A neo-realist theoretical perspective in energy security

The neo-realist theory of international politics may not be always competitive, as argued. The theoretical prescriptions stand valid when security as a concept is analyzed in a broader framework but narrowing down the concept of security and treating it within the context of energy security can bring substantial changes to the theory. These changes in theory’s propositions can easily be proven through documenting evidence.

Neorealism, as formulated by Kenneth Waltz, argues anarchic international environment compromises the state’s security. To ensure survival within the international system states “shelf-help” themselves with accumulating more power. This power accumulation triggers insecurity in other states which reciprocates by enhancing their own capabilities. Since the spiral is vicious, the plausibility of war seems inevitable. Power magnifies security for one state but decreases the same for others, thus it is regarded as a zero-sum endeavour and essentially competitive in nature. I assume here that, “power” is fuelled by energy. Without adequate sources of energy, the power projection capabilities of a state simply lose its significance.

Instead of focusing on the distribution of power capabilities, I here focus on the distribution of energy capabilities, as I assume this as a pre-requisite to building or projecting power. Energy capabilities have two dimensions. Energy capabilities, from the supply side, is measured as countries capable of supplying energy without any disruption. From the demand side, it is measured as countries capable of acquiring as much energy they needed.

The respective distribution of energy capabilities will define the structure of the international energy system, which essentially is bipolar in nature. By bipolarity, I mean blocs of countries that are supplying the energy and other blocs that are demanding the energy. Like Kenneth Waltz, I believe that the bipolar international energy system is quite stable. However, unlike Waltz, instability is profoundly superior in the unipolar system, rather than multipolar. In the unipolar system, supply-side countries have a concentration of energy supplies, while in the demand side, countries have a diffusion of energy demands.

The period from 1945 until the end of the Cold war is the characteristics of the Unipolar system. Since the international energy system is structurally skewed towards the demand pole, this imbalance is quite unstable resulting in ideological wars, regime changes, illiberal interventions, patron-client nexus, human rights violations, ultra-nationalism. This disequilibrium is solved through the “balancing act” of individual states. States resorted to internal balancing through investing heavily in their domestic supplies (enhancing their internal energy capabilities), while subsequently pursuing external balancing through diversifying their energy supply sources from other countries.

The key proposition that needs to be understood in this context is that resource-rich states are essentially under-developed, and resource-poor states are developed, this unusual resource imbalance intertwined with development induces demand-driven development of supplying states. Demanding states are usually developed or developing countries that invest heavily in these supplying states to avoid the consequence of supply disruptions. The need induced diversification has led to significant development of supplying bloc. This led to the transition from unipolar to bipolar energy structure.

The developing states like China and India face challenges to meet their growing energy demands which are fulfilled by securing energy supplies from abroad. China’s “going out” strategy implies the exploration and production of oil and gas from other countries including heavy investments in Central Asian countries and Canada. China is taking advantage, of its oil and gas acquisition programs to extract energy from unexplored areas in countries like Sudan, Angola, Venezuela, Guinea and Thailand. Clearly, the countries contributing to global supplies have increased.

India is diversifying its supply sources through economic engagement and diplomatic negotiations with smaller countries like Ecuador, Cuba, Sudan, Angola, Libya. India’s traditional oil suppliers remain concentrated namely Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Kuwait and Iran, but India is diversifying its supplies from investing in 24 different countries. On September 11, 2002, the commission of the European Union issued a document titled Internal energy market which observed “geopolitical uncertainty” will necessitate the formulation of an “effective mechanism for ensuring energy supplies at reasonable prices”. This reflects the need for diversification.

The EU is heavily investing in Central Asian countries for ensuring uninterrupted supplies of energy. Russia adopted an Energy strategy to 2020 in May 2003, which stated to promoted economic growth through maximum use of energy supplies. The American National energy report published in May 2001, proclaimed “diversification of market” as one of its agenda. US’s quest to become “energy independent” resulted in Shell gas mining, that enhanced supplies to the world. This diversification of energy supplies resulted in the diffusion of the energy capabilities, which is missing in the Unipolar energy structure. Bipolar structure emerged by diffusing energy supply capabilities across the globe, thus making it possible to satisfy the growing energy demands of the world without disruption. Thus, bipolar systems ensures lesser competition in states, and more cooperation to avoid disruptions. The neorealist theory believes anarchy and unknown state intentions are the causes of the security dilemma in states. Do we observe a similar dilemma in the context of energy security?

In neorealist theory, security is enhanced through the means of power capabilities, while in the above theory, energy security is achieved through the means of energy capabilities. Does an increase in one’s energy security means decreasing the security of others? Does energy security dilemma find significance in the above theory Before tackling these questions it’s important to delve into the concept of state intentions. Logically speaking, the analysis of state intentions and their impacts will be analyzed within the demand blocs of countries. The demand bloc has a larger effect than the supply bloc. Ultimately state intentions will determine the severity of energy security dilemma. State intentions simply mean how the state reacts to the implications of international structure.

Mainly, state intentions have two forms: revisionist and status quo-ist. Revisionist tendencies will lead to expansionary foreign policy, while status quo-ist remain satisfied with the existing situation. State pursues respective policies based on their energy demands. Since a decade, energy demand is rising in developing states like India and China. Indian planning commission documented that Indians are “energy secure”, only when we “supply lifetime energy” to our citizens. Moreover, they seek to diversify energy supplies from abroad.

Chinese Premier Li Peng (Left)

The Chinese premier, Li Peng, in 1997 proposed to get China involved in overseas for oil and gas production. But this respective rise might come in conflict with the other major powers. The Chinese and Indian expansionary policies must be interpreted, as not revisionist, but essentially guided by economic needs and domestic growth. Chinese increasing energy interests should not be seen as a threat to Asian or Western security but should be accommodated in global governance networks and institutions. As accommodating Chinese interest will make China a “responsible stakeholder” in global order, as argued by Robert Zoellick. Accommodating China into global integration and multi-lateral institutions helps fulfil its interest without creating conflict.

Moreover, China’s diversification through investment, trade and equity acquisition has occurred in places that remained unexplored until today. This intervention signals China’s intent to contribute rather than exploit the world order. Soon, the Indo-pacific region will become a contested zone. Asian economies depend heavily on energy needs, which are sourced from foreign supplies. Any disruption in energy supplies will choke off the regional economy and affect the global supply chains. But the argument that securing energy is a zero-sum endeavour is logically false. Since global supply is heavily diversified and total energy endowments are enough to satisfy the countries demand, I think the situation is not zero-sum, but positive-sum for all. Even if some countries get more energy supplies, it doesn’t mean the decreased supply for others. Asian economies like Japan, South Korea, Taiwan fear that increased Chinese naval capabilities in the South China sea could hamper their energy interest. But Chinese have built such capabilities for strategic reasons rather than energy reasons. Hampering other interests will do more harm to China than others, as China receives supplies from vulnerable choke points.

The above explanation shows state intentions seem more benign. State intentions, mainly Chinese, doesn’t seem revisionist. Chinese diversification of supply chains must not be interpreted as revisionist, but a chance to incorporate Chinese interests and energy demand into existing global liberal order, which is a pre-requisite to peace and stability. Such prospects for peace can only be possible through cooperation in the international system. Cooperation necessitates institutionalization which promotes peace and stability with expansion in market forces, intensification of global trade and economic interdependence. Since state intentions are kind, thus the energy security dilemma is less severe. So, cooperation is more suitable than the competition.

To sum up, the neorealist theory of international politics can be both competitive and cooperative. The theory behaves differently in different contexts. While considering the broader contours of security, the structural imperative forces state to compete for security. Meanwhile, treating the theory’s hypothesis within the context of energy security, it is more cooperative. In today’s world, the structure of the international energy system remains bipolar, thus essentially stable and peaceful. Thus neorealist conception within energy security framework yield cooperative results rather than competitive.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Kootneeti Team

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Rahul Jaybhay

Rahul Jaybhay is an M.A. Student at School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, India

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