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Beyond the backyard: understanding geopolitics for a more peaceful foreign policy

Dr Adam Broinowski, College of Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University,,31 Aug 18

At this moment of shifting world order, in which the atomic clock has been returned to two minutes to midnight (the first time since 1953) and the United States has committed to a 1.5 trillion dollar upgrade to its nuclear arsenal, one can be forgiven for a sense of déja vu. Unlike the 1950s, however, we are now aware of the risk of even greater extinctions in the next 100 years not only from potential full-scale nuclear war but also from the impacts of climate disruption across the entire biosphere.

From here, if we are to identify the dynamics of both militarism and climate disruption with a view to achieving and perpetuating more peaceful conditions, we must recognise how oil – and control over its distribution – has been pivotal to the development of US-led world order since the turn of the 20th century. When US leaders claim the ‘exceptionalism’ of the ‘indispensable’ US nation, they are primarily referring to the US military capability to allow or deny access to supply corridors for the flow of vital resources, products, labour and market access. In this brief overview, we can track this through various stages of the US empire.

Stage I: Beyond the western hemisphere

Having expropriated the lands of native Americans and propelled by its own abundant supply of oil, the US claimed the trophies of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines after the Spanish-American War in 1898 and entrenched itself in the oil-rich Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean region (‘Western Hemisphere’).

As envisioned by ‘world island’ theory, in which maritime powers could claim hegemony by encircling and containing from the ‘rimlands’ any rival economic and military land-based power emerging on the Eurasian ‘heartland’, the US sent naval flotillas from US bases to control geostrategic ‘land nodes’, ‘geographical pivots’, and ‘choke points’ along resource corridors supplying the largest market at the time: western Europe.

In 1900, the Russian empire accounted for over 50 percent of the world’s oil production and was the world number two producer by the 1920s. After the British procured an exclusive petroleum concession in 1901, British and French powers sought to undermine any coordinated resistance from a united Arabia by forming weak Arab provincial administrations that relied on revenue from oil extraction and distribution to Europe. By the 1920s, however, the US had over 70 percent of world oil production with an economy the size of the next six powers combined. After Standard Oil secured concessions in Dharan, ‘one of the greatest material prizes in history,’ on the Saudi peninsula by 1938, the US consolidated its operations east of Suez by 1944.

Stage II: Cold War

At war’s end, having escaped major destruction from WWII as compared to nations in Europe, the Soviet Union and Asia, the US possessed:

  • over 50 percent of world GDP;
  • guaranteed oil supply from Saudi Arabia, and Israel as a foothold in the Middle East;
  • 70 percent of world monetary gold and the US dollar fixed as world currency reserve.

This leverage permitted the US to construct a ‘division and alliance architecture’ (UN system, NATO, US military bases) in which US bases were set up primarily in western Europe and East Asia on either side of the ‘world island’. US bases carry and store nuclear weapons and related systems; they surround territories with large oil and gas reserves and strategic transport corridors; they facilitate rapid interventions and support for proxy wars, economic warfare, and information/psychological warfare. US operations conducted from these bases have primarily targeted governments, authoritarian or otherwise, that seek autonomous and sovereign control over their country’s resources, markets and finances.

Despite the hype surrounding Soviet plans to invade western Europe and its potential attack US cities in the early Cold War years, there is evidence to show that it was indeed hype, and by 1960, the US could target and destroy almost all Soviet and Chinese cities with near-simultaneous nuclear attack, ostensibly in ‘retaliation’ for a nuclear attack by the enemy. Only by the mid 1970s did the Soviets really catch up with the US in terms of scale and sophistication of nuclear weapons to establish a period of détente. In the intervening years more nations acquired nuclear capability in either a clandestine fashion or outside the Non Proliferation Treaty while others relied on US ‘extended nuclear deterrence’ in return for hosting US bases and other bilateral agreements.

Stage III: Oil politics

In the 1970s, with large debt from the American War in Vietnam, and with several countries seeking return of their gold security deposits from the US Federal Reserve, the Nixon administration withdrew from the gold-backed system rather than allowing the dollar to devalue. When oil prices sky-rocketed with the OPEC oil embargo, the US arranged a financial mechanism whereby all OPEC nations would trade oil exclusively in US dollars in return for US military protection and weapons contracts. The dollar remained the world currency reserve, the US could disregard its national debt from foreign wars and US and UK banks amassed huge profits from commissions on foreign currency exchanges for the purchase of oil, the world’s largest commodity.

The Tengiz field oil reserves in the Caspian Sea were discovered in 1979, the same year as Iran’s Islamic Revolution. The latter was met with heavy sanctions while Saudi Arabia’s Wahabbist Islamic uprising at Mecca was not. The US armed and trained Islamist mujahideen to fight against the Soviet-backed government in Afghanistan (Operation Cyclone). Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party was installed by the CIA in Iraq and aided to fight Iran for eight years. Wahabbism spread to Pakistan and to Chechnya, Dagestan, Albania and Kosovo – Russia’s soft oil-rich underbelly.

Stage IV:  Middle East wars

In 1991, despite the opportunity to withdraw US foreign bases and ratify arms control treaties with the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the US together with NATO proceeded to foment ‘Colour Revolutions’ in resource-rich former Soviet-aligned states (Yugoslavia, Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova). The Persian Gulf War launched that year, rather than to stop an illegal invasion by a dictatorial regime and to keep local gas prices low, was primarily to enable US control over the distribution of Iraqi oil and further its reach in the region.

Similarly in Afghanistan 2001 and Iraq 2003, rather than retaliation for the 11 September 2001 attacks or to destroy mythical Weapons of Mass Destruction, the Iraq War was to prevent Iraqi oil being traded in Euro, to weaken the Iraqi state by supporting competing factions and claim a stake in roughly one-third of Iraqi oil production. Since then, in 2018 the Trump administration added insult to injury by demanding that the costs of the US-led engagement in the Iraq War be paid for in oil. The selection of Hamid Karzai, with connections to the US oil industry, to lead Afghanistan, and the installation of US bases (including the huge Bagram base), allowed the US to further its access and control over oil and gas pipelines from Tengiz and Turkmenistan and leverage over the economies of US rivals in the region (Russia in the north-west, China in the East, Iran in the South).

In Syria, while the Assad government stands accused of human rights abuses to its own population (and this needs careful scrutiny), US intervention in this multinational proxy war is not about democracy or international law. In 2009 President Assad rejected a ten billion dollar pipeline offer (proposed in 2000) from Qatar (North Dome field) and signed onto a PARS pipeline project from Iran (South Pars field) to Europe. Rather, it is yet another in a long line of US interventions to destabilise the Syrian government since 1947, and to increase its control over (via US bases in the north-eastern part of Syria) the distribution of oil and gas through the region to Europe.

Similarly, rather than to bring about a corrective to Iran’s human rights record, years of US sanctions against Iran (Iran is an NPT signatory, maintains legal levels of uranium enrichment, centrifuge deployment and heavy water stocks, it has altered its Arak reactor to prevent significant plutonium production, provided the IAEA 24-hour access to its declared facilities and subjected its uranium mining to novel verification, has a legal right to possess non-nuclear missiles and combats terrorist groups) have been to weaken its control over resource flows through the Strait of Hormuz, slow its oil and gas exports to inhibit its economic growth and development of its military capacity and to support its rivals (and US allies) Saudi Arabia and Israel (nuclear-armed) which seek regional hegemony.

Stage IVa: North Korea

On the eastern side of the world island, the Korean peninsula has remained divided despite the end of the Cold War. Having lost its security guarantee from the Soviet Union in 1991, North Korea has on many occasions sought direct talks with the US to arrive at a formal conclusion to the Korean War in a peace treaty and the normalisation of relations both with the US and South Korea. While North Korea is a garrison state that has developed under siege conditions for over sixty years, media hyperventilation over North Korean missiles and nuclear weapons has conspicuously ignored several important points. These include:

  • the gross imbalance in military and economic capacity between North Korea and the US and its allies.
  • many nations outside the permanent (P5) nuclear weapons states such as Israel, the NATO nuclear umbrella states, India and Pakistan possess far higher numbers of nuclear weapons while remaining free of sanctions or threats.
  • it is not illegal to conduct non-nuclear missile tests or sell missile technology to other countries.
  • the US regularly tests its own non-loaded nuclear weapons and obviously sells missile technologies to many other countries.
  • North Korea was the only nuclear weapons state to support the motion for the UN Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in 2017.
  • the US’ legacy of abrogating its commitments in negotiations with North Korea.
  • the US has conducted sporadic underground ‘subcritical’ nuclear tests since it ended its nuclear explosion tests in 1992, the latest of which was in December 2017.

Over the course of the 20th century, having experienced the long game to weaken and force China and Russia, or any other perceived rival, to submit to US-led world order, these nations have responded by establishing an alternative geopolitical and geo-economic system, potentially dividing the world once more. This can be seen, for example, in the opening of the Northern Sea Route along the Russian Arctic coast from the Kara Sea, along Siberia, to the Bering Strait. In what is one of the most significant logistical developments since the opening of the Suez Canal, this will enable Russia, China and others an alternative sea route that is not under US control – unlike that which passes through the Straits of Malacca and the Indian Ocean – connecting the European market with suppliers.  It is crucial to question further the dominant narrative repeated in mainstream media to better understand the underlying drivers of wars in recent history when we seek to identify ways of achieving denuclearisation, reducing the impacts of global heating and promoting long-lasting peace in the 21st century.[i]


[i] This paper is part of a longer chapter with citations by the author: Adam Broinowski, ‘Nuclear Power and Oil Capital in the Long Twentieth Century,’ Bellamy B. and J. Diamanti (Eds.), Materialism and the Critique of Energy, Alberta and Chicago: MCM Press, 2018: 197-240.

Adam Broinowski is a lecturer and researcher at the ANU,

August 31, 2018 - Posted by | politics international, weapons and war

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