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In the first of a series of 'Perspectives on Geopolitics' - a number of provocative reflections from participants of MCC Brussels' landmark conference 'The Return of Geopoltics? Europe a year after Russia's invasion of Ukraine' - Dr Ralph Gert Schöllhammer examines the cultural underpinnings of geopolitics and the central nature of energy policy in geopolitical discussions. 

Geopolitics, Energy and Culture: Confronting Europe's choices

The Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire is often told as a story of economics or military tactics, but the main reason why the constantly outnumbered conquistadores around Cortés could bring down an ancient empire is cultural. The Aztecs could have killed Cortés and his troops quite easily, but they decided not to. They believed it would be better to capture the invaders alive and then sacrifice them to their Gods, bestowing great honour on the Aztec warriors.

Montezuma and others had to learn the hard way an eternal truth of politics, which is that everything involves trade-offs. The native tribes of Mesoamerica could have opted for the swift and merciless destruction of foreigners landing on their shores, but instead decided to give priority to religious rules over military wisdom. 

The war in Ukraine has revealed that Europe finds itself in a similar dilemma, since at least some of the factors enabling Russia’s war of aggression were a direct consequence of the adherence to “religious” principles, by some EU member states, instead of realist power politics. 

The religious principles of Europe have been revolving around the idea that after (supposedly) having overcome the evils of nationalism and power politics, the world no longer needs saving from war and inter-state competition. Instead, we should focus on the issue of climate change. The futurist Parag Khanna called the EU the first “Metrosexual Superpower” that would transcend geopolitics and unify the world through the sheer power of its “style.” 

The move away from fossil fuels and towards renewables – particularly wind and solar – became an integral part of this new ideology, reflected by the growing role of Green parties all over Western Europe. It turned out, however, that Europe was also moving away from energy independence, and thereby handed significant leverage to its geopolitical competitors. 

Oil, coal and gas remain the world’s main sources of primary energy, accounting for over 80% of worldwide consumption, because the current level of technology simply does not offer feasible alternatives in the short to medium run. Contrary to what one might believe, energy transitions are slow moving, and speeding up the transition would only be possible through a massive reduction of available energy – which in turn, can only be achieved by a massive reduction in living standards. 

In many ways, the history of human development is a history of constantly getting better in using and transforming energy. Every activity that can be moved from being accomplished by muscle power to machinery, frees human beings to do something else in addition to the original task being fulfilled by technology. To take a basic example, humanity saved hours upon hours once wind or water mills were used to grind grain into flour instead of our two hands. Time and money were saved and the production costs for flour and bread began to fall. 

Even slavery and servitude were ultimately defeated by the steam engine and the industrial revolution, making human labour an inefficient and unreliable source of available energy in many areas. Most of us rely on a dishwasher, and use a washer dryer, to avoid domestic drudgery or hiring household servants. This only works because we have plenty of power outlets in our apartments that supply us with electric energy every second of every day, provided by power plants and a sophisticated electric grid. The more energy we have at our disposal, the more time becomes available to us that we can use for activities that are more lucrative. 

This basic connection still holds. If we want to replace the often-dirty sources of energy with cleaner (but less reliable) ones the production of goods and services will once again become more expensive. Developing nations are fully aware of this, which is why China is expanding its coal powered energy production at breakneck speed (despite the occasional large-scale renewables projects that are often more propaganda than a key element in Beijing’s energy strategy). 

Europeans, of course, should have known it as well. Before the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, 45% of EU countries' total gas imports, more than half of coal imports, and significant quantities of crude oil and petroleum products came from Russia. The hope in Brussels that an end of geopolitics would mean Moscow would never use this advantage was futile. 

This reflects a larger problem. Despite continued references to diversity and plurality, the EU and Western Europe were caught unaware that there is indeed a diversity of ideas in the world. In particular, the Russian leadership around Vladimir Putin has not signed up to the postmodern/post-historical vision focused on saving the world’s climate while neglecting national interests as a sort of reactionary politics. Alas, it seems as if the reactionaries will be having the last word after all: with its dependency on resources and markets from either authoritarian regimes (Russia and China) or the United States’ expensive liquefied natural gas, Europe still has to learn that its moralistic rhetoric is not backed up by the necessary degree of realism.

The green transition is still the leading dogma among EU politicians, which brings us back to the beginning of this essay. One cannot be a global power and simultaneously depend in all crucial areas on either competing or hostile powers. From minerals for its renewables, fossil fuels for its industry, markets for its products, to migration (to balance out the devastating demographic trends in Europe) the old continent is nowhere near to self-sustainability. Even worse, the few countries that realized the problems of the dominant dogma – like Poland and Hungary – soon found themselves ostracized by their European partners. And this will be the decisive question of the future: can the EU and its member states make the necessary course corrections and adapt to a changing world, or will they double down on an ideology that will ultimately be self-defeating? The Aztecs had to confront a similar conundrum and we know how it ended. 

Dr. Ralph Schöllhammer is a Senior Lecturer at Webster Vienna Private University 

MCC Brussels aims to promote genuine dialogue and debate about the key issues facing Europe. We are committed to publishing a diverse range of voices. These articles represent only the views of their authors, and do not neccessarily represent the official position of MCC Brussels, MCC, its employees or partners.