Richard Heinberg's The Party's Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies (New Society Publishers, 2003) is one of the books on "peak oil" that UFPPC's book discussion series, Digging Deeper -- now in its third iteration -- has been studying this February.  --  The following article by Richard Heinberg, published in early 2003 on the eve of the Iraq war, was billed as "adapted from" The Party's Over.  --  But the author must have changed his mind about some things at the last minute, because many of the ideas presented here are altogether missing from Heinberg's book.  --  The Party's Over devotes only nine pages to geopolitics in ch. 5 and two pages to U.S. foreign policy in ch. 6. -- Heinberg apparently decided to drop the discussion of the nature of geopolitics, the theme of the "Eurasian Great Game," the word 'empire', and any sustained discussion of George W. Bush's policies from his book.  --  And there's another interesting omission:  in the article below, Heinberg develops the "petrodollar" thesis of the Iraq war at length.  --  (In the months before the war broke out, there were a number of interesting essays available developing this thesis that were widely read; for two of them, see here.)  --  In The Party's Over, Richard Heinberg reduces the petrodollar thesis to two sentences in the middle of a paragraph on page 191 and omits it from the index.  --  For me, and perhaps for Heinberg, the question of the influence of petrodollars on the Iraq war remains an open issue.  --  Economists I have consulted and whom I trust dismiss this as a crackpot theory, but other analysts whom I respect (like Peter Dale Scott) give the thesis credence.  --  Competing claims are very difficult to sort out without detailed, expert, practical knowledge of the international economic system.  --  Perhaps I'm projecting, but it seems to me that Richard Heinberg may have decided not to commit his important book to that particular theory.  --  Another possibility, not mutually exclusive, is that a factor in the decision was a desire to remove Bush-bashing partisanship and the concept of imperialism from the book in order to broaden its market appeal.  --  These remarks are not meant to be critical:  The Party's Over, while depressing to many, is a good book that is well worth reading, and it has sold well; it stands at #2,071 on on Feb. 28, 2005, with a 4-star rating; the 46 readers' reviews make interesting reading, and a number of readers consider it the "best" or "most elegant" of the books on peak oil.  --  This article was published by Heinberg in New Dawn, a bi-monthly publication from Melbourne, Australia, whose mission to develop "challenging perspectives on world affairs and global trends" that examine "the hidden dimension of culture, history, and religion in a non-dogmatic manner" is tailor-made for the author of The Party's Over....

By Richard Heinberg

** With the dawn of the 21st century the world has entered a new stage of geopolitical struggle. The first half of the 20th century can be understood as one long war between Britain (and shifting allies) and Germany (and shifting allies) for European supremacy. The second half of the century was dominated by a Cold War between the U.S., which emerged as the world’s foremost industrial-military power following World War II, and the Soviet Union and its bloc of protectorates. The U.S. wars in Afghanistan (in 2001–2002) and Iraq (which, counting economic sanctions and periodic bombings, has continued from 1990 to the present) have ushered in the latest stage, which promises to be the final geopolitical struggle of the industrial period -- a struggle for the control of Eurasia and its energy resources. **

New Dawn
No. 77 (March-April 2003)

My purpose here is to sketch the general outlines of this culminating chapter of history as it is currently being played out. First, it is necessary to discuss geopolitics in general, and from a historical perspective, in relation to resources, geography, military technology, national currencies, and the psychology of its practitioners.

It is never enough to say that geopolitics is about “power,” “control,” or “hegemony” in the abstract. These words have usefulness only in relation to specific objectives and means: Power over what or whom, exerted by what methods? The answers will differ somewhat in each situation; however, most strategic objectives and means tend to have some characteristics in common.

Like other organisms, humans are subject to the perpetual ecological constraints of population pressure and resource depletion. While it may be simplistic to say that *all* conflicts between societies are motivated by the desire to overcome ecological constraints, most certainly are. Wars are typically fought over resources -- land, forests, waterways, minerals, and (during the past century) oil. People do occasionally fight over ideologies and religions. But even then resource rivalries are seldom far from the surface. Thus attempts to explain geopolitics without reference to resources (a recent example is Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations) are either misguided or deliberately misleading.

The industrial era differs from previous periods of human history in the large-scale harnessing of energy resources (coal, oil, natural gas, and uranium) for the purposes of production and transportation -- and for the deeper purpose of expanding the human carrying capacity of our terrestrial environment. All of the scientific achievements, the political consolidations, and the immense population increases of the past two centuries are predictable effects of the growing, coordinated use of energy resources. In the early decades of the twentieth century, petroleum emerged as the most important energy resource because of its cheapness and convenience of use. The industrial world is now overwhelmingly dependent on oil for agriculture and transportation.

Modern global geopolitics, because it implies worldwide transportation and communication systems rooted in fossil energy resources, is therefore a phenomenon unique to the industrial era.

The control of resources is largely a matter of geography, and secondarily a matter of military technology and control over currencies of exchange. The U.S. and Russia were both geographically blessed, being self-sufficient in energy resources during the first half of the century. Germany and Japan failed to attain regional hegemony largely because they lacked sufficient indigenous energy resources and because they failed to gain and keep access to resources elsewhere (via the USSR on one hand and the Dutch East Indies on the other).

Yet while both the U.S. and Russia were well endowed by nature, both have passed their petroleum production peaks (which occurred in 1970 and 1987, respectively). Russia remains a net oil exporter because its consumption levels are low, but the U.S. is increasingly dependent on imports of both oil and natural gas.

Both nations long ago began investing much of their energy-based wealth in the production of fuel-fed arms systems with which to expand and defend their resource interests globally. In other words, both decided decades ago to be geopolitical players, or contenders for global hegemony.

Roughly three-quarters of the world’s crucial remaining petroleum reserves lie within the borders of predominantly Muslim nations of the Middle East and Central Asia -- nations that, for historical, geographic, and political reasons, were unable to develop large-scale industrial-military economies of their own and that have, throughout the past century, mainly served as pawns of the Great Powers (Britain, the U.S., and the former USSR). In recent decades, these predominantly Muslim oil-rich nations have pooled their interests in a cartel, the Organization of Oil Exporting Countries (OPEC).

While resources, geography, and military technology are essential to geopolitics, they are not sufficient without a financial means to dominate the terms of international trade. Hegemony has had a financial as well as a military component ever since the adoption of money by Bronze Age agricultural empires; money, after all, is a claim upon resources, and the ability to control the currency of exchange can effect a subtle ongoing transfer of real wealth. Whoever issues a currency -- especially a fiat currency, i.e., one not backed by precious metals -- has power over it: every transaction becomes a subsidy to the money coiner or printer.

During the colonial era, rivalries between the Spanish real, the French franc, and the British pound were as decisive as military battles in determining hegemonic power. For the past half-century, the U.S. dollar has been the international currency of account for nearly all nations, and it is the currency with which all oil-importing nations must pay for their fuel. This is an arrangement that has worked to the advantage both of OPEC, which maintains a stable customer in the U.S. (the world’s largest petroleum consumer and a military power capable of defending the Arab oil kingdoms), and of the U.S. itself, which receives a subtle financial tithe for every barrel of oil consumed by every other importing nation.

These are some of the essential facts to bear in mind when examining the current geopolitical landscape.


Geopolitical goals are pursued within specific environments, and they are pursued by specific actors -- by particular human beings with identifiable social, cultural, and psychological characteristics.

These actors are, to a certain extent, embodiments of their society as a whole, seeking benefits for that society in competition or cooperation with other societies. However, such powerful individuals are inevitably drawn from a particular social class within their society -- typically the wealthy, owning class -- and tend to act in such a way as to benefit that class preferentially, even if doing so means ignoring the interests of the rest of society. Moreover, individual geopolitical actors are also unique human beings with insights, prejudices, and religious obsessions that may occasionally lead them to act at cross-purposes not only to their society, but their class as well.

From society’s point of view, geopolitics is a Darwinian collective struggle for increased carrying capacity; but from the individual geostrategist’s viewpoint, it is a game. Indeed, geopolitics could be considered the ultimate human game -- one with immense consequences, and one that can only be played within a tiny club of elites.

As long as there have been civilizations and empires, kings and emperors have played some version of this game. The game attracts a particular kind of personality, and it fosters a certain way of thinking and feeling about the world and about other human beings. The act of playing the game confers feelings of immense superiority, aloofness, power, and importance. One can begin to appreciate the supremely addictive intoxication that flows from playing the geopolitical game by reading documents composed by prominent geostrategists -- national security briefing papers by people like George Kennan and Richard Perle, or books by Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski. Take, for example, this passage from Kennan’s U.S. State Department Policy Planning Study #23 from 1948:

"We have 50 per cent of the world’s wealth, but only 6.3 per cent of its population. In this situation, our real job in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which permit us to maintain this position of disparity. To do so, we have to dispense with all sentimentality . . . we should cease thinking about human rights, the raising of living standards and democratization."

Such dry, functional prose is at home in a world of offices, telephones, and limousines, but that is a world utterly disengaged from the millions -- perhaps hundreds of millions or billions -- of people whose lives will be overwhelmingly impacted by a phrase here, a word there. At one level, the geostrategist is simply a man (after all, the club is overwhelmingly a men’s club) doing his job, and trying to do it competently in the eyes of onlookers. But what a job it is! -- determining the course of history, shaping the fates of nations. The geostrategist is a Superman, an Olympian disguised as a mortal, a Titan in a business suit. Nice work if you can get it.


Looking at their maps and model globes, British geostrategists of 18th and 19th centuries could not help but notice that Earth’s landmasses are highly asymmetrical; Eurasia is by far the largest of the continents. Clearly, if they were themselves to build and maintain a truly globe-spanning empire, it would be essential for the British first to establish and defend strategic footholds throughout this mineral-rich, densely populated, and history-soaked continent.

But British geostrategists knew perfectly well that Britain itself is only an island off the northwest of Eurasia. Within this largest of continents, the most extensive nation was by far Russia, which geographically dominated Eurasia as Eurasia dominated the globe. Thus the British knew that their attempts to control Eurasia would inevitably confront the self-preservative instincts of the Russian Empire. Throughout the 19th century and into the early 20th, British/Russian conflicts repeatedly flared on the Indian frontier, notably in Afghanistan. An imperial functionary named Sir John Kaye called this the “Great Game,” a term immortalized by Kipling in Kim.

Two costly world wars and a century of colonial uprisings largely cured Britain of her imperial obsessions, but Eurasia could not help but remain central to any serious plan for world domination.

Thus in 1997, in his book, The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and its Geostrategic Imperatives, Zbigniew Brzezinski, former National Security Advisor to US President Jimmy Carter and geostrategist par excellence, would insist that Eurasia must be at the center of future efforts by the United States to project its own power globally. “For America,” he wrote, "the chief geopolitical prize is Eurasia. For half a millennium, world affairs were dominated by Eurasian powers and peoples who fought with one another for regional domination and reached out for global power. Now a non-Eurasian power is preeminent in Eurasia -- and America’s global primacy is directly dependent on how long and how effectively its preponderance on the Eurasian continent is sustained." [Zbigniew Brzezinski, The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and its Geopolitical Imperatives (Basic Books, 1997), p. 30.]

Eurasia is pivotal, according to Brzezinski, because it “accounts for about 60 percent of the world’s GNP and about three-fourths of the world’s known energy resources.” In addition, it contains three-quarters of the world’s population, “all but one of the world’s overt nuclear powers and all but one of the covert ones.” [Ibid., p. 31.]

In Brzezinski’s view, just as the U.S. needs the rest of the world for markets and resources, Eurasia needs American dominance for stability. Unfortunately, however, the American people are not accustomed to imperial responsibilities: “[T]he pursuit of power is not a goal that commands popular passion, except in conditions of a sudden threat or challenge to the public’s sense of domestic well-being." [Ibid., p. 36.]

Something fundamental shifted in the world of geopolitics with the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 -- which clearly presented a “sudden threat . . . to the public’s sense of domestic well-being.” This shift was felt again with the new American administration’s determination -- voiced with increasing insistence through 2002 and the first weeks of 2003 -- to invade Iraq. These geostrategic shifts seemed centered in a new American attitude toward Eurasia.

At the end of WWII, when the U.S. and the USSR emerged as the world’s dominant powers, the U.S. had established permanent bases in Germany, Japan, and South Korea, all to hedge in the Soviet Union. America even waged a failed and extremely costly war in Southeast Asia to gain yet another vector of Eurasian containment.

When the USSR collapsed at the end of the 1980s, the U.S. appeared free to dominate Eurasia, and thus the world, more completely than had any other nation in world history. The decade that followed was one characterized primarily by globalisation -- the consolidation of corporatized economic power centered largely in the U.S. It appeared that U.S. hegemony would be maintained economically rather than militarily. Brzezinski’s book conveys the spirit of those times, advocating the maintenance and consolidation of America’s ties to long-time allies (Western Europe, Japan, and South Korea) and the coddling or co-opting of the new independent states of the former Soviet Union.

In contrast with this prescription, the new administration of George W. Bush appeared to be taking a more strident tack -- one that took old allies for granted in its unabashed unilateralism. In his shredding of international environmental, human rights, and weapons-control agreements; in his pursuit of a doctrine of pre-emptive military action; and especially in his seemingly inexplicable obsession with the invasion of Iraq, Bush was expending enormous political and diplomatic capital, needlessly creating enemies even among trusted allies. His rationale for war –- the elimination of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction –- was patently silly, since the US had supplied many of those weapons and Iraq posed no current threat to anyone; moreover, a new Gulf war risked destabilising the entire Middle East. [See Richard Heinberg, “Behold Caesar,” MuseLetter #128, October 2002,] What could possibly justify such a risk? What was motivating this bizarre new change in strategy?

Again, some background discussion is necessary before we can answer this question.


At the dawn of the new millennium the U.S. had the world’s most advanced military technology and the world’s strongest currency. Throughout the twentieth century, America had patiently built its empire, first in Central and South America, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines, and then (following World War II) through alliances and protectorates in Europe, Japan, Korea, and the Middle East. Its army and intelligence agency were active in virtually every country in the world, while its immense powers seemed tempered by its ostensible advocacy of democracy and human rights.

In the 1980s, the U.S. government came under the control of a group of neo-conservative strategists surrounding Ronald Reagan and George Herbert Walker Bush. For years, these strategists worked to destroy the USSR (which they succeeded in doing by undermining the Soviet economy) and to consolidate power in Central America and the Middle East. The latter project culminated in the first U.S.-Iraq war of 1990–1991. Their publicly stated goal was nothing less than world domination.

While the Clinton-Gore administration emphasized multilateral cooperation, its push for corporate globalization -- which ruthlessly transferred wealth from poor nations to rich ones -- was essentially an extension of Reagan-Bush policies. However, the neo-conservatives fumed at their exclusion from the direct reins of power. They regarded themselves as the country’s rightful leadership, and saw Clinton and his followers as usurpers. When the Supreme Court appointed George W. Bush as President in 2000, the neo-conservatives returned with a vengeance. With the assistance of the fawning media, Bush -- the pampered son of a wealthy and deeply politically connected East-coast family that had made its money from banking, weapons, and oil -- managed to portray himself as a down-home Texan “man of the people.” He immediately surrounded himself with the group of geopolitical strategists -- Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, and Richard Perle -- who had developed international policy for the first Bush administration.

In his recent article “The Push for War,” international affairs analyst Anatol Lieven traced the roots of the far-right strategic agenda to a lingering Cold War mentality, Christian fundamentalism, increasingly divisive domestic politics, and an unquestioning support for Israel. The basic goal of total military domination of the globe, Lieven wrote, was "shared by Colin Powell and the rest of the security establishment. It was, after all, Powell who, as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, declared in 1992 that the U.S. requires sufficient power “to deter any challenger from ever dreaming of challenging us on the world stage.” However, the idea of pre-emptive defense, now official doctrine, takes this a leap further, much further than Powell would wish to go. In principle, it can be used to justify the destruction of any other state if it even seems that state might in future be able to challenge the U.S. When these ideas were first aired by Paul Wolfowitz and others after the end of the Cold War, they met with general criticism, even from conservatives. Today, thanks to the ascendancy of the radical nationalists in the Administration and the effect of the September 11 attacks on the American psyche, they have a major influence on US policy." [Anatol Lieven, “The Push for War,” London Review of Books, December 30, 2002,]

Whether or not the administration in some way orchestrated the events of 9/11 -- as has been suggested by commentators Michael Ruppert and Michel Chossudovsky -- it was clearly poised to take advantage of them. [See the web sites of Michael Ruppert, From the Wilderness; and Michel Chossudovsky, Center for Research on Globalization,] Bush immediately proclaimed to the world that “You are either with us, or you are with the terrorists.”

With a bloated military budget, a cowed and obedient corporate media establishment, and a public frightened into willingly giving up basic constitutional protections, the neo-conservatives appeared to have won full control of the nation and to have become masters of its global empire. But even as their victory seemed complete, rumors of dissent began swirling.


Popular resistance to corporate globalization started to materialize in the late 1990s, first coalescing in the anti-WTO mass demonstration in Seattle in November 1998. Thenceforth, the anti-globalization movement appeared to grow with each passing year, morphing into a global anti-war movement in response to U.S. plans to invade first Afghanistan and then Iraq.

But discontent with U.S. domination of the globe was not confined to leftists in street demonstrations brandishing giant puppets. As American military bases sprang up in the Balkans in the 1990s, and in Central Asia in the aftermath of the Afghanistan campaign, geostrategists in Russia, China, Japan, and Western Europe began examining their options. Only Britain seemed steadfast in its alliance with the American colossus.

One seemingly inoffensive response to U.S. global hegemony was the effort of eleven European nations to establish a common currency -- the euro. When the euro debuted at the turn of the millennium, many predicted that it would be unable to compete with the dollar. Indeed, for months the euro’s comparative value languished. However, it soon stabilized and began to rise.

A more worrying development, from Washington’s perspective, was the increasing tendency of second- and third-tier nations to overtly abandon the neoliberal economic policies at the heart of the project of globalization, as new governments in Venezuela, Brazil, and Ecuador publicly broke with the World Bank and declared their desire for independence from American financial control.

Meanwhile, in Russia political theorist Alexander Dugin was gaining increasing influence with anti-American geostrategic writings. In 1997, the same year Brzezinski’s The Grand Chessboard appeared, Dugin published his own manifesto, The Basics of Geopolitics, advocating a reconstituted Russian Empire composed of a continental bloc of states allied to cleanse the Eurasian land-mass of U.S. influence. At the center of this bloc Dugin posited a “Eurasian axis” of Russia, Germany, Iran, and Japan.

While Dugin’s ideas were banned during Soviet times for their echoes of Nazi pan-Eurasian fantasies, they gradually gained influence among post-Soviet Russian officials. For example, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs recently decried the “strengthening tendency towards the formation of a unipolar world under financial and military domination by the United States” and called for a “multipolar world order,” while emphasizing Russia’s “geopolitical position as the largest Eurasian state.” Russia’s Communist party has adopted Dugin’s ideas in its platform; Gennady Zyuganov, Communist Party chairman, even published his own primer on geopolitics, titled Geography of Victory. Though Dugin remains a marginal figure internationally, his ideas cannot help but resonate in a country and continent increasingly hemmed in and manipulated by a powerful and arrogant hegemonic nation on the other side of the globe.

Outwardly, Russia -- like Germany, France, Japan, and China -- still usually defers to the U.S. Even dissent from the Bush buildup to war on Iraq has remained fairly muted.

But in private, leaders in all of these countries are no doubt making new plans. Few would yet go so far as to agree with Alexander Dugin’s view that Eurasia will come to dominate the U.S., not the other way around. Yet in just three years, many Eurasian leaders’ attitudes toward American hegemony have shifted from quiet acceptance to biting criticism to a serious examination of the alternatives.


Dugin and other Eurasian critics of U.S. power begin from a premise that would seem ludicrous to most Americans. To Dugin, the U.S. is acting not out of strength, but of weakness.

America has for many years sustained an overwhelmingly negative balance of trade -- which it can afford only because of the strong dollar, in turn enabled by the cooperation of OPEC in denominating oil exports in dollars. America’s trade balance is negative partly because its indigenous production of oil and natural gas has peaked and the nation now relies increasingly on imports. Also, most U.S. corporations have shifted their manufacturing operations overseas. A further systemic weakness comes from widespread corporate corruption -- revealed most glaringly in the collapse of Enron -- and the close ties between corporations and the U.S. political establishment. Bubble after bubble -- high-tech, telecom, derivatives, real estate -- has either already burst or is about to.

Next to the strong dollar, the other pillar of U.S. geopolitical strength is its military. But even in this case there are cracks in the facade. No one doubts that America possesses weapons of mass destruction sufficient to wipe out the world many times over. But the U.S. actually uses its weaponry increasingly for the purpose of what French historian Emmanuel Todd has called “theatrical militarism.” In an essay titled “The US and Eurasia: Theatrical Militarism,” journalist Pepe Escobar notes that this strategy implies that Washington "should never come up with a definitive solution for any geopolitical problem, because instability is the only thing that would justify military action ad infinitum by the only superpower, anytime, anywhere. . . . Washington knows it is unable to confront the real players in the world -- Europe, Russia, Japan, China. Thus it seeks to remain politically on top by bullying minor players like the Axis of Evil, or even more minor players like Cuba. [Pepe Escobar, “Us and Eurasia: Theatrical Militarism,” Asia Times Online, December 4, 2002,]

Thus American attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq simultaneously reveal both the sophistication of U.S. military technology and the inherent frailties of the U.S. geopolitical position.

Theatrical militarism has the dual purpose of projecting the image of American invincibility and might while maintaining or extending U.S. military domination over resource-rich third-tier nations. This largely explains the recent Afghanistan invasion and the impending attack on Baghdad. The strategy implies that terrorist acts against the U.S. should be covertly encouraged as a justification for more domestic repression and foreign military adventures.

Yet we have not fully answered the question posed earlier -- why is the current administration willing to expend so much domestic and international political capital in order to pursue the impending Iraq war? Critics of the administration insist that this is a war for oil profits, but the situation is actually more complicated and can be understood only in the light of two crucial factors not widely acknowledged.

The first is that the continued strength of the dollar is in question. In November 2000, Iraq announced that it would cease to accept dollars for its oil, and would accept instead only euros. At the time, financial analysts suggested that Iraq would lose tens of millions of dollars in value because of this currency switch; in fact, over the following two years, Iraq made millions. Other oil-exporting nations, including Iran and Venezuela, have stated that they are contemplating a similar move. If OPEC as a whole were to switch from dollars to euros, the consequences to the U.S. economy would be catastrophic. Investment money would flee the country, real estate values would plummet, and Americans would shortly find themselves living in Third-World conditions. [W. Clark, “The Real but Unspoken Reasons for the Upcoming Iraq War,”]

Currently, if any country wishes to obtain dollars with which to buy oil, it can do so only by selling its resources to the U.S., taking out a loan from a U.S. bank (or the World Bank -- functionally the same thing), or trading its currency on the open market and thus devaluing it. The U.S. is in effect importing goods and services virtually for free, its massive trade deficit representing a huge interest-free loan from the rest of the world. If the dollar were to cease being the world’s reserve currency, all of that would change overnight.

A New York Times article dated January 31, 2003, titled “For Flashier Russians, Euro Outshines the Dollar,” noted that “Russians are believed to have hoarded as much as $50 billion in American dollars in coffee cans and under mattresses, the largest such stash of any nation on earth.” But Russians are quietly exchanging their dollars for euros, and high-ticket items like cars now carry price tags in euros. Further, “Russia’s central bank said today that it had increased its euro holdings in the last year to 10 percent of its foreign reserves, up from 5 percent, while the dollar’s share had dropped from 90 percent to 75 percent, reflecting the low return on dollar investments.” [See Michael Wines, “For Flashier Russians, Euro Outshines the Dollar,” New York Times, January 31, 2003.]

Ironically, even the European Union is concerned about this trend, because if the dollar sinks too low then European firms will see their U.S. investments lose value. Nevertheless, as the EU grows (it is slated to add ten new members in 2004), its economic clout is increasingly perceived as inevitably surpassing that of the U.S.

For U.S. geostrategists, the prevention of an OPEC switch from dollars to euros must therefore seem paramount. An invasion and occupation of Iraq would effectively give the U.S. a voting seat in OPEC while placing new American bases within hours’ striking distance of Saudi Arabia, Iran, and several other key OPEC countries.

The second factor likely weighing on Bush’s decision to invade Iraq is the depletion of U.S. energy resources and the consequently increasing American dependency on oil imports. The oil production of all non-OPEC countries, taken together, probably peaked in 2002. From now on, OPEC will have ever more economic power in the world. Moreover, global oil production will probably peak within a few years. As I have discussed elsewhere, alternatives to fossil fuels have not been developed sufficiently to permit a coordinated process of substitution once oil and natural gas grow scarce. The implications -- especially for major consumer nations such as the US -- will eventually be ruinous. [Richard Heinberg, The Party’s Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies (New Society, 2003) -- ISBN 0865714827.]

Both problems are of overwhelming urgency. Bush’s Iraq strategy is apparently an offensive one designed to enlarge the U.S. empire, but in reality it is primarily defensive in character since its deeper purpose is to forestall an economic cataclysm.

It is the two factors of dollar hegemony and oil depletion -- even more than the hubris of the neo-conservative strategists in Washington -- that are prompting an overall de-emphasis of long-standing alliances with Europe, Japan, and South Korea; and the increasing deployment of U.S. troops in the Middle East and Central Asia.

While no one is talking about it openly, top echelons in the governments of Russia, China, Britain, Germany, France, Saudi Arabia and other countries are keenly aware of these factors -- hence the shifting alliances, the veto threats, and the back-room negotiations leading up to the inevitable U.S. invasion of Iraq.

But the war, though by now inevitable, remains a highly risky gamble. Even if it ends in days or weeks with a decisive American victory, we will not know for some time whether that gamble has paid off.


As I write this, the U.S. is drawing up plans to bomb Baghdad, a city of five million people, and to pour in twice as many cruise missiles during the first two days of the assault as were used in the entirety of the first Gulf War. Depleted uranium shells and bullets will again be employed, leaving much of Iraq a radioactive wasteland and condemning future generations of Iraqis (and American soldiers and their families) to birth defects, sickness, and early deaths. It is difficult to imagine that the spectacle of so much unprovoked death and destruction could help but inspire thoughts of revenge in the hearts of millions of Arabs and Muslims.

American geopolitical strategists will call the effort a success if the war ends quickly, if production from Iraqi oil fields is soon ramped up, and if other OPEC nations are bullied into maintaining the dollar as their currency of account. But this operation (one cannot really call it a war), undertaken as an act of economic desperation, can only temporarily stem a rising tide.

What are the long-term consequences for the U.S. and Eurasia? Many are unpredictable. Forces are being unleashed now that may be difficult to contain.

The more reliably foreseeable long-term trends are not favorable. Resource depletion and population pressure have always been predictors of war. China, with a population of 1.2 billion, will soon be the world’s largest consumer of resources. In times of plenty, this nation can be viewed as immense opening market: there are already more refrigerators, mobile phones, and televisions in China than in the U.S. China does not wish to challenge the US militarily and recently gained trade privileges by quietly backing American military operations in Central Asia. But as oil -- the basis for the entire industrial system -- grows scarcer and its reserves more hotly disputed, China cannot be expected to remain docile.

North Korea, a Chinese quasi-ally, was being quietly defanged through negotiations during the Clinton era, but is now chafing at being labeled by Bush as part of an “axis of evil” and at having crucial energy-resource imports embargoed by the U.S. Out of desperation, it is trying to get Washington’s attention by reviving its nuclear weapons programs. Meanwhile, the new South Korean government is utterly opposed to U.S. unilateralism and wants to negotiate with the North. The U.S. is threatening to destroy North Korea’s nuclear facilities with air strikes, but to do so would raise a deadly nuclear cloud over all of northeast Asia.

Meanwhile, India and Pakistan also have interests that will likely eventually diverge from those of the US. These neighbor nations are, of course, nuclear powers and sworn enemies with longstanding border disputes. Pakistan, currently a U.S. ally, is also a significant supplier of nuclear materials to North Korea, and has offered aid to the Taliban and al Qaeda -- facts that underscore just how convoluted and counterproductive Washington’s strategy has lately become.

The Americans’ worst nightmare would be a strategic and economic alliance among Europe, Russia, China, and OPEC. Such an alliance possesses an inherent logic from the viewpoint of each of the potential participants. If the U.S. were to try to prevent such an alliance by playing the only strong card still in its hand -- its weaponry of mass destruction -- then the Great Game could end in ultimate tragedy.

Even in the best case, petroleum resources are limited and, as they gradually run out over the next few decades, will be unable to support the further industrialization of China or the maintenance of industrial infrastructure in Europe, Russia, Japan, Korea, or the U.S.

Who will rule Eurasia? In the end, no single power will be capable of doing so, because the energy-resource base will be insufficient to support a continent-wide system of transportation, communication, and control. Thus Russian geopolitical fantasies are as vain as those of the U.S. For the next half-century there will be just enough energy resources left to enable either a horrific and futile contest for the remaining spoils, or a heroic cooperative effort toward radical conservation and transition to a post-fossil-fuel energy regime.

The next century will see the end of global geopolitics, one way or another. If our descendants are fortunate, the ultimate outcome will be a world of modest, bioregionally organized communities living on received solar energy. Local rivalries will continue, as they have throughout human history, but never again will the hubris of geopolitical strategists threaten billions with extinction.

That’s if all goes well and everyone acts rationally.

--Richard Heinberg, a journalist and educator, is a member of the core faculty of New College of California in Santa Rosa, where he teaches a program on Culture, Ecology, and Sustainable Community. He writes and publishes the monthly MuseLetter This article is adapted from his soon-to-be-released book, The Party’s Over: Oil, War, and the Fate of Industrial Societies (New Society Publishers,