On November 18, the Georgetown School of Foreign Service welcomed former U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Richard Morningstar for a conversation on energy security in the Caspian region. Prior to the event, GJIA sat down with Ambassador Morningstar to discuss the intersection of energy and geopolitics, legacies from the Soviet Union, and energy security challenges facing Central Asian states.
GJIA: In past interviews, you have stressed how energy security is also political and economic security. Why, if at all, should the United States and Western Europe care about the energy security dynamics of the Caspian region?
RM: I think we have to start by discussing why the United States should be concerned about European or Caspian energy security in the first place. Let me first discuss the relationship between American energy security and that of Europe. Energy security, I argue, assumes a direct relationship to both economic and political security. Europe is the United States’ leading trade and investment partner in the world. A prosperous Europe is important to the United States, and vice versa. Obviously, the United States also has a political interest in the security of Europe given its North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) obligations. Energy security is necessary for Europe to remain economically prosperous, as well as politically secure.
Regarding the Caspian itself, the region has always remained important to the United States. Throughout the 1990s, when Central Asian countries like Azerbaijan and Georgia were newly freed from the Soviet Union, we recognized the importance of maintaining multiple energy routes to support this independence. Proceeding from the Caspian region through the Caucasus, Turkey, and the Mediterranean, these routes play a crucial role in the independence of these countries.
We recognized the importance of the fact that not all pipelines enter through Russia or Iran. Although some pipelines, including the Caspian Pipeline Consortium (CPC), enter Russia from Kazakhstan, this is not the case for all of them. We understood how resources from the Caspian region should not be subjected to solely Iran. We realized that it was important to explore alternative routes like the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline, but also gas sources moving from the Caspian to Europe, in order to help these countries alleviate their dependence on one single supplier, Russia.
As Special Advisor to the President and Secretary of State for Caspian Basin Energy Diplomacy, you remained a staunch advocate for the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) Pipeline. Can you shed some light on the geopolitical and commercial significance of this development?
We acknowledged that the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan Pipeline would help strengthen the independence of Azerbaijan and Georgia—providing an alternative route for Caspian oil that did not enter through Russia or Iran. We understood that the initiative was important in providing Turkey with a larger role among the Caucasus, as well as Central Asian countries, which include many with Turkic backgrounds, such as Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan. This has remained a bipartisan policy ever since.
Given recent developments in climate change and technological advances in renewable energy, what is the most critical energy security issue at stake for states in the Caspian region within the next decade?
Climate change remains a critically important issue. It’s crucial that all countries work together to create an energy mix that will help lower carbon emissions. All countries—whether this is Azerbaijan, Georgia, or Armenia—would benefit from diversifying and maintaining alternative energy sources, including renewable ones. At the same time, oil will be around for quite a while. Oil exports from the Caspian will remain important for many years. Gas is going to be particularly important; from a clean energy standpoint, gas is considerably cleaner than oil and certainly cleaner than coal. I reject the argument that we must move as quickly as possible away from gas, but argue rather that it has to be part of the mix—complementing other technologies like renewables. Oil and gas resources from the Caspian will continue to be important. At the same time, it is necessary to take steps to reduce emissions in these countries and around the world.
While serving as U.S. Ambassador to Azerbaijan, you emphasized how critical Azerbaijan is to America’s strategy to limit Iranian influence in the Caspian region. How do you envision Azerbaijan’s role in the region evolving within the next few years, especially against the backdrop of the ongoing Nagorno-Karabakh conflict?
It’s complicated. Azerbaijan remains a very important country strategically. Baku is a two-hour drive to the Iranian border and a two-and-a-half-hour drive to the border of Dagestan. Strategically, Azerbaijan is in a very important geographical location. It’s important that Azerbaijan remain independent and have its own independent foreign policy. Azerbaijan takes the view that it should maintain good relations with its neighbors, Russia and Iran, as well as with Europe and the United States. From a strategic standpoint, this is necessary. Nagorno-Karabakh complicates that. For twenty five years, countries have been persuading the United States to play a role in settling the Nagorno-Karabakh issue. It has been very difficult. One may argue that the only real indicator of success is that casualties are kept at a minimum, and that open conflict does not break out. Reaching a settlement, however, is incredibly difficult given how entrenched parties are in their views that any settlement has the political issue of losing something.
I am not sure how much Russia wants this to be settled. I don’t believe that Russia wants a major war in the region, but Russia gains leverage when Azerbaijan and Armenia are at odds. Until there is real political will on the parts of both Azerbaijan and Armenia to resolve the matter, a settlement is unlikely to happen. Having said that, we have to ensure that a major conflict does not break out. At the same time, this conflict does not detract from the importance of the strategic location of Azerbaijan relative to Russia and Iran, as well as Central Asia and its role in the Caspian.
As an American diplomat, you have worked with various development organizations. How can and should the United States apply technology in the realm of energy policy to encourage economic development among developing countries?
The United States should work with developing countries to make energy more affordable, reliable, and available to energy-deprived populations. At the same time, the United States should work with developing countries to increase the available energy in a way that is sustainable and considers the need to reduce emissions. This can be realized by working with countries on renewables and developing electrical grids that are more micro-natured, providing smaller communities with energy access on an affordable basis. I believe that we should do research on new technologies that can help the developing world. We should not ignore nuclear energy. Nuclear is low on emissions. The United States should double down on research to see if small modular nuclear reactors can be developed in a way that is efficient and safe, which could be a tremendous opportunity.
Following your tenure as Special Advisor to the President and Secretary of State for Caspian Basin Energy Diplomacy, you served as U.S. Ambassador to the European Union from 1999 to 2001. What are the opportunities and challenges facing the United States and transatlantic relations as Brexit turns into reality?
I would emphasize that U.S.–European Union relations (with or without the United Kingdom) and U.S.–U.K. relations (whether or not it remains in the European Union) are critically important. I’m concerned that over the past few years, so many issues have developed, creating tensions in the relationship between the United States and Europe. It’s important that the United States and the European Union—as well as all other European countries—work together to cooperate on incredibly important issues that require cooperation to bring about significant progress. Without this cooperation, we will make things more difficult.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
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Richard L. Morningstar is the founding Chairman of the Global Energy Center and a board director at the Atlantic Council. He served as the U.S. Ambassador to Azerbaijan from 2012-2014, and as the U.S. Ambassador to the European Union from 1999-2001. Prior to that, Morningstar served as Special Advisor to the President and Secretary of State for Caspian Basin Energy Diplomacy, where he was responsible for promoting American policies on Caspian Basin energy development and transportation. In 1995, he was appointed as Special Advisor to the President and Secretary of State on Assistance to the New Independent States (NIS) of the former Soviet Union. A member of the Council of Foreign Relations, Morningstar received his B.A. from Harvard in 1967 and J.D. from Stanford Law School in 1970.
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