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How America's Decline Is Linked to Oil

America's rise to supremacy was fueled by control over the world's oil supply. Now, the decline of the U.S. coincides with the decline of oil as a major energy source.

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The most recent EIA projections also show oil’s share of the world total energy supply -- far from remaining constant at 38% -- had already dropped to 35% in 2010 and was projected to continue declining to 32% in 2020 and 30% in 2035.  In its place, natural gas and renewable sources of energy are expected to assume ever more prominent roles.

So here’s the question all of us should consider, in part because until now no one has: Are the decline of the United States and the decline of oil connected?  Careful analysis suggests that there are good reasons to believe they are. 

From Standard Oil to the Carter Doctrine

More than 100 years ago, America’s first great economic expansion abroad was spearheaded by its giant oil companies, notably John D. Rockefeller’s  Standard Oil Company -- a saga told with great panache in Daniel Yergin’s classic book  The Prize.  These companies established powerful beachheads in Mexico and Venezuela, and later in parts of Asia, North Africa, and of course the Middle East. As they became ever more dependent on the extraction of oil in distant lands, American foreign policy began to be reorganized around acquiring and protecting U.S. oil concessions in major producing areas. 

With World War II and the Cold War, oil and U.S. national security became  thoroughly intertwined.  After all, the United States had prevailed over the Axis powers in significant part because it possessed vast reserves of domestic petroleum while Germany and Japan lacked them, depriving their forces of vital fuel supplies in the final years of the war.  As it happened, though, the United States was using up its domestic reserves so rapidly that, even before World War II was over, Washington turned its attention to finding new overseas sources of crude that could be brought under American control.  As a result, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and a host of other Middle Eastern producers would become key U.S. oil suppliers under American military protection.

There can be little question that, for a time, American domination of world oil production would prove a potent source of economic and military power.  After World War II, an abundance of cheap U.S. oil spurred the development of vast new industries, including civilian air travel, highway construction, a flood of suburban housing and commerce, mechanized agriculture, and plastics.

Abundant oil also underlay the global expansion of the country’s military power, as the Pentagon garrisoned the world while becoming one of the planet’s  great oil guzzlers.  Its global dominion came to rest on an ever-expanding array of oil-powered ships, planes, tanks, and missiles.  As long as the Middle East -- and especially Saudi Arabia -- served essentially as an American gas station and oil remained a cheap commodity, all this was relatively painless.

In addition, thanks to its control of Middle Eastern oil, Washington had its hand on the economic jugular of Europe and Japan, both of which remain highly dependent on imports from the region.  Not surprisingly, then, one president after another insisted Washington would not permit any rival to challenge American control of that oil jugular -- a principle enshrined in the  Carter Doctrine of January 1980, which stated that the United States would go to war if any hostile power threatened the flow of Persian Gulf oil.

The use of military force, in accordance with that doctrine, has been a  staple of American foreign policy since 1987, when President Ronald Reagan first applied the “principle” by authorizing U.S. warships to escort Kuwaiti tankers during the Iran-Iraq War.  George H. W. Bush invoked the same principle when he authorized American military intervention during the first Gulf War of 1990-1991, as did Bill Clinton when he ordered missile attacks on Iraq in the late 1990s and George W. Bush when he launched the invasion of Iraq in 2003.