By THOMAS P. M. BARNETT
A 1970s TV commercial featured a harried housewife who, when confronted with a sink full of dishes, cried out, “Calgon, take me away!” And in ancient Greece playwrights tied off convoluted scripts with a similarly satisfying plot twist known as the Deus ex machina, or literally, “god from a machine.” Want a tidy ending? The “god” lowered from the rafters announced one.
Many would-be grand strategists now struggle mightily to provide America with a quick exit from this long war against the global jihadist movement. The Cold War taught us that dedicated foes take decades to defeat, and yet Americans just naturally want to come home.
Given our love of technology, it’s no surprise that science, our modern god-machine, is viewed as our most likely salvation and/or curse: the right new gizmo renders this entire fight unnecessary or some looming disaster makes it entirely pointless.
This desperate search constitutes “grand strategy” at its most escapist, but it befits modern America: we prefer rapid-fire problem solving to the long hard slog of nation building.
A good example is the theory of “peak oil.” This controversial prediction stems from a provable observation: for any known oil field, production naturally peaks and subsequently declines as it nears depletion. Technology maximizes capture, but since any reserve is — in geological terms — nonrenewable, the total yield is both finite and calculable.
Some oil analysts employ this observation to extrapolate a global oil peak, declaring we’ve already passed the point of no return. The problem with this theory is that it discounts unconventional sources of oil, such as tar sands and oil shale, as well as non-oil sources for transportation energy (e.g, ethanol, biodiesel, coal liquefaction, hydrogen, fuel cells).
Cambridge Energy Research Associates, a highly respected industry authority, estimates that if unconventional sources are added into the mix our planet’s currently known oil reserves are actually three times larger than that predicted by “peak oil,” suggesting that alleged doomsday is decades off — Asia’s skyrocketing requirements notwithstanding.
The logic here is market-derived: persistently higher prices drive new exploration and boost R&D in both energy extraction and the technology of transportation. That means we’ll go deeper and farther to access new reserves while extracting better yields from both existing and future fields while upgrading our automotive fleet.
We didn’t leave the Stone Age because we ran out of stones, and we won’t leave the Oil Age because we’ve run out of oil. Instead, humanity moves progressively “down” the carbon chain (wood to coal to oil to gas to nukes and hydrogen) for the sheer reason that each step we take brings us higher efficiency and less pollution — a total win-win.
That market logic unfolds far too slowly for “peak oil” advocates, who daily decry our global economy’s “looming collapse.” Their prescription brings us to the second great Deus ex machina of our times: a Manhattan Project-like crash program to “get us off our oil addiction!”
This call dovetails nicely with the “let’s-beggar-those-nasty-Muslims” camp which claims we fund both sides of this war. Impatient with the Middle East’s glacial embrace of globalization, this wedge strategy seeks to force local regimes into rapid political change by severing their current, quite minimal financial connectivity with the global economy — the “big bang” yields to the “slow strangle.”
Toss in global climate change, today’s Deus ex machina without peer, and soon you’re convinced there’s no reason for us to remain in the Middle East whatsoever. Compared to rising sea levels, terrorism just doesn’t rank.
Don’t get me wrong. Humanity is destined to move beyond oil and seriously address global warming. I’m just not willing to kneel before any god-machine for an excuse slip from this long war.
If all we want is the Persian Gulf’s oil, Osama bin Laden poses little threat. His goal is civilizational apartheid, not economic isolation.
And if the region lacked oil, the real problem would remain: traditional cultures poorly adapting themselves to globalization’s creeping embrace, primarily because its gender-neutral networks empower women disproportionally to men.
That’s not our fault nor Israel’s, but rather an inherent weakness of Arab culture, exacerbated by their Islamic faith, which — by the way — imposes no such apparent limitations on emerging Muslim economies in Asia.
All god-machines aside, it’s tempting to abandon the fight against radical extremism in the Middle East.
But a problem shelved is not solved.
(Thomas P.M. Barnett is a distinguished strategist at the Oak Ridge Center for Advanced Studies and the senior managing director of Enterra Solutions LLC. Contact him at tom(at)thomaspmbarnett.com.)