To quote C.S Lewis, ‘What you see and what you hear depends a great deal on where you are standing.’ And, one’s point of view on energy security is certainly very different depending on whether you are standing in Washington DC, Ukraine, or Germany. NATO cannot avoid discussing energy security. As both the international scene and the alliance evolves, it becomes increasingly important and relevant to do so: clear and direct links exist between stable energy supply and the security of NATO member states.
Energy security can be approached from different angles. An editorial in The Financial Times quoted the energy implications in the Ukrainian crisis: ‘It is incumbent upon us to support our partners in difficult times,’ said a Western businessman. Many politicians and diplomats from all the countries of the Alliance have made this statement since Russia’s annexation of Crimea. But this headline in the Financial Times does not refer to security partners, but to trading partners.
The quote comes from Bob Dudley, CEO of British Petroleum. He made the statement in Moscow shortly after BP signed a $300 million exploration contract with the Russian state-owned Rosneft. BP owns just under twenty per cent of Rosneft. This is not the first time that security and commercial interests become mixed. Rosneft has entered joint ventures with several other Western energy groups, including ExxonMobil and Statoil.
This episode demonstrates that the West does not always follow the same course of action in the face of a crisis. And, it also makes clear that countries with strategic interests and heavy investments in energy infrastructure projects, such as the South Stream pipeline, are less likely to enforce sanctions, while other Allies call for firmer responses. This example also explains why managing such crises is so delicate. Elected governments have a duty to ensure security, but also to stimulate the economy. These two incentives are often reconcilable, but the recent crisis has revealed that they are sometimes incompatible.
Should NATO adopt a wider, thematic approach to energy security? One in which the interests and intersection of producer, transit state and consumer are seen effectively against threats which undermine the interests of all, such as a major attack on supply?
The Libyan crisis of 2011 took place just one year after the adoption of the new NATO Strategic Concept at the Lisbon Summit, in which a new role for the Alliance is evoked in the field of energy security. The Strategic Concept states that NATO will ‘develop the capacity to contribute to energy security, including protection of critical energy infrastructure and transit areas and lines, cooperation with partners, and consultations among Allies on the basis of strategic assessments and contingency planning’. The violence in Libya for instance, directly threatened the energy security of the members of the Alliance due to the interruption of supply of European refineries with light sweet crude oil and the supply of natural gas to pipelines to Italy.
This recent experience has led to question what NATO might have had to do elsewhere to respond to threats such as the Libyan conflict and its impact on energy security.
In some parts of the world new energy mission are perpetuated through the Alliance. In the Caucasus-Central Asia zone, the security is blurred towards Azerbaijan and Georgia, candidates for enlargement with NATO, and the ambiguity of the operations carried out ‘in the spirit of the Partnership for Peace’. The United States Congress admits that a NATO commitment in the field of energy would send a bad signal to the non-member states, letting it be assumed that the Allies would be ready to act militarily to ensure the safety of gas and oil flows.
The role of the Atlantic Alliance, particularly through the protection of energy flows, carries the risk of trivializing and popularizing NATO, and ultimately weakening its fear-fearing potential, to which every military alliance must be attached. The theme of energy security risks accentuating the divide between supporters of a global NATO and those for an Alliance strictly confined to its traditional missions. The theme of protecting energy infrastructure is indicative of tensions affecting the Atlantic Alliance. The Polish initiative has raised a shield among the states of old Europe, who fear that in the event of interruption of flows similar to the gas crisis between Russia and Ukraine.
It would appear that the Alliance is in a somewhat complex situation in that its new Strategic Concept clearly sets out energy security in its mission, but that the two issues of this nature that are of greatest concern to its members—the reliability of oil and natural gas and the stability of the energy markets – fall under other institutions, which are better able to deal with these issues. However, the fact that NATO does not have a leading role to play in addressing the main challenges faced by its members in this area does not mean that it has none.
NATO is above all a military alliance. As such, it plays a critical role in energy security by protecting essential infrastructure and transit routes—a role explicitly mentioned in the new Strategic Concept. Currently, for instance, it assumes this role by protecting ships and sea routes in the Persian Gulf region against a potential Iranian threat. The definition of the Alliances role, whether it be seeking a wider thematic and constructive role or a more focused, regional, and potentially confrontational role, is central to understanding the tension, the uprising of energy security challenge in NATO’s strategic role.