Thirty years ago, just before the start of the first Gulf War between the United States and Iraq, Daniel Yergin’s The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money & Power was released to widespread acclaim, and was later awarded the Pulitzer Prize. In that earlier book, Yergin explored the history of the oil industry and its impact on global geopolitics. The New Map is a worthy successor wherein Yergin updates and broadens his analysis of energy and geopolitics in the second decade of the 21st century.
World politics has changed dramatically since 1990. The Soviet Union collapsed. China has become the world’s second largest economy and is a global power. India is rising economically and militarily. With Europe geopolitically quiet, the US has “pivoted” to the Indo-Pacific region where it confronts China’s growing influence across the Eurasian landmass. The Middle East experienced an “Arab Spring” that toppled dictators but weakened states, and the region as a whole is increasingly dominated by the struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia for leadership in the Islamic world. Through all this welter of change, however, the importance of oil and energy resources has remained constant.
The world’s energy system, however, has changed. The shale revolution—brought about by the science and technology of hydraulic fracturing or “fracking”—propelled the United States to global leadership in the production of natural gas and oil from liquefied natural gas. America is once again a major energy exporter and is no longer dependent on foreign energy sources of supply. Its new energy map includes the giant Marcellus formation that stretches from western New York through Pennsylvania, Ohio, and into West Virginia; the Bakken formation in North Dakota; and several shale formations in New Mexico, Texas, and Louisiana. This revolution made the United States, Yergin writes, one of the “Big Three of world oil”. The other two are Russia and Saudi Arabia.
The oil price drop in the 1980s, Yergin points out, was one reason for the collapse of the Soviet Union. Russian President Vladimir Putin understood that, too, and concluded that oil and gas could lead to a resurgence of Russian power. Under Putin, Russia has supplied natural gas and liquefied natural gas via pipelines to Central and Western Europe, and several of those pipelines run through Ukraine. Putin interfered with Ukraine’s domestic politics in 2013. The next year, Russian forces allied to pro-Russian insurgents took back control of the Crimean Peninsula, and Putin, Yergin writes, “announced the ‘reunification’ of Crimea with Russia”. The US imposed sanctions, which Germany resisted, causing President Trump to later claim that “Germany is a captive of Russia.”
Putin also seeks to develop the energy resources of the Arctic Ocean and has taken advantage of the retreat of Arctic ice to establish a “Northern Sea Route” to lessen the distance and cost of transit between Asia and Europe. And Russia has also continued its “pivot to the east” by selling natural gas and oil to China in the Far East. Yergin sees this as part of a broader geopolitical alignment between Russia and China who oppose what they both refer to as “US hegemony”.
China’s “new map” includes the South China Sea (the famous nine-dash line), key ports along the Indo-Pacific highway (the so-called “string of pearls”), and rail and roadways across Central Asia into Europe
Here, Yergin puts on his geopolitical hat, invoking Sir Halford Mackinder’s concept of the Eurasian Heartland to describe the potential danger to the West posed by a Sino-Russian strategic alliance. He notes that Sino-Russian cooperation involves not just energy resources but also joint military exercises, including naval exercises in the South China Sea. Yergin writes that the Sino-Russian relationship “that was once based on Marx and Lenin is now grounded in oil and gas.”
China’s “new map”, Yergin explains, includes all of the South China Sea (the famous nine-dash line), key ports along the Indo-Pacific highway (the so-called “string of pearls”), and rail and roadways across Central Asia into Europe—all manifested in President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative. China’s rise has been fueled by coal, oil and gas, and the latter two are obtained mostly from suppliers in the Middle East. Most of China’s energy resources must transit by sea on huge containerships (whose origins Yergin describes in detail) through vulnerable strategic chokepoints, such as the Strait of Malacca. Thus, China’s need for increased naval power, which has spurred India to develop greater naval resources of its own and has caused a general arms race among the powers of the Indo-Pacific (including Vietnam and Japan).
Yergin describes the Middle East as an “arc of confrontation” between the regional powers of Iran and Saudi Arabia, their respective allies, and Islamist groups who struggle for power within some of the failed states of the region. The shale revolution has resulted in OPEC’s decline, but Saudi Arabia’s proven oil reserves still places it among the energy superpowers of the 21st century. And the Saudis have moved to diversify their economy and modernize their culture as part of what they call “Vision 2030”. Meanwhile failed US policies, especially those of the George W Bush and Obama administrations, have permitted Russia to return to the Middle East.
We are not at the end of the fossil fuel era, nor even close to the end.
Yergin concludes the book with discussions of the current and potential future impacts on energy and geopolitics of climate change, artificial intelligence, robotics, renewable energy sources, breakthrough technologies, the current pandemic, and government policies. He suggests that use of wind and solar energy will continue to expand; that electric vehicles will become more commonplace; and that governments will impose greater restrictions on fossil fuels to combat climate change. “Some trends [in energy production and use] will remain the same,” he writes, “some will be accelerated, some will change direction, and some will simply play out over time.” But we are not at the end of the fossil fuel era, nor even close to the end.
And despite “globalization” and economic interdependence, Yergin writes, the world will likely become more fractured, “with a resurgence of nationalism and populism and distrust, great power competition, and with a rising politics of suspicion and resentment.” Here, Yergin admittedly is looking through a dark glass because, as he notes, “disruptions will with some frequency” redirect the path of the new map.
Francis P Sempa is the author of Geopolitics: From the Cold War to the 21st Century and America’s Global Role: Essays and Reviews on National Security, Geopolitics and War. His writings appear in The Diplomat, Joint Force Quarterly, the University Bookman and other publications. He is an attorney and an adjunct professor of political science at Wilkes University.