Oil, The Persian Gulf, and Grand Strategy

Contemporary Issues in Historical Perspective

by Ian O. Lesser


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Two distinct and competing traditions, the autarkic-continental and the liberal-maritime, have played a key role in shaping grand strategy toward economically vital regions such as the Persian Gulf. These two traditions have historically differed in three main ways: how they view the overseas supply of resources (liability vs. asset), their preferred strategy of access to vital regions (continental vs. maritime), and their impetus for action (geopolitical vs. vital interests). The author reaches a number of conclusions with implications for U.S. policy: (1) effective strategy toward the Persian Gulf and its oil resources has always been developed in the context of broader, grand-strategic objectives; (2) resource-related needs and objectives have tended to be determined by broader strategic aims, not vice versa; (3) the coalition approach to Persian Gulf security that has characterized U.S. strategy since the Carter Administration is within the Anglo-American liberal-maritime tradition regarding access to economically vital areas; (4) the perception of the Persian Gulf as an area of vital interest has remained constant and is not simply the result of its oil production; and (5) the rise of powerful regional actors (e.g., Iran, Iraq) is new, but it does not mean that U.S. freedom of action will be constrained or that the need for military power will be reduced.

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