Dr. Steve Yetiv, Old Dominion University – Oil Production and Foreign Policy

Apr 29, 2013

In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Steve Yetiv of Old Dominion University explains why U.S. foreign policy is closely tied to foreign and domestic oil production.

Dr. Steve Yetiv is University Professor of Political Science and International Studies at Old Dominion University. His research explores energy security, American foreign policy and decision making, the Middle East, and globalization.  He has been a consultant to the U.S. Departments of State and Defense and the General Accounting Office. He recently published a new edition of his book Crude Awakenings, in which he develops and applies a framework for examining threats to global oil security. He holds a Ph.D. from Kent State University.

About Dr. Yetiv

Dr. Steve Yetiv – Oil Production and Foreign Policy

America is in the midst of an energy boom that has helped decrease its dependence on foreign oil significantly. Current U.S. oil imports of around 9-10 million barrels/day are projected to fall to around 4 million b/d within one decade.
But, if that does occur, what would it mean for U.S. foreign policy? In particular, could America withdraw from the oil-rich Persian Gulf? That’s an interesting question because the United States has fought two big wars there and spends between $40 to $50 billion a year, not including the Iraq war costs, to protect the free flow of oil, mainly. That expenditure exceeds the entire military budgets of all but a few countries and taxes America’s already massive national deficit.
Unfortunately, America’s growing oil power, while positive in many ways, is not likely to allow an easy withdrawal from the Gulf any time soon. Why so?
First, even if the United States used little oil, it would still have other strategic interests in the Gulf such as containing nuclear proliferation. For instance, regardless of oil, it would not want Iran to go nuclear due to Iran’s anti-Americanism, threat to Israel and Arab countries, and connections to groups on America’s terrorist list.   
Second, more importantly, while America’s oil boom is decreasing dependence on foreign oil, it is not decreasing dependence on oil in general. Americans have been consuming more oil over the past decades. Such oil consumption makes the United States vulnerable to global oil markets where the price of oil is determined by oil traders. Even if the United States received no oil from the Persian Gulf, any serious disruptions of oil from that region would raise the price of oil on those markets, for all Americans. And it would also hit the global economy where America trades and has vital economic relations.

Third, an American withdrawal would make it harder to prevent or contain such disruptions, because Washington has played the role of regional gendarme since the British relinquished that role in 1971.  
While the oil boom is positive for America, it is more important to decrease oil consumption than to increase oil production. Seriously decreasing consumption could help Washington diminish its commitments to the Persian Gulf, by making global oil prices less important to the American economy, and it would also address critical security questions of our age such as climate change and global terrorism.


Production support for the Academic Minute comes from Newman’s Own, giving all profits to charity and pursuing the common good for over 30 years, and from Mount Holyoke College.