A 1,000-Page Reminder That Energy and Foreign Affairs Can't Be Untangled


A new look at how Henry Kissinger's State Department dealt with the energy crises of the 1970s.


There are lots of reasons to support energy-technology research and commercialization, if you ask me. There are the climate risks. There are possible economic benefits of creating and selling new technologies. New energy technologies are also a good hedge against the problems that may/will come with the depletion of our existing conventional oil fields. And people all around the developing world could benefit from access to more energy to power lights, water systems, air conditioning, transportation and the like. 

But perhaps the reason for supporting new solutions to our old energy problems that gets underplayed most often by green-tech advocates is the role energy plays in shaping world affairs. The easy version of this argument is: OIL WARS! HUGO CHAVEZ! OPEC! The more nuanced story is that our need to extract and consume vast amounts of resources that sit underneath other countries makes things difficult for our diplomats sometimes.

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When something goes awry in the relationship between the big-oil producers and the United States (or other powers), all hell breaks loose. In 1973, geopolitical (and perhaps economic) considerations pushed a group of Arab oil producers to decree an oil embargo. Dealing with the impacts of that decision consumed a big chunk of Henry Kissinger's time at the State Department as detailed in a just-released 1,000-page report from the Office of the Historian at the agency

The new monograph reveals in-depth conversation, memoranda, and other primary documents related to State's global program to deal with rising oil prices in an environment our previous policies had already shaped. 

For example, there are 85 references to the U.S.-backed Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who the US helped install in power through a coup of the democratically elected leader, Mohammad Mosaddegh. Why'd we throw Mosaddegh out of power? To oversimplify, he tried to nationalize the country's oil industry. Subsequently, the Shah was tossed out during the Iranian revolution, and that's how the country's Islamists came to power. All of this history is a bit too pat, of course, but that's at least the sequence of events. Energy and our foreign policy are permanently entangled. 

These are the kinds of soft costs (not to mention ethical quandaries) that rarely make it on to the spreadsheets that calculate the price of US dependence on foreign fuel. And I'd only point out that greens have never adequately exploited the national security angles to domestic energy production; perhaps there is something in its bald nationalism that cuts rubs many earth-minded people the wrong way.
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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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