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`Just say no' to oil

October 18, 2006

THE FIRST STEP TOWARD CURING an addiction is to admit its existence. So it was encouraging when President Bush admitted in January that "America is addicted to oil." But America hasn't been good about going to recovery meetings -- which makes it harder for the U.S. to get the world's other oil addicts to go too.

For China, India, Japan and every other industrial nation, a steady supply of oil is essential to economic growth. And as competition for oil increases, so does the temptation to make it the focus of foreign policy. Bush has warned against the hazards of this approach, and U.S. history -- especially in the Middle East -- is a catalog of its dangers. But he'd be more convincing, to Americans and other world leaders, if his policy more closely matched his rhetoric.

Now other nations are beginning to do as the U.S. does, not as it says. China has an $8-billion investment in Sudan's oil sector, for example, which helps explain why it turns a blind eye while the thugs who run Sudan ravage Darfur. The argument used to be that as China's economy became more integrated with the world's, it would become a more responsible player in world affairs. This was half right. For the most part, ideology has given way to pragmatism in Chinese foreign policy. Beijing tries to avoid conflict with its biggest trading partner, the United States.

But this same pragmatism also leads China to pursue other policy goals at odds with the U.S. China professes to be genuinely worried about nuclear proliferation, for instance, yet U.S. diplomats have made no headway in persuading Beijing to back U.N. sanctions against Tehran. Perhaps not coincidentally, China imports 11.5% of its oil from Iran and is considering investing at least $70 billion to get more.

And it's not just China competing for oil. Energy-poor Japan is highly dependent on Middle East oil and so was cool toward Israel for decades (relations are better now, but still low-key). India, meanwhile, with 17% of the world's population and just 0.8% of known oil and gas reserves, is also racing to secure supplies. It hosted Venezuelan President (and Bush nemesis) Hugo Chavez last year and signed an oil deal with Venezuela. South Korea gets a third of its oil from Saudi Arabia and is trying to hedge its bets by investing in fields from Venezuela to Vietnam.

The rise of Asian powers -- and their pursuit of policies designed to secure a steady supply of oil -- is a geopolitical watershed, albeit a predictable one. Even if the U.S. were to reduce its oil dependency, its ability to act multilaterally could be constrained by the energy arrangements of other nations.

For these and other reasons, the development of alternative energy technologies that can reduce demand at home and be exported abroad is both an economic necessity and a national security priority. It's far too important to be left to the environmentalists -- or the states, the lobbyists (for nuclear power or ethanol) or even to philanthropists such as Richard Branson. In our globalized economies, lasting peace is unlikely without energy security.

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