Homeland Insecurity

The American empire goes for broke—and it could be heading that way

WASHINGTON, D.C. Running below the surface of the year-end self-congratulatory assertions of American supremacy (as in Monday's Washington Times: "The world really is becoming more 'American' ") are warnings, often ignored, of our decline. The steady loss of the dollar against the euro is one. The spiraling trade deficit is another.

And in the past weeks, there were two serious economic signs signaling momentous change, if not outright decline.

The first concerns China's invasion of Canadian oil fields, heretofore a U.S. energy fiefdom. The second came in the form of an all-but-hidden report from the Department of Agriculture that America, the breadbasket of the world, is now a net importer of food.

North to Alaska: The pressure’s on.
photo: Courtesy of The Alaska Division of Community and Business Development
North to Alaska: The pressure’s on.

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"A country that makes a film like Star Wars deserves to rule the world." Phillip Adams, former chairman of the Australian Film Commission, in The Washington Times, 12.27.04

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OILIf the half-dozen planned projects worth $2 billion go through, Canada, our No. 1 energy supplier, could end up sending as much as one-third of its total oil exports to China. One project would give the Chinese a 49 percent interest in a 720-mile-long pipeline running from Alberta to British Columbia. The Chinese are also eyeing an expansion of a second Canadian pipeline system, and they're discussing gaining an interest in companies with oil leases.

Much of this interest centers on extracting oil from oil sands. In the U.S., prospects for synthetic fuels based on oil shale during the energy crisis of the early 1970s never got off the ground. It was discussed along with coal gasification as a possible alternative to what the industry at the time insisted were declining reserves. But when prices were deregulated and rose, along with profitability, all the talk about coal gas and oil from shale died down. For the big international oil companies, synthetics based on oil sands or oil shale historically have been dicey because of the high development cost, and hence reduced profitability. However, as Kang Wu of the East-West Center in Honolulu told The New York Times last week, "For China, it is foremost about securing supply and secondly about profits." And that is one reason China is willing to go so far abroad.

China's energy consumption is up some 40 percent in the past year, making it the second-biggest energy consumer in the world, ahead of Japan. Its booming economy depends on fossil fuels, especially oil imports.

By 2020 China is expected to be importing two-thirds of its oil, some 80 percent of it from the Middle East. It currently imports oil from Oman and Yemen, and China has explored deals with Saudi Arabia. Its imports of natural gas come from the Middle East as well as from Australia, and there is a possibility of China importing Caspian Sea gas through an extensive pipeline that would run all the way from Shanghai across the country into the rich Caspian finds of Central Asia.

As China's energy needs grow, emphasis shifts to protecting supply lines running through South Asia, some of them close to the always contentious straits between Taiwan and China. For the U.S. military, protecting energy supply lines always has been a prime consideration of national security. And these economic shifts in Asia can only mean a further strain on U.S. military operations in that part of the world.

More immediately, a diversion of Canadian petroleum resources to China is about the worst thing that could happen to the U.S. Since the '70s energy crisis, we have been seeking to diversify supplies, trying to shed our dependence on the Middle East, and as a result the U.S. now relies increasingly on Canada and Mexico. We have always viewed Canadian energy resources as a backup—to be used when we are in need. To say they are taken for granted is an understatement. We view them as our own. Free trade makes that condition even more explicit. If Canada actually begins to commit resources to the Chinese, that will lead to more direct U.S. manipulation of Canadian politics and economics; right-wing Republicans will use the China-Canada deals as one more argument for stepped-up drilling in Alaska, the eastern front of the Rockies, and on the outer continental shelf, all of them areas where remaining U.S. petroleum stocks are located.


FOODAgriculture, long our largest and most important industry, has heavily influenced American foreign policy. As the push west ended by the turn of the 20th century, we began to struggle to find markets for an increasing food surplus. The isolationists of the 1930s and today's conservative Republicans sought to expand farm exports to friend and enemy alike. We sold quantities of grain to the Soviet Union. Before the first Persian Gulf war, Bob Dole had visited Iraq in part to enhance Midwest grain exports to Saddam Hussein. Before that, at the height of the Cold War, Hubert Humphrey, as both senator from Minnesota and then as LBJ's vice president, concocted the Food for Peace program, which masked U.S. military intervention under the banner of cheap foodstuffs to developing countries that we worried were too nationalistic in their policies.

But the surplus has suddenly disappeared. For the first time in decades, the U.S. will not turn an agricultural trade surplus, the Economic Research Service reported on November 22. The Agriculture Department couldn't say why. It could not explain how Bush managed to run down a $13.6 billion agricultural trade surplus in 2001 to zero in 2005. "Ironically, the very thing farmers have been told for years would be their savior—a cheaper dollar—is worsening the ag trade balance," the Peoria, Illinois, Journal Star's Alan Guebert wrote in early December. "Despite the dollar's now falling to new lows against most of the world's major currencies, the U.S.'s 2005 ag exports will be $6.3 billion less than in 2004."

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