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Book review: ‘The New Map’ by Daniel Yergin

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Charting the massive influence energy has on shaping global geopolitics in the 21st century.

As Pulitzer Prize-winning author and scholar Daniel Yergin points out in the introduction to this substantive, well-written and timely book, his latest work is about a new global order, shaped by recent dramatic developments (and those include the ongoing coronavirus pandemic) in energy and geopolitics.

Reading ‘The New Map: Energy, Climate, and the Clash of Nations’ (Allen Lane, £25, ISBN 9780241472347), I couldn’t avoid making comparisons with another recent publishing hit – Tim Marshall’s best-selling ‘Prisoners of Geography’. But if Marshall’s main mission was to put the ‘geo’ back into ‘geopolitics’, Yergin’s task is quite the opposite and much more challenging – to bring the politics of energy back into geography, i.e. into the unstable and constantly altering ‘new map’ of the world. It has to be said that he has coped with that massive task admirably.

In two of his previous award-winning titles, ‘The Prize’ and ‘The Quest’, Yergin singled out oil and climate respectively as the main driving forces of global politics. ‘The New Map’ focuses on an ongoing energy revolution that has so far resulted not just in discovering new energy sources, but also in the emergence on the global political arena of such powerful players as China, Russia and Iran and the start of a new Chinese-American ‘energy Cold War’.

Yergin speaks repeatedly of the so-far peaceful Chinese incursions into US energy markets – both foreign and domestic. He vividly describes, for example, a seemingly innocuous visit paid by Wang Jinshu, the chairman of Yuhuang Chemical Corporation with headquarters in China’s Shadong Province, to the small rural parish of St James in Louisiana on Christmas Eve 2015. In his ‘satchel’, the Chinese Santa carried a massive and previously unseen investment – $1.9bn to build a chemical facility. A welcome ceremony was held in a local high school, which the Chinese guest promised to help modernise too.

Yet the real attraction of St James for the Chinese was not the high school, but the pipeline with inexpensive shale gas running through Louisiana. The company calculated that it would be cheaper for it to take over the pipeline and, having made the chemicals in situ in Louisiana, ship them home rather than build a similar facility back in China.

Yergin regards this episode as part of America’s manufacturing revival – an “unconventional revolution” in which traditional manufacturers and consumers have swapped sides, and the habitual geopolitical map of the world has as a result been drastically redrawn. He even suggests (semi-jokingly and rather provocatively) introducing a new term denoting the world’s leading powers to replace all those rather confusing G8, G7 and G20. Yes, you’ve got it right: G2 stands for just two countries – the USA and China, which together represent about 40 per cent of the world’s GDP and 50 per cent of its military spending.

What about Putin’s Russia, which is at present bending over backwards to maintain its crumbling political authority with the help of what I would call ‘energy blackmail’?

In a chapter titled ‘Rebalancing of Geopolitics’, Yergin analyses (among other things) Russia’s complicated and dysfunctional relationship with Germany – one that’s rather like a bad marriage – noting the obvious “lack of chemistry” between Putin and Merkel during one pre-pandemic international economic forum. No wonder. For many years Germany was happy to let Russia get away with a lot in exchange for cheap gas. Yet even that seems to be changing.

Merkel, unlike some of her predecessors, categorically refused to have any stakes or interests in Gasprom and Russia’s other energy giants. The latest evidence of her reluctance to kowtow to Putin, too recent to have been included in this reviewed book, is the warmth and hospitality she showed to Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalniy during his treatment for alleged poisoning in Berlin. A similar anti-Putin trend is gaining ground in Ukraine, which is slowly but surely liberating itself from the tightening noose of Russia’s gas and oil pipelines snaking across its long-suffering land.

We now live in a world where every conflict and every political development has a direct effect on energy markets. And vice versa. I liked the heading of Yergin’s concluding chapter – ‘The Disrupted Future’. Written, it seems, in a bit of a hurry to accommodate the latest dramatic developments in the global arena, it poses not just a million-dollar question, but a 90-trillion one equivalent to the value of the entire global economy: “Will the Covid-19 crisis speed an energy transition or slow it?” In other words, are we in for a dark future – in more than one sense – or a green recovery?

In contrast to other, more optimistic, scholars and writers, Yergin’s forecast is rather grim. One certainty for him is that “the struggles over the climate” will continue. In our tempestuous “era of rising tensions and fragmenting global order,” he also predicts a sinister sounding “clash of nations”, which to me sounds like a thinly camouflaged euphemism for World War Three.

I sincerely hope that history (or should I say the future?) will prove Yergin wrong on that particular count.

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