Should NATO play a major role in energy security?
Gal Luft vs. Christophe Paillard
Gal Luft is executive director of the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security in Washington, DC.
Christophe Paillard is head of the Industrial and Technological Trends Section of the Strategic Affairs Directorate in the French Ministry of Defence.

Dear Christophe,

At a time when energy markets are tight, tension is mounting between energy producers and consumers, and terrorists attack energy facilities worldwide on almost a daily basis, energy security is situated among the top security and economic concerns of most countries. Being a global problem, energy security requires a global treatment and, hence, increased attention by multinational organisations like NATO. This reality has begun to dawn on most NATO members and yet, to date the Alliance has not been able to formulate what should be its role and mission in addressing the growing challenge. Significant progress on the issue is prevented by members' traditional reluctance to expand the Alliance's responsibilities, a preference to see market forces as the main guarantor of energy security, and a concern among some that an increased role for NATO on energy security would send the wrong signal to energy producers, particularly Russia, upon which Alliance members have become increasingly dependent.

NATO must focus on identifying action items which produce added value and that can deliver tangible security gains while coordinating directly with other non-governmental organisations toward the formulation of a common and comprehensive transatlantic energy security policy. In other words, NATO should use both its status as an inter-governmental organisation as well as its comparative advantage over other international organisations-its military capabilities.

In the past 30 years many NATO countries have been involved in several military endeavours aimed to secure energy supply. During the Iran-Iraq War, NATO states secured tanker traffic in the Persian Gulf, and many of them took part in the 1991 coalition to evict the Iraqi army from Kuwait. With so many of the leading oil and gas producers facing political instability, there are several scenarios of military intervention in which NATO could assist in securing energy supply. Countries like Nigeria and Iraq, each producing over 2 million barrels of oil per day, now suffer debilitating domestic conflicts. Other energy producers like Saudi Arabia, Iran, Chad and Sudan face potential turmoil as well. Energy corridors located in areas of increased violence like the Middle East, Africa and Central Asia also pose a challenge to global energy security. A loss of a few million barrels per day for an extended period of time could cripple the world economy. If trouble occurs in any of these places, a rapid deployment of a multinational stabilisation force could be needed. The Alliance should analyse those threats, prepare contingency plans to address them and train and equip its forces accordingly.

The same is true for maritime lanes of communications and strategic chokepoints within NATO's sphere of interest like the Bosporus, the Straits of Gibraltar, the Suez Canal, Bab el Mandeb and the Straits of Hormuz, all of which face increasing threats of terrorist attacks against tanker traffic. The latter chokepoint is particularly at risk as tension with Iran mounts over Tehran's nuclear ambitions. NATO's Strategic Concept already includes elements for the protection of vital supply lines. Implementation of this concept entails enhanced maritime presence and surveillance activities in critical energy transit areas. This would not only enhance energy security but also contribute materially to the fight against illicit activities like piracy, maritime terrorism and smuggling. The Alliance should also address the looming threat of mining of strategic choke points. NATO's mine-sweeping capabilities are currently insufficient to address the possibility of a significant mining operation by either state actors or terrorist groups.

In light of the scourge of energy terrorism, enhancing security of critical energy infrastructure within and outside the Alliance is another mission in which NATO could play an important role
In light of the scourge of energy terrorism, enhancing security of critical energy infrastructure within and outside the Alliance is another mission in which NATO could play an important role. The NATO Forum on Energy Security Technology, an independent conference held in Prague in February 2006, highlighted some of the vulnerabilities of NATO's pipeline system, refineries, nuclear reactors, liquefied natural gas (LNG) facilities and electricity grids. While much has been done in the past five years to improve critical energy infrastructure protection, energy systems on both sides of the Atlantic are still vulnerable. Collaborative efforts with non-member countries such as the Mediterranean Dialogue, the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative and NATO's Partnership for Peace provide a stage for cooperation on energy security with energy producers such as Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan as well as transit states like Georgia.

Finally, the Alliance should use its existing role as a stage for information exchange and security dialogue among alliance and non-alliance militaries and governments to advance discussion on energy security. For example: NATO's militaries strain under historically high energy costs and are therefore increasingly interested in new technologies and efficiency measures that would help them reduce their energy bills and free resources for other uses. The Iraq War has demonstrated that the logistical effort to supply the battlefield with fuel is a serious vulnerability to modern militaries and that fuel saving is no longer a virtue but an operational imperative. NATO can promote information exchange among militaries on oil saving, alternative fuel technologies and efficiency measures to reduce energy use among its militaries.

The new security environment means that interventions in oil producing countries, naval activities along strategic choke points and counterterrorist operations against petro-jihadists who wish to cripple the world economy by going after our energy supply are all but certain. None of the problems facing the world's energy system is transitory, and the energy security challenge is only likely to grow over time. In the coming years, as Senator Richard Lugar, head of the US Senate's Foreign Relations Committee, said on the eve of the Riga Summit, "the most likely source of armed conflict in the European theatre and the surrounding regions will be energy scarcity and manipulation." It is only safe to assume that NATO members will find themselves increasingly engaged in missions that are either directly or indirectly associated with energy security. If energy security is indeed "a NATO-relevant subject," as NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer recently said, it is time for the Alliance to shift from rhetoric to action by first and foremost using its most important tools: its maritime, ground and intelligence capabilities.

But even without a major crisis NATO has a role to play in energy security. The Alliance should do its best to foster discussion among the private sector, NGOs and governments on how to increase stability in the international energy markets and how to mitigate tensions between producers and consumers. It should work to create political solidarity against deliberate disruptions of energy supply as was the case in 2005 when Russia cut its gas supply to the Ukraine and not shy from wielding its political influence and deterrence capability against the use of the energy weapon by producers. The same power and influence should be used to protect the sovereignty and rights of vulnerable producers and transit states. While the degree of NATO's involvement in all of these tasks is an issue worthy of debate, the Alliance can no longer afford to sit on the sidelines of what increasingly looks like the great game of the 21St Century.


Dear Gal,

To recognise that energy security is vital to all is simple. To know who's going to do the job is a much harder task.

For the last 15 years, NATO has been attempting more or less to become a global security organisation, though it still mainly concentrates on the protection of the interests of the United States and its European partners.

By contrast, a purely European strategy for energy security must begin with a simple observation: European energy self-sufficiency is an impossible objective, even in the very long term. Europe's energy consumption will continue to increase by 1 to 2% a year for the next 20 years, which is low compared with Asia's demand but still enough to keep a close eye on any short- and long-term developments in the world of energy provision.

For this reason, energy security has become an issue of increasing importance to Europe. Some energy producers have shown a tendency to use oil and gas for political leverage, especially Russia and Iran. Discussions on energy security have occurred at NATO as a possible new sphere of activity for the Alliance. These discussions are not advanced, however, and the question remains as to what exactly an organisation like NATO can do.

Some members such as France may prefer a greater role for the European Union.

For France, the question is whether a NATO "energy club" would be merely a convenient tool for retaining American influence in Europe. We believe that the bad experience in Iraq, the uncertainties surrounding a new start for the Iraqi oil industry, the possible emergence of heightened commercial rivalry between European and American energy companies, and the need to protect Europe's key energy industries and technologies should not alter NATO's fundamental role of maintaining strong transatlantic defence links and protecting its members from military attacks.

Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty identifies an attack on one member as an attack on them all. This was designed to prevent coercion of a NATO member by a non-member state. However, contrary to the recent comments of US Senator Richard Lugar, there is a difference between an Ally facing a military blockade or other military demonstration on its borders and an Ally being confronted with an energy cut-off due to commercial disagreements, even if the consequences are harsh for the country involved.

In my opinion, it would be reasonable to ask, firstly, what energy security means for the 27 European Union member states, and secondly, what capacity they already have at their disposal to respond to a direct threat to European interests in the world's energy-producing regions before looking for a new role for NATO.

It is much more urgent for Europe to equip itself with the economic, political and military tools that would allow it to defend its energy interests than to engage itself in a messy debate on NATO's potential for a role in energy security.

European energy security cannot be held hostage to the risk of open conflict that an association with NATO would bring. Ultimately, the European Union is the better organisation for the job
In fact, the debate on NATO's role is more illustrative of how European countries fear another conflict between them and the Russians over the energy question than a realistic way to protect energy supplies in the long-term. Some European governments believe that close cooperation with Russia in energy will not lead to energy security. That is why Poland raised both the possibility of signing a European Union energy treaty or, if this process failed, to strengthen the Alliance's role in energy security.

It is true that some subjects of interest to NATO are indirectly linked to energy issues. Maritime terrorism has emerged as a formidable threat in the world, targeting both civilian and naval vessels in NATO's areas of operation, a risk compounded when criminals often in league with terrorists use maritime vessels and shipping lanes. In addition, terrorists could cause massive civilian causalities by employing weapons of mass destruction. NATO's efforts to pre-empt such attacks could become a top priority, making it necessary for the Alliance to expand its maritime frontiers.

When that discussion takes place at NATO, however, it sends the wrong signal to the governments of oil- and gas-producing countries. Many in the Middle East and in Europe, for example, believe that the United States invaded Iraq in part to secure access to its oil. Holding discussions that show the Allies to be contemplating military action to ensure the flow of oil and gas would only encourage the belief that the West intends to exploit the region for its resources.

We in France reiterate the importance of market forces, the interdependence of producers and suppliers, and the need to protect and maintain energy infrastructure. There might, however, be strong popular opposition to any NATO effort to secure energy infrastructure in the countries of Central Asia and the Middle East, were energy disruptions to occur there.

To come to the aid of any member whose energy sources are threatened by using NATO's Article 5 mutual defence clause could lead to a radical re-examination of NATO's defence doctrine. The threat of Article 5's invocation was intended ensure mutual defence, but it also implies the threat of war when it is used. European energy security cannot be held hostage to the risk of open conflict that an association with NATO would bring. Ultimately, the European Union is the better organisation for the job.


Dear Christophe,

While contemplating my response to you, disturbing news arrived on yet another attempt by Russia to cut off oil supplies to Belarus, and hence onward to other European nations. This was the latest in a series of energy manipulations which have included a gas cut-off to Ukraine, mysterious explosions on the gas line to Georgia, and overt pressure on other countries. These are stern reminders that energy security is an urgent matter which can no longer be confined to the realm of theory and debate clubs.

You seem to hedge your bets on the capacity of the European Union "to respond to a direct threat to European interests [.] before looking for a new role for NATO." But judging from the European Union's docile response to these recent challenges, I question its ability to deter suppliers from using energy as a weapon. Irrespective of what the European Union decides to do, NATO, as military institution, is the only multinational body which can provide muscle to the energy security challenge. Such muscle is needed because, as the events of the past five years have demonstrated, energy suppliers are unfazed by hesitant rhetoric. If we want to deter supply cut-offs, extortion, and intimidation, then it's time for a more muscular approach.

Irrespective of what the European Union decides to do, NATO, as military institution, is the only multinational body which can provide muscle to the energy security challenge
To limit NATO's involvement in the energy security debate on the grounds that "it sends the wrong signal to the governments of oil and gas-producing countries" or that it would feed the fallacious perception that the West intends to exploit the suppliers' resources ignores the reality that it is precisely those unprovoked suppliers that are increasingly legitimising the use of energy as a political weapon. We must look at this reality in the face rather than adopting a passive stance when our energy-intensive way of life is being threatened.

Because of its robust nuclear energy industry, France is not so dependent on Russia's gas. It is understandable, then, that France has been the least enthusiastic NATO member when it comes to energy security activism in the Alliance's framework. But for other European countries, imported energy is a matter of national survival and their concerns should be addressed by the Alliance as a whole. This is what Allies are for.

Finally, it would be self-defeating to delude ourselves that market forces can solve the problem. The energy market is anything but a free market. The vast majority of the world's oil and gas reserves are in the hands of governments with little regard for free market principles. OPEC members manipulate prices on a regular basis and talks about the formation of a gas cartel are increasingly heard. While producers clearly try to consolidate their collective power to our detriment, we are still sitting on our hands.

All this doesn't mean that we should automatically resort to the invocation of Article 5 or contemplate the use of force. But not to develop the basic capabilities which could allow us one day to draw the line after diplomacy and market forces have run their course will only invite more of the same. It could also eventually leave many of us in the dark.


Dear Gal,

First, allow me to thank you for returning to the subject of Russia. I do agree with you on the importance of the security of oil and gas supplies flowing from Russia to Belarus and beyond. I completely disagree, however, with your interpretation of the recent crisis. In my view, the recent and temporary cut-off of oil supplies to Belarus has nothing to do with our present debate on energy security.

Let us take a step back. As we all know now, the Russian Federation and Belarus have settled an energy dispute that threatened to disrupt regional oil supplies to Poland and a few countries of central Europe. Previously, Belarus had signed an agreement with Russia which could eventually unite the two countries in a federation; President Lukashenko is believed to harbour ambitions of a high position within it.

Needless to say, President Putin does not look kindly on Lukashenko's ambitions, and this explains in part why the relationship between Russia and Belarus has turned sour. In short, this was a political fight only incidentally connected to the complexities of energy security. The antagonism between Lukashenko and Putin and the complexities of Russian oil and gas exportation to Europe are separate issues, and they should not be confused.

Energy is more a national economic matter than a global political one. All NATO member states chose different ways to ensure their energy security
Allow me to return to our main concern. Frankly, it seems to me that there's a double standard here. When you question the European Union's ability to respond to a possible threat from the outside world, you avoid mentioning whether European countries would have a say on purely American energy security questions. Do you really think that NATO's Article 5 mutual defence clause would be invoked if the United States believed its own energy security to be at stake?

I for one really doubt that European concerns on greenhouse gas emissions, climate change and environmental security are high on the White House agenda. Environmental security is no joke: it has an impact on African and European relations, on levels of immigration towards Europe, and so forth. On such subjects that are vital for European energy security, there is, alas, no common ground between Europe and the United States. Because of that unfortunate but undeniable bifurcation of interests, the European Union, and not NATO, should take the lead regarding European energy security.Finally, energy is more a national economic matter than a global political one. And the example you gave about the French nuclear industry is interesting. In the 1960s and 1970s, France had the political will to implement such a solution for its energy needs. All NATO member states chose different ways to ensure their energy security. And there was no need to use NATO to do it.

I understand, as you do, the concerns of our central and eastern European friends regarding their energy security. Though Russia is a problem for the Baltic countries, they have realised that, ultimately, energy security comes only from investment and supply diversification. The Lithuanians settled last spring on an agreement to open a new joint nuclear power plant with Latvia, Estonia and Poland. It would be a real alternative to Russian oil and gas and much more practical than a hypothetical NATO security umbrella, at least where energy supplies are concerned. Investment and diversification are the real keys to European energy security, and they will lead us to the light.


Dear Christophe,

Let me address your main concern: the divide between the U.S. and Europe on energy matters and whether Europeans will have a say on "purely American energy security questions." If there is a double standard here, it is not the one that you identify. Although most US electrical needs are generated from domestic sources, the US transportation sector is heavily dependent on foreign oil, as is Europe. Yet, it is the U.S. that carries most of the burden of protecting the increasingly threatened energy supply lines and regions of production to the tune of $50-60 billion annually in a non-war year. In other words, the United States provides energy protection services to the rest of the world, Europe included.

Treating energy as a pure economic matter is vestige of the past. The reality we are facing now requires us to adopt a new set of tools and military force should certainly be one of them
Regarding the environment, your suggestion that the United States doesn't share EU concerns is a popular narrative that doesn't stand up to reality. Truth be told, between 2000 and 2004, CO2 emissions growth in the U.S. was 2.1% while the European Union's stood at 4.5%. Clearly, the United States must be doing something right.

More profoundly, you seem intent upon framing the argument as a dispute between the United States and Europe. But many European countries-Poland, in particular, comes to mind-seem to view energy security as a transatlantic issue that deserves NATO involvement. In the end, the commonality of our interests on energy security is simply overwhelming. And your unfortunate and, in my view, ill-informed anathema to the 'White House agenda' is irrelevant to what's at stake.

Let's be plain: focusing on transatlantic differences will not further our cause, especially if those differences pale in importance compared to the interests that we share. Both the American and European economies are heavily dependent on the uninterrupted supply of affordable energy and will continue to be so. Yet energy supply is increasingly at risk.

I wish I could agree with your view that "energy is more a national economic matter than a global political one." Unfortunately, in recent years there have been ample reminders that this is not the case. Jihadist terrorists determined to bring down Western economies have set their sights on our energy supply. We also witness threats, intimidation and extortion by major energy producers.

Consumers, for their part, increasingly allow energy considerations to shape their foreign policy. The reason the West is unable to curb Iran's nuclear ambitions or to stop the genocide in Sudan has much to do with China's growing dependence on energy coming from those countries. Treating energy as a pure economic matter is vestige of the past. The reality we are facing now requires us to adopt a new set of tools and military force should certainly be one of them. No doubt we should let market forces work, increase international energy cooperation, diversify sources and invest in strategic reserves, but neglecting to develop our ability to intervene militarily when all else fails would be irresponsible.


Dear Gal,

While it is true that the United States protects vast maritime routes, I should also remind you that a few European states, including France and the United Kingdom, are also doing part of the job. When the USS Cole was bombed in Yemen on October 12, 2000, the French Indian Ocean Naval Force, which protects the Bab El Mandeb maritime route, was the first on the scene to help and rescue our Allies.

Truly, energy is a global problem, but again, most solutions are local or regional. Take the example of gas. For the time being, eighty-eight per cent of Russian gas is exported to Europe and as well as sixty per cent of its oil production. Thirty per cent of Europe's gas consumption is imported from Russia, as well as fifteen per cent of its oil consumption.

While it is true that the United States protects vast maritime routes, I should also remind you that a few European states, including France and the United Kingdom, are also doing part of the job
By contrast, the American gas market is almost independent from the outside world. The United States imports eighteen per cent of its gas needs from Canada and Trinidad. European energy troubles, then, have nothing to do with American energy questions. For this reason, I do not understand why NATO should be a go-between for Europe and Russia, when Russian supply problems stem not from political ill will but from a lack of Russian investment into higher levels of production.

Let me expand on this last point. The three main gas fields of Western Siberia are probably going to run out of gas before 2012 because the return of the old régime is turning the energy sector into a new Gosplan in which serious decisions are often postponed. This is not a transatlantic security problem but a domestic Russian political and economic problem. Our task is to help, as well as we can, the last elements of democracy that remain, a job better suited for the European Union than for NATO.

You mentioned Poland, and indeed, the Poles are very concerned about their sovereignty when it comes to energy security matters. Referring to a proposed natural gas pipeline connecting Russia and Germany, Radek Sikorski, the Polish defence minister, even said last May that "Poland has a particular sensitivity to corridors and deals above our head [sic]. That was the Locarno tradition, that was the Molotov-Ribbentrop tradition. That was the 20th century. We don't want any repetition of that." While I understand the seriousness of Poland's predicament, this kind of overreaction does not help.

Poland's main desire - mirroring French and German concerns - is to buy gas at a reasonable price. To do this, we have to convince Russia to agree to develop its oil and gas sectors. I support, for that reason, Angela Merkel's recent attempts to convince President Putin to sign a strategic agreement on the security of energy supplies.

China is a different matter. I hope you do not have in mind using NATO to prevent China's emergence as one of the two economic superpowers. That is neither necessary, nor desirable.

In conclusion, allow me to remind you that not all criticisms of the US position inside NATO should be considered an attack upon the transatlantic relationship. As others have said, a good friend tells you when you're wrong.