19 May 2021

The Greening of Geopolitics

By Kamran Bokhari

Geopolitics is a concept that is often invoked. Yet seldom does one find a serious piece of work that advances the conversation on the topic. Books on what an old colleague of mine refers to as ‘applied geopolitics’ are even harder to come by. Hence my state of elation when I discovered Alexander V. Mirtchev’s The Prologue: The Alternative Energy Megatrend in the Age of Great Power Competition.

In this seminal work on the planetary scale of 21st century security challenges, Mirtchev makes brilliant use of a new conceptual prism that he calls the “alternative energy megatrend.” Using this construct as a guide, Mirtchev traces the geopolitical combinations likely to emerge in the coming decades. Much has been written about the multipolarity that is coming to characterize the international system. Until now, however, no one has been able to systematically explain the emergence of a multicentric world order catalyzed by the human quest for alternative energy.

Mirtchev unpacks the growing complexity of international relations in which states are joined by a broad range of non-state actors. The latter include intergovernmental institutions, NGOs, multinational corporations, organized crime syndicates and terrorist entities. These players expand the spaces in which power can be projected and the ways in which it is used. The quest to unlock and exploit the energy sources of the future connects with this growing complexity to upend global balances of power. In the geopolitics to come, foreign policy is no longer just about states trying to maintain territorial integrity. These non-state actors, unlimited by borders, are redefining what national and even international security means through the advancement of a "green creed" and the creation of new global norms about the need for alternative energy sources.

Mirtchev explores how the development of renewable sources of energy are giving rise to this new Grand Energy Game. Hydropower, wind, solar, biofuels, geothermal, tidal, wave, hydrogen, nuclear fusion, the Earth’s magnetic field, and solar from orbit together constitute these alternate renewables. The author describes the potential of each source, and across different time horizons. Mirtchev then emphasizes their collective nature in the form of a megatrend, whose future security trajectory will be shaped by the ongoing Fourth Industrial Revolution and by exponential advances in artificial intelligence.

The book has come in for high praise from no less than leading American statesman Henry Kissinger and William Webster, a former director of both the CIA and FBI. Kissinger describes it a “sweeping exploration of the changing energy landscape looks far into the future and outlines issues that will occupy scholars and policymakers for decades to come.” Retired Marine Corps General James L. Jones, former President Barack Obama’s security advisor, penned the book’s foreword. Gen. Jones describes Mirtchev’s tome as "a timely and truly inspired perspective on 21st century global security challenges" – one that helps disaggregate “the complex relationship between economics, the alternative energy megatrend, security, and defense and the implications for the unfolding major power competition.”

Understanding how access to resources motivates global actors is of perennial importance to strategists. We need only remember how the threat of losing access to essential raw materials drove Japan to attack the United States at Pearl Harbor in 1941. Despite this vivid lesson, Washington has never formulated a national security strategy that blended geopolitical and geoeconomic considerations. Mirtchev’s book goes into excruciating detail to do just that. He explains how great power competition will grow out of geopolitical configurations that are still taking shape. He explains how the falling importance of fossil fuels could hobble states such as Saudi Arabia, with the potential for not only regional but also global upheaval. New socio-political, techno-economic and ideological realities are driving a new global security architecture, and Mirtchev at long last offers a framework for understanding and working within it.

A powerful exposition on the rapidly unfolding geopolitical metamorphosis, The Prologue’s key shortcoming is that it makes for dense reading. This is understandable, however, because it is trying to pull together several different themes. These include universal securitization; the way different alternatives to fossil fuels constitute a global megatrend; the various social, political, economic, technological, and ideological factors shaping this megatrend; the geopolitical, geoeconomic, military, and environmental implications; and the way the great energy game will transform great power competition. Indeed, The Prologue gives one a lot to process but it rewards the reader with a sophisticated sense of the scale and scope of national security and foreign policy challenges in the 21st century and beyond.

Structurally, the book is divided into several parts. The first lays out the global securitization context and introduces the alternative energy megatrend. Part two delves into how the megatrend will shape an increasingly complicated global geopolitical structure involving great powers, newly emergent powers, and non-state actors. The longest section of the book is part three, which goes into considerable detail to describe how the megatrend will shape the various security domains: energy, defense, environmental, and economic. Finally, in part four, the author gives us a sense of the future trajectory of the megatrend and how it shapes key areas of the world and the major players as well as how the United States must prioritize, strategize and craft policies in the light of various scenarios in which great powers will compete.

Mirtchev’s book is a major contribution to strategic forecasting. He offers cutting edge analysis of how the quest for alternative energy in the context of technological advances is leading to the greening of geopolitics. The Prologue prepares us for a world in which today’s disequilibrium leads to outright disruption. It should be required reading in academia (and the broader epistemic community), government, and the private sector.

Dr. Kamran Bokhari is the Director of Analytical Development at the Newlines Institute for Strategy & Policy. Dr. Bokhari is also a national security and foreign policy specialist at the University of Ottawa’s Professional Development Institute. Bokhari has served as the coordinator for Central Asia Studies at the State Department’s Foreign Service Institute (FSI). Follow him on Twitter at @KamranBokhari. The views expressed are the author's own.

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