Under Donald Trump, geopolitics is back with a vengeance. For him, the United States has enemies and contingent, interest-based allies. In Trump’s world-view – more systematically articulated by him than usual in the 2017 US National Security Strategy – his predecessors forgot the hard reality that international politics is a contest for power. Instead, they indulged the vain hope that global commerce and international institutions advance international cooperation. Deceived, they allowed an adversarial China and Russia to exploit American weakness. Now, Trump promises he will ensure the US wins the competition between the great powers and eliminates would-be regional hegemons such as Iran.
For many Europeans, the prospect of renewed geopolitical conflict is dismaying. In an interview last year with the Economist, Emmanuel Macron worried that a strategically transactional America leaves Europe at the mercy of a bipolar struggle between Washington and Beijing and whatever Trump arbitrarily decides, without regard for Nato, to do in the Middle East. Perhaps worse still, the very language of geopolitics represents a defeat for the imaginative idea of the EU as a polity where geography and history are transcended and peace depends on common values, not military power.
In truth, however, geopolitics never went away, even in the 1990s, when a heady rhetoric about an emerging universal order and globalisation was commonplace. Bill Clinton might have talked about leaving twentieth-century “great power territorial politics” behind for the “march” of “freedom”. But he still engaged in a new great power rivalry over the oil and gas discoveries in the Caspian Sea. For the Clinton administration, how those energy resources should be transported to Europe was much more than a matter of global commerce. If building a pipeline from Baku on the Azerbaijan shore through Georgia to Ceyhan on the Turkish Mediterranean coast was exorbitantly expensive, it was still preferable to Caspian oil transiting through Russian territory.
Energy is central to geopolitics. It must be because oil and gas are geographically located and infrastructure is required to move these resources across land and sea from where they are produced to where they are consumed. However atmospherically dangerous burning fossil fuels is, the world is years away from leaving behind the geopolitical problems wrought by oil and gas.
For at least seven decades, energy security has made the Persian Gulf a geopolitical minefield. Today, around a third of all sea-borne oil passes through the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow body of water between the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman, leading out into the Indian Ocean.
The Cold War was scarcely over when crisis struck in the Persian Gulf in 1990. That a multinational coalition could under United Nations authority force Saddam Hussein to retreat from Kuwait and then protect the Iraqi Kurds was heralded as the beginning of a new international political era. But George HW Bush explicitly justified the first Iraq war as a geopolitical imperative created by energy. The United States imported nearly half the oil it consumed, he said in a televised address from the Oval Office, and that rendered Saudi Arabia’s independence a strategic American interest that had to be defended with military force.
Victory for the US then bequeathed a new Persian Gulf problem that lasted through the 1990s and into the following decade. To maintain oil sanctions against Saddam Hussein’s regime, the American navy policed the Gulf. To keep Iraq away from the Gulf via a no-fly zone, the American air force led Operation Southern Watch.
This lengthy military commitment reflected the Carter doctrine, first articulated after the Iranian Revolution ended American reliance on Iran to protect Western energy interests in the Persian Gulf. The Carter doctrine declared that any attempt to gain control of the Gulf would be treated “as an assault on the vital interests of the United States”. In conception, it was directed at the Soviet Union. But first Iran and then Iraq demonstrated that the more pressing threats would come from actual Gulf states. In part, George W Bush’s war against Iraq in 2003 was an attempt to try to eliminate the military burden this actuality imposed by establishing a friendly regime in Baghdad.
But the Iraq invasion and subsequent occupation produced a disaster from which much else has followed in the region, not least a stronger Iran able to profit several times over from the chaos.
With Trump in power, the military stakes have risen. He has put sufficient economic pressure on the Iranian regime to push Tehran to attack in the Persian Gulf, including in June 2019 by shooting down an American drone over the Strait of Hormuz. In response, Trump hesitated to activate the Carter doctrine when he cancelled an air strike on Iran ten minutes before it was due to begin. With General Qasem Soleimani’s assassination, the US has reverted to course.
Trump is trying to concentrate American military commitments in the Middle East around the Gulf, in particular in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. This would return American policy largely to what it was prior to the 2003 Iraq invasion. But Trump often talks and tweets as if the world has indeed changed and the United States can, thanks to shale oil, now escape the Carter doctrine. These wishful musings are his illusions. There is no freedom for the world economy from what happens in the Persian Gulf, especially in a world where China imports nearly half its oil through the Strait of Hormuz. Energy brings geopolitical continuity. Here, Trump is just another American president dealing with an old geopolitical nightmare.
Helen Thompson is professor of political economy at Cambridge University
This article appears in the 15 Jan 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Why the left keeps losing