). When there is energy instability, there is a lack of economic growth (Ibid). Moreover, energy production that relies on oil – which is still most of the world – is subject to various political and economic instabilities like no other resources (Ebinger 1982). Essentially, the problem seems to be geo-political; the oil reserves are concentrated in an area of the world where there is internal and international political instability (Wirth, Gray, Podesta 2003).

Iran has, again, recently threatened to use its energy reserves to obtain political objectives. Mainly, Iran threatens to cut-off energy supplies to buyers if there are sanctions over its nuclear program (Gallis 2006). Whereas Russia, by increasing its internal stability and rule of law, has been able to increase its oil production in order to use the oil as a political bargaining tool with the West (Morse and Richard 2002).

III. A Very Brief History of NATO[2]

NATO was first established in 1949 with its fundamental role to act as a deterrent against military aggression by the Soviets against the West. When the Berlin Wall fell, and the Cold War ended in the early 1990’s the threat of Soviet aggression also ended, and many thought that NATO would perish.

However, NATO has changed and expanded since that time hand has assumed new responsibilities, including a proactive role, in the international community. NATO undertook its first military operation in 1995, followed by operations throughout the world, including Afghanistan, Iraq, Africa and the protection of waterways from pirates. NATO has assumed a humanitarian role along side its military role.

When NATO was formed, it consisted of 14 countries. Today there are 28 countries that are members of NATO; this includes many former Soviet-republics and client-states. There are even more countries that seek a larger involvement with NATO through its “Partnership for Peace” program and other agreements that NATO has with non-member countries.

IV. Analysis; IR and Globalization Theory

The question is; how does energy security fit into the current theoretical paradigms so that it can be analyzed and policy can be crafted to fit goals of the nation-states in relation to energy security? Interestingly enough, both the constructivist and neorealist IR theories, and transformationalist and skeptic globalization theories, offer answers to this problem. Whereas the constructivist and neorealist positions are normally at odds with each other, in the area of NATO becoming involved in energy security they both have valuable insight to offer. Additionally, the skeptic position and the transformationalist positions in globalization, which match with the neorealist and constructivist positions respectively, can add depth to the analysis that might otherwise be missing. Regardless of which pairing is used – neorealist/skeptic or constructivist/transformationalist – they both would argue that NATO should add energy security to its list of goals.

Realism is based in power (Morgenthau 1974; Waltz 1979). Hans Morgenthau, a realist, said that power can come from a monopoly or quasi-monopoly of scarce natural resources (1974). Waltz said that the state must use its power for the main goal of a state: survival (1979). Neorealists also believe that states must engage in balancing actions to balance the power of other states (Waltz 1979). The balancing actions can result in alliances between nations when they strive to achieve the same end (Waltz 1979). In an international economic system, states have simple goals that show how they promote their self-interest and survival: economic utility, economic growth, social stability and political leverage (Kazenstein, Keohane, Krasner 1998).

Globalization skeptics believe that the nation-state is still central, and that the world economy, and globalization, is really about the interactions of the nation-states with other nation-states in a manner that promotes the self-interest of the nation-states (Held, McGrew, Goldblatt, Perraton 1999). This ties the economic interests of a state under neorealism to the skeptic position in globalization by creating a list of motivations for states to participate in international economies, and international alliances, without engaging in actions that would lead to dissolution of their sovereignty (Kazenstein, Keohane, Krasner 1998).

By using neorealism, it is easy to see why states should engage in energy policy with NATO. By engaging in an alliance in the framework of NATO, the various countries are able to ensure their survival in the international alliance. Furthermore, the balancing work of NATO is not finished simply because the Berlin Wall fell. Russia continues to engage in active national security policies designed to have its former enemies become dependent upon it for their energy needs (Rosner 2009). 40 percent of EU gas imports originate from Russia, 30 percent from Algeria and 25 percent from Norway; By 2030, over 60 percent of EU gas imports are expected to come from Russia with overall external dependency expected to reach 80 percent -- and are therefore susceptible to supply disruptions, extortion and price manipulations. So when Europeans talk about energy security their think primarily about electricity and more specifically natural gas, Russian gas (Luft 2009). This means that the EU, most members are also part of NATO, considers the need to balance Russian power and ensure that Russia doesn’t become too powerful, a survival, a national-security issue. Individually, each nation may not have much power to balance Russia, but by joining in an alliance they can ensure their energy security, and thus their national security. NATO, should engage in actively promoting its member nation’s energy security, according to realism.

Additionally, NATO represents US interests. The US has already been engages in active military efforts to secure energy sources, along with other NATO governments (although not NATO as an institution) (Gallis 2006). The Carter Doctrine, put forth by US President Jimmy Carter in 1980, states that any attempt to prevent the flow of oil from the Persian Gulf to the US will be seen as an attack on US vital interests and will be repelled by any means necessary, including military means (Luft 2009). With the US putting forth such a strong military position on energy security in the Persian Gulf, someone, according to neorealism, should balance with position. That someone might be NATO. NATO can engage the various governments involved on how to protect against disruptions in oil supplies, and how to protect the various oil interests in the region, which would place the other countries in the NATO alliance in a balancing position against the US (Gallis 2006).

Additionally, Russia has stated that it has not ruled out the application of force to maintain its position of hydrocarbon supremacy (Rosner 2009). Russia’s revised National Security Strategy to 2020 realizes that such a position might destabilize and unbalance the power in the region, but Russia seeks to maintain its energy dominance (Rosner 2009). According to neorealism, this action must be balanced against to maintain the balance of power in the world (Waltz 1979). NATO is the perfect balancer for this situation since its member nation-states in the EU abut onto the territory Russia controls.

Furthermore, according to the skeptic position on globalization, all nation-states are acting in their own economic interests. This correlates with what has been seen in the world so far: Issues of energy scarcity have triggered levels of competition between NATO allies that might lead to military conflict if left unchecked (Rosner 2009). Additionally, the Middle East states are acting as a cartel that prevents other nation-states from securing their economic interests in the region (Luft 2009). Each time that there has been an energy crisis, the world has suffered a depression in economic terms (Luft 2009). Energy is vital to economic output in developed countries, and is vital to continued economic development in all countries (Wirth, Gray, Podesta 1003). In order to prevent more conflict from occurring over energy security, NATO should actively engage in energy security policies to create an environment where all nation-states can secure their future and promote their economic interests without the fear of engaging in a military conflict within the alliance (Asmus 2002).

NATO can enable nation-states to ensure their security and survival – the basic motivation of nation-states under neorealism. Additionally, economic interests of the member-states, under neorealism, mean that the skeptic position – engaging in international alliances to promote their economic interests in the interests of survival – encourages the use of NATO to sustain member nation-states’ energy security.

The constructivist and transformationalist theories also agree that NATO should have a role to play, although that role appears to be different from the role under neorealism and skepticism. Constructivist theories state that the international organization of nation-states is what the nation-states want, and that it can be changed by changing norms and behaviors through international institutions (Wendt 1992). Transformationalists also believe in the role of international institutions; that international institutions are helping change the way that states believe in sovereignty, the way states act and that state behavior must change as they are no longer in exclusive control of what happens within their state boarders (Held, McGrew, Goldblatt, Perraton 1999). When these two positions are combined, they come to meld into a position that maintains that the world can change, and is changing, and that international institutions are a large part of this change (Shaw 1997).

NATO is an international institution, and its existence enables the constructivist and transformationalist positions to be realized in energy security. The reality is that, by 2030 75% of NATO countries’ oil supply will be dependent on a handful of Middle Eastern states, and NATO’s European members will average 60% natural gas dependency on the Russian Federation (Dyner 2000). This means that the NATO countries must change the way they behave because the energy supplies are not within their nation-state boundaries, and they must consider the Middle East when making decisions (Wirth, Gray, Podesta 2003).

By acknowledging the outside influences on the sovereignty of the nation-state, NATO nations are falling within the transformationalist perspective on globalization. This means, like the transformationalist perspective requires, the NATO countries must make use of international institutions – like NATO – to make changes in the world. If NATO countries are concerned about their energy security because most of their supply comes from unstable countries (Shah 2009), then the nation-states must make use of NATO to secure their energy security. With so many nation-states involved in the arena of energy security, it is possible that only an international institution, such as NATO, can prevent a geopolitical cold war over energy sources (Goldstein, Huang, Akan 1997).

NATO has a huge capacity, vested in its civilian and military structure, to analyze energy and its use from a military and civilian standpoint (Rosner 2009). Using this capacity, NATO has the ability, under constructivist theories, to change the way its member nation-states and others view energy. As China follows America’s past patterns, and engages in participation with the Middle East to secure its energy future, it becomes necessary to have international institutions present to prevent military conflict and misunderstandings (Luft 2009). Indeed, if China continues to follow in the footsteps of America, it could lead to a world full of conflict over energy; which is not in the best interest of any nation-state (Luft 2009). Instead, international institutions, such as NATO, should intervene and work with the various energy suppliers and consumers to create a stable environment for energy security (Luft 2006; Rosner 2009; Gallis 2006).

Furthermore, energy security rests on three pillars – one of which is diversity of sources. No one can attach blame for dependence on oil and natural gas in Europe, oil in America, and the developing world’s dependence on oil, to anyone nation-state (With, Gray, Podesta 2003). Instead, the international institutions need to be engaged in cooperating with nation-states to change the view of oil and natural gas dependence into dependence on a different source of energy. Only if energy sources are diversified will energy security be truly promoted; and only an international institution has the power to change such norms and beliefs in the international system (Bucknell 1981).

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was originally formed to be a deterrent for Russian; to prevent Russia from becoming aggressive towards other European nations (Smith, 1990). However, NATO continues to exist long after its détente purpose has ended (Ibid). In fact, NATO continues to grow and expand. As it grows, it searches for purpose. The growth of China and India, non-NATO countries, as energy consumers, and an inability to produce reliable and alternative energies to oil and natural gas, has led to energy producers needing to ensure access for all to energy sources (Scaroni, 2006). NATO already plays a role in energy security. NATO has many countries that desire a closer relationship with it, either through membership or its “Partnership for Peace” program; many of these countries are the ones who need to secure energy resources because they are energy consumers rather than energy producers (Gallis, 2006). NATO governments have been involved in energy security operations on their own, and there is no reason why energy security cannot become a goal of NATO (Gallis 2006).

Another possible solution is alternative energy sources such as wind power, solar power and photovotalic solar cells. However, current research indicates that these power sources, if fully maximized, could only contribute 1.5 trillion kilowatt hours (kwh) to the total net global electricity generation increase of 13.8 trillion kwh between 2006 and 2030[3]. This means that alternative energy sources alone cannot solve the energy security problem facing most nations. Additionally, most renewable energy sources, other than wind and hydro-power, are not economically competitive with oil and natural gas energy[4]. This means there still must be another solution to the energy security problem.

There are problems with all of these proposals. First, realists thought that force could solve problems of energy security in the 1970’s, but they were wrong (Bucknell 1981). Force alone wasn’t sufficient. The problem was that energy security is a matter of asymmetrical interdependence – where some countries are more dependent on others than other countries – and military power alone has not proven to be able to conquer this dependency (Keohane, Nye 1977). Additionally, NATO has already become involved in energy security through its Istanbul Cooperation Initiative of 2004; the allies are in discussions with Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates to build cooperation in energy security[5]. However, the lack of stability in the area of energy security remains (Rosner 2009). It is unknown if time will solve these problems, or if another approach needs to be suggested.

There is another aspect of energy security that needs to be fully expanded upon. The pillars of energy security include supply diversity, transportation diversity and fuel diversity (Rosner 2009). Nuclear energy would solve some of the supply, transportation and fuel diversity problems that currently exist in energy security. Nuclear energy can be a different fuel from oil and natural gas, can be produced at home by most industrialized nations, and is a more reliable supply than oil or natural gas (Ebinger 2009). However, nuclear energy comes with its own set of problems. Most notably, there are problems of storage with the spent fuel – it remains radioactive for decades after it is no longer needed (Ebinger 2009). Nuclear energy also comes with proliferation problems: the material created through the enriching and processing processes, needed to create the nuclear material for civilian use, can also be used as military nuclear material by terrorists (Ebinger 2009). This means that there would have to be significant safeguards against proliferation by terrorists to protect nation-states from a nuclear threat (Ebinger 2009). There are also concerns about how to supply nuclear power to non-nuclear nation-states without those nation-states obtaining the information and materials they need to create nuclear weapons and become a nuclear power (Schneider, Thomas, Froggar, Koplow 2009). In order for nuclear power to become a viable option for the world, rather than just for those nations which already possess it, these issues need to be explored and solutions need to be found for them.

One possible solution, if the constructivist and transformationalist positions are correct, is to use the current international agencies to regulate and control nuclear power. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) could be used to help regulate these issues. However, Iran has posed a successful challenge to the IAEA’s jurisdiction – which can only be invoked if a nation-state allows the IAEA into its country. This is a limitation of the IAEA that would have to be addressed in order for the IAEA to be an international institution that can help with the transition from oil and natural gas power to nuclear power (Schneider, Thomas, Froggar, Koplow 2009).

However, regardless of the success of the approach at the current time, neorealism/sceptics and constructivism/transformationalists all would agree, for different reasons, that NATO is important to the energy security of the nation-states and should be involved in energy security policies.

V. Conclusion

The IR theories of neorealism and constructivism and the globalization perspectives of skepticism and transformationalists give weight to the idea that NATO should become involved in energy security. Neorealism and skeptics say that NATO should be involved for balancing issues and for protection of the nation-states’ continued survival. Transformationalists and constructivists say that NATO should be involved because it is only through international institutions, like NATO, that anything can change in the area of energy security. Although the reasons for NATO to be involved in energy security are different between the various theories and perspectives, the outcome – that NATO should be involved in energy security – is unanimous.

There are other questions raised by this paper that are left unanswered. One of the main questions is: To what extent should NATO become involved in energy security? Additionally, how would NATO address the ongoing instability in the Middle East that contributes to the pessimism about energy security in the future? There is also a large question of what role science, and the discovery of new technology will play in the quest for energy security. It is possible that another theory, or approach, would have the answers to these questions. Continued development of energy sources, energy storage and more energy-efficient technology will also help the energy security issue. It is up to science whether enough energy alternatives and energy-efficient technology can be developed to aid in the fight for energy security.

Energy security will continue to be a security issue, and an issue that all nation-states must address, so long as energy is needed. Regardless of where energy comes from, or how energy gets to where it needs to go, energy is needed. It provides the very basis for the current international society. Without energy, the world would change into something unrecognizable by today’s standards. In order to protect the world from energy crises, energy security should be an issue that all international institutions and nation-states are actively engaged in.


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[1] Energy Information Administration,

[2] All information in this section was obtained at the official NATO website:; a search was performed for “history of NATO” and this is the information that was collected.

[3] US Energy Information Administration , “International Energy Outlook 2009”, May 2009

[4] Ibid.

[5] Istanbul Cooperation Initiative, NATO, Brussels, Jan. 2006