What will peak oil mean for foreign policy?

by | Jun 14, 2010

What do countries do when they run out of oil?  That’s the question posed by Oxford University’s Joerg Friedrich in a fortcoming journal piece in Energy Policy (already available here). Friedrich give three examples of strategies taken by countries facing this very issue in the past, which go like this.

First, you can opt for predatory militarism, where Japan before and during World War Two provides his case study. According to Friedrich, “the spectre of future resource shortages had played an important part in shaping Japan’s imperialist strategy ever since the end of World War One … when an American oil embargo became imminent, in 1941, Japan pre-emptively attacked the US and radicalized its war of conquest in order to gain access to the oil supplies of the East Indies”.

A second strategy, he reckons, is totalitarian retrenchment, which is what North Korea did after the Cold War. “When subsidized deliveries of oil and other vital resources from the Soviet Union were disrupted, the ‘Hermit Kingdom’ reacted in a shockingly reckless way. Elite privileges were preserved in the face of hundreds of thousands of North Koreans dying from hunger.”

Third, he offers what he calls socio-economic adaptation – which, he argues, is what Cuba successfully achieved when faced with the same challenges as North Korea.  While the end of subsidized deliveries from the USSR presented a massive challenge here too, “there was no mass starvation comparable to North Korea. Instead, Cubans relied on social networks and non-industrial modes of production to cope with energy scarcity and the concomitant shortage of food. They were actively encouraged to do so by the regime in Havana”.

It’s an engaging analysis, and worth reading the whole thing – and I absolutely share Friedrich’s concern about the risk of hugely damaging zero sum games as resources get scarce.

But as with many other peak oil analyses, I hesitate about the implied assumption that the answer to peak oil is necessarily local. I’d love to hear Friedrich’s take on what might an internationalist approach to managing increasing resource scarcity might look like. Cuba’s hardly the best case study for examining that, of course, given that it also faces the small matter of a US trade embargo.  But it’s still a big – and largely unexamined – question.


  • Alex Evans

    Alex Evans is founder of the Collective Psychology Project, which explores how we can use psychology to reduce political tribalism and polarisation, a senior fellow at New York University, and author of The Myth Gap: What Happens When Evidence and Arguments Aren’t Enough? (Penguin, 2017). He is a former Campaign Director of the 50 million member global citizen’s movement Avaaz, special adviser to two UK Cabinet Ministers, climate expert in the UN Secretary-General’s office, and was Research Director for the Business Commission on Sustainable Development. He was part of Ethiopia’s delegation to the Paris climate summit and has consulted for Oxfam, WWF UK, the UK Cabinet Office and US State Department. Alex lives with his wife and two children in Yorkshire.

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