The US is busy reinventing its future – the rest of the world isn’t so lucky

 
John Hulsman

I'VE always been a John Steinbeck/ Bruce Springsteen sort of American. I share their common mantra, "Aren't things terrible here, but I wouldn't want to be anyplace else." Being clear-eyed about the US's failings, while remaining romantic about it at heart isn't easy.

But America's extraordinary capacity to right its ship - to reinvent itself and to change the terms of the world it lives in - is by far the best reason to remain optimistic. Beneath the gloom over the spectacular flaming out of the promise that was President Obama, the good news is that another epic wave of US reinvention is on the horizon.

George Mitchell, the Founding Father of the Shale Revolution, died this July, but his influence will be felt for generations. Convinced that the vast reserves of oil and gas that were trapped in shale rock could be freed for production, Mitchell spent decades experimenting. Finally, his team hit upon the simple expedient of using water to fracture rock, creating pathways for the trapped oil and gas to reach the surface. The modern oil rush was on. States like North Dakota and Texas became energy goldmines again almost overnight.

Shale beds now account for over a quarter of America's natural gas production, compared with a nonexistent 1 per cent in 2000. Astonishingly, according to the International Energy Agency, the supposedly tapped-out US could become the largest producer of oil in the world as soon as 2020, and a net gas exporter.

And this is a gift that keeps on giving. BP predicts that North American shale gas production will increase by 5.3 per cent year-on-year for the next generation until 2030. In 2012, unconventional oil and gas already accounted for $238bn in economic activity, creating 1.7m jobs. Beyond the resurrection of the energy industry, the Shale Revolution (due to the huge competitive advantage of lower energy prices) is turning around sectors supposedly in irretrievable decline, like US manufacturing.

What all this means for the world is by definition a speculative matter, but it is not too early to start mapping out the geopolitics of the Shale Revolution. If America is the big winner, a set of strategic losers can also be easily identified.

Russia: A one-trick economic pony, whose power is entirely dependent on the spot price of oil and natural gas, the shale revolution could well be the last nail in the coffin of Vladimir Putin's Russia. Beset by demographic disaster and endemic corruption, the downward pressure shale will put on energy prices ought to put significant strains on the Russian state, exposing the economic mess beneath the surface in a country unlikely to remain a great power.

Saudi Arabia and the Middle East: the Saudis' dominance of the oil and gas markets will be called into question by shale. The revolution pressures it into a series of unappealing choices. If the Saudis try to maintain market share and pump more oil, global prices may fall. If they cut production (to raise prices), all that may happen is that unconventional sources make up the difference. Either way, Saudi Arabia and the Middle East will prove of lesser interest to the US than they have been for the past 50 years. Such a new reality ought to make the Obama administration's increased concentration on Asia - the only option as a motor for future global growth - a practical reality.

Europe: if the Shale Revolution will doom Russia to second-class status and diminish Saudi Arabia, it will also confirm Europe's geopolitical position as little more than a museum. European industry now pays twice as much for electricity and four times as much for gas as the US. Nor, given its environmental lobby, are European states likely to embrace fracking anytime soon, whatever the economic imperatives. But this is not the only staggering US economic advantage. According to the OECD, on average, supposedly dutiful Germans now work 56 fewer days a year than Americans, while being less productive per hour. In Europe, shale just confirms a whole raft of data signifying that the Titanic has well and truly set sail.

None of this is to say that the US does not have serious problems, particularly its sclerotic political system and undereducated children. But as long as the country retains its economic dynamism, the dollar remains the global currency, and English the global language, the US will still be chairman of the board. For all that the US is now in relative decline, with new powers nipping at its heels, its centrality is nowhere near to being challenged. The Shale Revolution is just another chapter in my country's near-miraculous ability to let innovation remake itself, as well as the rest of the world. Must go, off to listen to The Boss.

Dr John C Hulsman is president and cofounder of John C Hulsman Enterprises (www.john-hulsman.com), a political risk consultancy.
He is a life member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and author of Ethical Realism, The Godfather Doctrine, and Lawrence of Arabia, To Begin the World Over Again.