U.S. Foreign Policy and the Axis of Oil Flynt Leverett, Director of the Geopolitics of Energy Initiative at the New America Foundation, speaks with John Ydstie about what he calls the "axis of oil." Leverett says the United States needs a more adequate response to countries that use their oil wealth to challenge U.S. interests.
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U.S. Foreign Policy and the Axis of Oil

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U.S. Foreign Policy and the Axis of Oil

U.S. Foreign Policy and the Axis of Oil

U.S. Foreign Policy and the Axis of Oil

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Flynt Leverett, Director of the Geopolitics of Energy Initiative at the New America Foundation, speaks with John Ydstie about what he calls the "axis of oil." Leverett says the United States needs a more adequate response to countries that use their oil wealth to challenge U.S. interests.

JOHN YDSTIE, host:

President Ahmadinejad's trip to Venezuela, Russia's cutoff and then resumption this week of oil exports to Europe, and the growing partnership between Russia and oil-hungry China; all signs of a shifting oil geopolitics. It adds up to an axis of oil that seriously threatens U.S. interests, according to Flynt Leverett. He's a former national security advisor in the Bush White House who parted ways with the administration and ended up advising John Kerry's presidential campaign. Flynt Leverett is now a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and joins us from his home in McLean, Virginia. Welcome to the program.

Mr. FLYNT LEVERETT (New America Foundation): Thanks for having me.

YDSTIE: The term axis of oil resonates with another phrase we've heard a lot in the last few years, the axis of evil. What are you getting at here? Are you suggesting these are equivalent threats?

Mr. LEVERETT: I'm suggesting that the axis of oil is a real strategic problem and the axis of evil, it strikes me, is a rhetorical framework that doesn't really provide a lot of strategic insight. When I talk about the axis of oil, what I refer to is a loose coalition of both major energy exporting nations and, on the other side of the market, a group of major energy importing nations for whom energy is providing the basis for a greater strategic collaboration, a collaboration that in many ways works against U.S. interests.

YDSTIE: Give us some specific examples of how this axis of oil is changing things in a way that threatens U.S. interests.

Mr. LEVERETT: I can give a couple of examples, but if you really want to look at the way the axis of oil involving both Russia and China can work against U.S. interests, I point two cases in particular. One is in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, the United States deployed military forces to a number of Central Asian countries. This ran against deep-seated strategic interests of both Russia and China. And Russia and China have collaborated very effectively basically to roll back U.S. influence in Central Asia.

The second example I would cite is the Iranian nuclear issue, where Russia and China, both of whom have very complicated policy agendas toward Iran, are collaborating to frustrate the current U.S. strategy for dealing with the Iran nuclear issue. And I think in broader terms, Russia and China see this kind of collaboration as important to containing what they would see or describe as excessive U.S. unilateralism.

YDSTIE: How should U.S. policy change in response to this shift in oil power?

Mr. LEVERETT: I would lay out at least a couple of different big ideas that I think need to be discussed more. One is that we really do now as a nation need to take energy security seriously as a foreign policy issue and prioritize that objective relative to other foreign policy goals that we have. Another idea I would throw out is I think rather than looking at China in particular as an enemy or a challenger, we really ought to be working in a more cooperative way with the Chinese to get them to play by the rules of the current market-based system. We need to be doing things to persuade the Chinese that they can actually rely on the market to meet their energy needs.

YDSTIE: We've seen record oil prices drop by about a third in the past several months.

Mr. LEVERETT: Yup.

YDSTIE: I wonder if falling prices undercut the leverage in the clout that these countries have and reduce the risks to the United States?

Mr. LEVERETT: Well, yes, we have seen a drop, but I would still say that the long-term trend is going to be toward higher prices. The market is getting tighter. Demand is growing very, very fast. And the supply will increasingly be concentrated in a smaller and smaller number of countries, for the most part in the Middle East and the former Soviet Union. As this market concentrates, countries that have resources, you see those countries realizing that their control gives them not just a kind of market power, but it gives them a source of political power and strategic influence, and they are increasingly inclined to use that.

YDSTIE: Do you see this paradigm, this access of oil, as a way of looking at the world that might help the U.S. solve most of its major foreign policy issues?

Mr. LEVERETT: I think that if you really go down the list of what are the major challenges for American foreign policy, a very significant percentage of them get tied up with this axis of oil. You know, we can't deal with the Iranian nuclear issue without coming to terms with where Russia and China are. And I think it is imperative for American foreign policy looking forward to engage both energy suppliers and rising energy consumers like China in a way that is going to reduce the incentives for these countries to play this game.

YDSTIE: Flynt Leverett is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. He joined us from his home in McClain, Virginia. Thanks very much.

Mr. LEVERETT: Thank you very much.

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