Since almost every government in the world values economic prosperity as a national interest, energy is a key determinant of foreign policy. Of the BRIC countries, Brazil’s and Russia’s growth are dependent on energy exports while China’s and India’s rise are dependent on energy production and imports. China’s foray into the global economy can be partially explained by its demand for raw materials to include oil. 

Without a doubt, access to global energy supplies has been an enduring priority for the United States. Whether it was coaling stations in the early twentieth century or oil fields after World War II, energy has and will continue to occupy national security. The United States was engaged in Iran and Saudi Arabia in the 1950s not only to gain access to oil but also to deny it to the Soviet Union. 

Because of oil, the US pays greater attention to Middle East politics than it does Central African politics. Access to energy explains why Kuwait hosts the US Third Army, Bahrain hosts the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, and Qatar hosts US Central Command Forward. In the absence of cultural or historical links, energy explains why the United States maintains strong diplomatic and military ties with these countries in spite of differences over religious intolerance and human rights. Energy also explains why the United States is currently prepared to defend freedom of navigation in the Strait of Hormuz. 

In spite of this, the US preoccupation with the Middle East may be waning. Syria and Iran do dominate headlines, but a costly war in Iraq, endless discord over Palestine, and declining US oil imports are enabling a strategic pivot to Asia. The United States imports about as much oil from Nigeria as it does from Saudi Arabia; oil imports from Canada are twice that from Saudi Arabia. With increasing oil production through domestic shale oil, the link between US prosperity and Middle East oil imports is declining. In a new BP study, forecasters predict that the United States may become energy self-sufficient in just 18 years through a combination of alternative energy, new domestic oil sources, and improved fuel efficiency. BP’s chief executive, Bob Dudley, said: “Our report challenges some long-held beliefs. Significant changes in US supply-and-demand prospects, for example, highlight the likelihood that import dependence in what is today’s largest energy importer will decline substantially.”   

The same is not true in Europe, India, China, and Australia where oil imports will increase over time. In the case of Europe, the oil deficit remains roughly the same as today, but natural gas imports must increase 65 percent over the next 18 years. Given Russia’s increasing supply, energy interdependence with Europe is also likely to increase. 

For China and India, the energy deficit will increase as their economies grow. Neither country can meet its demand and both will rely on increasing supplies from Africa, Middle East, and South America. Continued energy production and biofuel conversion in North America will also start to shift North American production to Asia. Consequently, we should expect to see China and India look for ways to guarantee access to energy and pursue policies that reduce the cost of energy. It is doubtful that the United States will withdraw from Middle East politics; energy is a global commodity and a fungible resource. However, the US role can be more closely examined without the specter of oil embargo or oil shock influencing US strategic thinking.

Derek S. Reveron, an Atlantic Council contributing editor, is a professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. He served in Afghanistan from 2010-11. These views are his own.