One reason for a little more theory…

A love of international relations theory does not appear to be universal. I doubt I will ever join in a debate about the merits of Realism vs. Liberalism but I have found that the more theory I read the more it reminds me to think about the meaning of the words I use. Let me be clearOther sources beyond international relations theory have made me think that words matter. Additionally, I do not think that theory is required for one to use terms consistently. However, there seems to be a correlation between theoretical rigour and definitional rigour.

This is particularly true on the subject of energy. As Susan Strange observed twenty years ago: “although it is clear that state policies with regard to energy are much concerned with the question of energy security, the political theorists who work on security matters still tend to think of strategy as something pertaining mainly to military strategy, to defence policy and not to energy policy. The concepts and methods of strategic studies (and for that matter of the mirror-image, peace studies) are not easily applied to the political economy — the who-gets-what-and-why — of the world energy system. In short, it seems to be a classic case of the no man’s land lying between the social sciences, an area unexplored and unoccupied by any of the major theoretical disciplines.”[1]

Does that describe the field today? It certainly seems like it. The intervening years have produced competing definitions of energy security (I prefer Alhajji’s definition) and a debate about whether above- or below-ground factors will most constrain states’ access to energy. However, aside from an occasional discussion of energy security realists and liberals, little of the discussion has interacted with broader international relations theory.[2]

Another standard framing device for energy in international relations is a matter of geopolitics. Anyone with a slight familiarity with Mackinder will know that current uses and abuses of that term have little in common with the Geographical Pivot of History. I don’t have a soft spot for his work but Michael Klare should know better than to use the following definition:

“Geopolitics and oil have been closely intertwined for a very long time. Geopolitics — or the efforts undertaken by a state to advance its political and economic interests abroad — has a natural affinity with petroleum because oil is essential for the functioning of modern economics and military organizations and because it can only be found in certain areas of the world.”[3]   Klare had several options, such as grand strategy, foreign policy, and statecraft to better describe a state’s “efforts … to advance its political and economic interests abroad.” Though, geography plays a vital role in determining a state’s renewable and non-renewable energy sources, it is not a sufficient reason to avoid clarity by alluding to Mackinder’s theory on the importance of contiguous landmasses.

Unfortunately, energy in international relations is framed extensively (if not exclusively) as either energy security or geopolitics of energy. We continue to use the same word to mean lots of things (energy security is ensuring security of supply, which might include physical security or price security, except when it means security of demand or when it is critical infrastructure protection) or to mean something the word itself does not.   Why are experts so imprecise in their language? I do not know — ask an expert. This habit of wresting words may explain why, despite its increasing importance in the past two decades, there have been few theoretical advances at the intersection of energy and strategy.

— Nathan Hawryluk, MSS Student


[1] Susan Strange, States and Markets, 2nd ed. (London: Pinter Publishers, 1994), 195.

[2] Gal Luft and Anne Korin, “Realism and Idealism in the Energy Security Debate,” in Energy Security Challenges for the 21st Century, ed. Gal Luft and Anne Korin (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2009), 340.

[3] Michael Klare, “The Changing Geopolitics of Oil,” in Handbook of Oil Politics, ed. Robert Looney (Routledge: London, 2012), 30.