As national leaders from around the world are gathering in Copenhagen, Denmark, to attend the United Nations Climate Change Conference, the time is ripe to re-assess America's current energy policies - but within the larger framework of how a new approach on the environment will stave off global warming and shore up American primacy.
By not addressing climate change more aggressively and creatively, the United States is squandering an opportunity to secure its global primacy for the next few generations to come. To do this, though, the U.S. must rely on innovation to help the world escape the coming environmental meltdown. Developing the key technologies that will save the planet from global warming will allow the U.S. to outmaneuver potential great power rivals seeking to replace it as the international system's hegemon. But the greening of American strategy must occur soon.
The U.S., however, seems to be stuck in time, unable to move beyond oil-centric geo-politics in any meaningful way.
Often, the gridlock is portrayed as a partisan difference, with Republicans resisting action and Democrats pleading for action.
This, though, is an unfair characterization as there are numerous proactive Republicans and quite a few reticent Democrats.
The real divide is instead one between realists and liberals.
Students of realpolitik, which still heavily guides American foreign policy, largely discount environmental issues as they are not seen as advancing national interests in a way that generates relative power advantages vis-à-vis the other major powers in the system: Russia, China, Japan, India, and the European Union.
Liberals, on the other hand, have recognized that global warming might very well become the greatest challenge ever faced by mankind. As such, their thinking often eschews narrowly defined national interests for the greater global good. This, though, ruffles elected officials whose sworn obligation is, above all, to protect and promote American national interests.
What both sides need to understand is that by becoming a lean, mean, green fighting machine, the U.S. can actually bring together liberals and realists to advance a collective interest which benefits every nation, while at the same time, securing America's global primacy well into the future.
To do so, the U.S. must re-invent itself as not just your traditional hegemon, but as history's first ever green hegemon.
Hegemons are countries that dominate the international system - bailing out other countries in times of global crisis, establishing and maintaining the most important international institutions, and covering the costs that result from free-riding and cheating global obligations. Since 1945, that role has been the purview of the United States.
Immediately after World War II, Europe and Asia laid in ruin, the global economy required resuscitation, the countries of the free world needed security guarantees, and the entire system longed for a multilateral forum where global concerns could be addressed. The U.S., emerging the least scathed by the systemic crisis of fascism's rise, stepped up to the challenge and established the postwar (and current) liberal order.
But don't let the world "liberal" fool you. While many nations benefited from America's new-found hegemony, the U.S. was driven largely by "realist" selfish national interests. The liberal order first and foremost benefited the U.S.
With the U.S. becoming bogged down in places like Afghanistan and Iraq, running a record national debt, and failing to shore up the dollar, the future of American hegemony now seems to be facing a serious contest: potential rivals - acting like sharks smelling blood in the water - wish to challenge the U.S. on a variety of fronts. This has led numerous commentators to forecast the U.S.'s imminent fall from grace.
Not all hope is lost however.
With the impending systemic crisis of global warming on the horizon, the U.S. again finds itself in a position to address a transnational problem in a way that will benefit both the international community collectively and the U.S. selfishly.
The current problem is two-fold. First, the competition for oil is fueling animosities between the major powers. The geopolitics of oil has already emboldened Russia in its 'near abroad' and China in far-off places like Africa and Latin America. As oil is a limited natural resource, a nasty zero-sum contest could be looming on the horizon for the U.S. and its major power rivals - a contest which threatens American primacy and global stability.
Second, converting fossil fuels like oil to run national economies is producing irreversible harm in the form of carbon dioxide emissions. So long as the global economy remains oil-dependent, greenhouse gases will continue to rise. Experts are predicting as much as a 60% increase in carbon dioxide emissions in the next twenty-five years. That likely means more devastating water shortages, droughts, forest fires, floods, and storms.
In other words, if global competition for access to energy resources does not undermine international security, global warming will. And in either case, oil will be a culprit for the instability.
Oil arguably has been the most precious energy resource of the last half-century. But "black gold" is so 20th century. The key resource for this century will be green gold - clean, environmentally-friendly energy like wind, solar, and hydrogen power. Climate change leaves no alternative. And the sooner we realize this, the better off we will be.
What Washington must do in order to avoid the traps of petropolitics is to convert the U.S. into the world's first-ever green hegemon.
For starters, the federal government must drastically increase investment in energy and environmental research and development (E&E R&D). This will require a serious sacrifice, committing upwards of $40 billion annually to E&E R&D - a far cry from the few billion dollars currently being spent.
By promoting a new national project, the U.S. could develop new technologies that will assure it does not drown in a pool of oil. Some solutions are already well known, such as raising fuel standards for automobiles; improving public transportation networks; and expanding nuclear and wind power sources. Others, however, have not progressed much beyond the drawing board: batteries that can store massive amounts of solar (and possibly even wind) power; efficient and cost-effective photovoltaic cells, crop-fuels, and hydrogen-based fuels; and even fusion.
Such innovations will not only provide alternatives to oil, they will also give the U.S. an edge in the global competition for hegemony. If the U.S. is able to produce technologies that allow modern, globalized societies to escape the oil trap, those nations will eventually have no choice but to adopt such technologies. And this will give the U.S. a tremendous economic boom, while simultaneously providing it with means of leverage that can be employed to keep potential foes in check.
The bottom-line is that the U.S. needs to become green energy dominant as opposed to black energy independent - and the best approach for achieving this is to promote a national strategy of greengemony.