The Trump administration devoted the week leading up to the Fourth of July to energy policy. Yet, its “Energy Week” jettisoned the very concept that we celebrate on that date. “Energy independence” was replaced by “energy dominance” as the declared goal of the United States. Quite frankly, neither goal makes a lot of sense, but “energy dominance” is much worse. In fact, it’s downright un-American.
Richard Nixon was the first president to call for “energy independence.” Nixon adopted the goal in the wake of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries oil embargo in 1973, which sent gas prices skyrocketing. All of Nixon’s successors, including Barack Obama, followed his lead. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton even claimed in her second debate with then-candidate Donald Trump that the goal had been achieved.
As Trump was quick to point out, Clinton was wrong. According to the Energy Information Administration, the United States imported approximately 10 million barrels of petroleum per day in 2016, while exporting about half that much. Surprisingly, the United States is also a net importer of natural gas (mainly from Canada), and it imports coal, too, although not as much as it exports. It also imports the vast majority of its solar panels, primarily from Asia.
Energy independence has proved elusive because it has clashed with a more profound policy goal: economic interdependence. Since World War II, the United States has sought to build an open, market-based global economy. American leaders have expanded trade in order to foster economic growth, discourage military conflict, and spread freedom. Although the actions of the United States and its allies have not always lived up to their rhetoric, they were effective enough to create a global oil market that virtually destroyed OPEC’s leverage after 1980.
Energy independence may have been an impossible dream, but it drew on deeply held American values. George Washington’s farewell address as president warned his fellow countrymen to avoid foreign entanglements, and this caution has long constrained the country’s international leadership.
President Trump rode to power on a populist wave that echoed Washington’s warning, but Trump’s vision of “energy dominance” simply ignores it. Rather than seeking self-reliance or even balanced trade in energy, Trump wants to use energy exports to achieve foreign policy goals. In an editorial kicking off “Energy Week,” three of the administration’s senior officials spoke of “increasing our global leadership and influence” by using this tool. Trump economic advisor Stephen Moore called on the United States to become “the new Saudi Arabia.”
The United States has neither the resources nor the capability to achieve “energy dominance.” More important, though, such a goal is not worthy of this great nation. The United States should seek above all else to attract support around the world, from populations as well as regimes, through persuasion and by setting an example. This approach — much more than force of arms or nuclear deterrence — won the Cold War, creating an irresistible, bottom-up movement that hollowed out the Soviet Union from within.
“Energy dominance” represents an altogether different strategy — one that Russian President Vladimir Putin has employed, using natural gas exports to bully his neighbors, especially former Soviet republics and satellites, into doing what he wants. This push for dominance has spawned resentment and conflict and left Russia isolated.
Another authoritarian regime, Saudi Arabia, has fared little better with the strategy of energy dominance. The kingdom overreached when it provoked the energy crises during the 1970s, putting its own economy on a roller coaster ride as the price of oil soared and crashed in the following years. Along the way, it contracted a terminal case of “Dutch disease” — economic stagnation due to overdependence on oil. More recently its quest for local dominance has, like Putin’s, enmeshed it in conflict with its nearest neighbors.
These outcomes are predictable. As American University’s Joshua Goldstein states in his introductory text on international relations, dominance comes “at a cost of constant oppression … and resentment.” More mundanely, in the words of Maximilian Auffhammer of the University of California, Berkeley, dominance means “there’s a big person on the playground shoving around a smaller person.”
Americans are not and do not want to become bullies. The United States should instead continue to seek an open, interdependent international system in which it creates alliances based on mutual interest and shared respect while strengthening American values at home. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, a former general, put it this way early in the Cold War: “We are defending a way of life. … We must not violate its principles and its precepts, and we must not destroy from within what we are trying to defend from without.”
The cooperative approach to energy politics — rejecting dominance as a guiding principle — is all the more important in this century, as the global energy economy needs to be transformed in order to avoid the worst consequences of climate change. Solutions to this challenge will not come through coercion, but through creativity, innovation, and mutual confidence-building.
“Energy dominance” abandons American values. It will produce a backlash if it is tried and leave real problems unaddressed. The president and his team should let go of this dangerous fantasy and come back next July Fourth with an idea more worthy of the country that they lead.
David M. Hart is a senior fellow at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation and professor of public policy and director of the Center for Science, Technology, and Innovation Policy at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government.
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