September 2, 2022
By Stephen Gowans
Commercially, Ottawa’s backing of multilateral sanctions on Russian oil and gas makes sense. Canada is a major oil and gas producer whose corporate sector could benefit from a growing share of the world energy market, one in which Russia is a major rival.
A fortiori, Washington’s championing of the same sanctions also makes sense. The shale revolution has unlocked ample supplies of oil and gas beneath US soil, returning the country to its historic role as an energy superpower. One oil field in Texas is now the second largest in the world.
Sanctions on Russian oil and gas are attractive commercially as a way of eliminating a major rival from the lucrative European energy market. Considering the realities of cutthroat commercial competition, we should consider the ardent support of Washington and Ottawa for sanctions on Russian energy to be part of a great game for economic and strategic advantage.
We might also expect that neither capital is much interested in helping Moscow and Kyiv arrive at a modus vivende, even though a negotiated peace between the two belligerents would end the unnecessary suffering of countless millions of people around the world. With the war in full flower, it’s much easier to maintain sanctions on Russia, and to inveigle Europe to accept them.
It’s understandable, then, that Washington and Ottawa should exploit the war in Ukraine to press Europe to cut its energy ties with Russia. But is it understandable that Europe should go along? After all, sanctions are visiting great harm and suffering on European consumers and businesses. Belgium’s prime minister has warned Europeans to brace for up to five years of hardship.
That hardship largely comes in the form of higher energy prices, the prospects of rationing and business closures this winter, a looming recession, and a declining standard of living.
If and when Europe decouples from Russian energy, and reorients its energy supply to North America and other countries in the US orbit, it will pay higher prices than it pays today. In terms of winners and losers, Europe clearly comes out on the losing end, while a handsome payday awaits corporate North America.
If Europe’s leaders are behaving in a way that benefits investors across the Atlantic at the expense of their own citizens and businesses, it’s because that’s the price subordinate units pay for being part of an empire. The interests of the imperial center prevail. Junior members sacrifice.
Imperialism hurts Europeans in two ways. First, it exposes them to the danger of great power rivalries; these can escalate, by accident or intention, into nuclear war. Second, it subordinates their interests to those of corporate North America.
This isn’t unique to the US empire. The same happens to secondary powers in other imperialist conglomerations. Belarussians and Syrians, for example, may reap rewards from membership in the Russian empire, but they also incur penalties. Both, by virtue of sheltering under Moscow’s aegis, are entangled in a great power competition in which they serve as pawns to be moved about a great chessboard by Kremlin planners whose goal is to protect the Russian king. The interests of the citizens of both countries come second, or matter hardly at all.
A better alternative is the end of great powers and their rivalries. But that means attacking the problem at its root—the ceaseless hunt for profits that plunges states into wars and intrigues to secure for their profit-accumulating enterprises advantages over the profit-accumulating enterprises of other states.