Emma Ashford, a research fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute, lead a wide-ranging discussion on oil and national security at an event hosted by the International Affairs Society on Monday. Ashford framed the discussion in an interesting way. She argued that, given the recent fracking boom and increase in the use of alternative energy sources, the United States is no longer significantly dependent on foreign oil, and energy security is far less of a concern than it was in the past. The US, she continued, no longer needs to fight for security in the Middle East for economic reasons. In fact, by stabilizing the Middle East, the United States is only helping China, which imports 40% of its oil from the Middle East. Nevertheless, she said, there is an important, alternative way to look at the debate over energy security, a way that does not center on the United States’ interests; instead, Ms. Ashford advised the students listening “to look through the lens of the states that are most impacted by oil.”
As the United States becomes increasingly energy independent and oil prices drop globally, Petrostates control significantly less international power than they have in the past. Ashford used Saudi Arabia as an example: “when the oil stops flowing in Saudi Arabia, it becomes more like Yemen.” This is not just important for the Saudis though, she explained. International systems and flows will change, posing security risks. Ashford advised International Affairs students to pay attention to how changes in oil markets impact international order, not just certain industries or countries, because the two are inseparably linked.
In the Q&A Ms. Ashford was asked about her thoughts on Trump’s pick for Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, who, during Ashfords speech, was approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. To Ashford, Tillerson’s previous relationship with the Russian government is unimportant, since Putin awards Russia’s Order of Friendship to almost anyone—from an assistant basketball coach to museum director in Minnesota. Tillerson’s financial conflicts of interest, on the other hand, alarm her significantly. Tillerson still has stock in Exxon, and because of this Ashford fears he will use his power to benefit himself.
When asked to suggest further reading on this topic, she suggested a paper by Michael Ross entitled “Oil, Islam, and Women,” which argues that oil, not Islam is responsible for the oppression women face in the Middle East. Her suggestion aligns with a major theme in her speech: some of the biggest consequences of decisions and policies are not expected and their repercussions are widespread.