Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs

'Argentia' Reviews Obama, Gelb, and the Popularity of 'Energy Security'

March 15, 2010

From energy policy to constitutional rebalancing, the US Foreign Policy Group of the British International Studies Association (BISA) addresses a broad range of foreign policy topics in the latest issue of its biannual newsletter, Argentia. Co-edited by Watson Institute adjunct professor Linda Miller, the January issue combines a pointed look at key issues with commentary on the sum-total of 2009’s victories and setbacks.

In an essay on Obama’s first year in office, Miller raises concerns about domestic constraints on foreign policy possibilities. In “Deja Vu All Over Again?” Miller suggests that Obama’s diplomatic ambitions have been hampered by Americans’ inability or unwillingness to digest nuanced foreign policy arguments in the midst of economic crisis at home. Whether Obama makes good on his promise of change may hinge on how he resolves the tension between domestic and foreign policy concerns.

“Obama’s ideals may be intact,” asserts Miller, “but a year of governing rather than campaigning has brought the limits of even his pragmatic adjustments to reality into sharper focus.”

Miller’s other contribution to the issue casts a glance at one expert’s attempt to make sense of such foreign policy conundrums. She reviews Power Rules, a new book by Leslie Gelb, president Emeritus of the Council of the Council on Foreign Relations and emeritus member of the Watson Institute’s board of overseers, commending Gelb for advocating “’common sense’” as the best defense against the excessive and polarizing tendencies of the previous administration. Miller also praises Gelb’s analysis of the mismatch between US policy goals and actions.

Ultimately, the strength of the book lies in its clarity, not its novelty, asserts Miller. Bombarded by uncritical perspectives from both new and traditional media outlets, many readers will benefit from Gelb’s reminder that the US is one nation among many.

In another article, Co-Editor Ed Lock, senior lecturer in International Relations at the University of West England, explores the implications of the highly popular term, “energy security.” While limited oil resources pose a tangible risk, the “securitization” of energy policy is above all a political move whose implications deserve to be analyzed, argues Lock.

As both Democrats and Republicans increasingly cast energy scarcity as a national security threat, they risk fostering an “us” v. “them” mentality. They may increase competition with foreign actors over a resource that above all demands international cooperation.

In this “zero-sum” framework, “Advantage is to be sought at the expense of others, and the military option looms large,” asserts Lock.

Lock acknowledges that leaders can avoid this polarizing logic by adopting a cooperative approach to energy policy. However, the rise in populism among American voters, among other factors, may make this approach a tough sell. Economic hard times have fueled mistrust of expanding foreign economies, fostering a brand of nationalism at odds with notions of collective security and economic cooperation.

The issue also reports on the conferences and panels that allowed the BISA working group to build ties with diverse scholars and institutions. One particular highlight for 2009 was the group’s fourth annual conference held at University of East Anglia, Norwich. Advocating an interdisciplinary approach, the conference encouraged international relations scholars and diplomatic historians to exchange analytical tools.

The working group hopes to build on these successes in 2010. By advancing its visibility in Europe, the group plans to engage in dialogue with ever wider audiences.

By Watson Institute Student Rapporteur Juliana Friend ‘11