Without a doubt, the Ukraine crisis has gone global. The U.S. is reaching out to trusted allies, near and far. The emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamin bin Hamad Al Thani, has been invited to the White House today to confer with President Biden about saving another ally from possible ruin: the feckless European Union.
Despite this seemingly complicated diplomatic interplay, the reason for this unconventional strategy is simple enough. Qatar boasts the world’s second largest liquified natural gas (LNG) export capacity, and the United States ranks third. Together, they are trying to make up the difference in case Russia, the world’s sixth largest exporter, turns off the taps on Europe, or Gazprom, the Russian gas behemoth, is sanctioned. If Russia were to invade Ukraine, and significant sanctions were then put in place by the West to punish the Kremlin, playing the energy card would become Russia’s geo-economic weapon of choice.
The EU has been warned by political risk analysts about finding itself in precisely this fix for years — that the Kremlin someday could weaponize its gas pipelines flowing into Europe. Russia supplies 40 percent of the EU’s natural gas, and the share is even greater for Germany, the economic motor of Europe and the continent’s single most important country. Such Russian domination of Europe’s energy needs provides it with a foreign policy near-veto over the EU, automatically limiting how hard Europe and Germany can decide to crack down on their primary gas supplier.
For the past generation Europe was preoccupied with abandoning fossil fuels, as it obsessed about global warming, yet it blindly let itself become utterly dependent on Russian natural gas. Russian President Vladimir Putin started limiting the gas supply to Europe last autumn. As a result, the EU is in great danger of suffering through its worst energy crisis in memory, which could plunge Europe’s fragile economies into deep recession.
This is where Qatar comes in. President Biden reportedly has asked the emir to reroute his country’s massive natural gas exports toward a stricken Europe, should this prove necessary. Qatar, by far the world’s lowest cost producer of LNG and a staunch American ally, is prepared to discuss doing so, but the process of saving Europe from itself will be difficult. In 2011, following the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan, Qatar — citing the special circumstances — rerouted natural gas supplies to aid Tokyo. Biden will need to persuade the emir that the current conditions represent a threat of a similar magnitude.
The White House also will have to leverage the approval of Qatar’s primary Asian natural gas importers — Japan, South Korea, India and Pakistan — to make such a dramatic energy move. This is inherently tricky because most of the world’s natural gas supply is bound up in long-term deals. Fortunately for the U.S., most of these importers are allies and at least will be open to Biden’s pitch.
Even with Qatar’s steadfast support, and assuming the Gulf state’s natural gas importers are receptive to the Biden administration’s policy pitch — a big if — further diversification will be necessary to rescue Europe. The Biden administration is working with increasingly frantic European allies to find additional natural gas suppliers in North Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia, and in the U.S. itself.
Still, all of these policy efforts put together are not enough to immediately substitute for a large disruption in the natural gas supply from Russia. Hopefully, the cumulative effect of these energy moves might be enough to diffuse a ticking economic time bomb.
Finding workarounds for Russia’s energy stranglehold on Europe will require complex multilateral diplomacy, and goodwill. It also will require allies, such as the Qataris, willing to meet Washington more than halfway. The emir’s visit makes him the first head of state in the Gulf region to personally visit the White House during Biden’s administration, an indicator of how close the U.S.-Qatar relationship has become, and a potent illustration of the power a low-cost energy producer has in our fragmented world. The emir of Qatar is wading into the roiling, shark-infested waters of great power competition — a clear sign of Qatar’s ambitions and a big test of its alliance with the U.S.
However, even as some allies are rightly rewarded, others must take heed. A brutal rule lies at the heart of international relations: Either you master history, or history masters you. Europe has nonsensically ignored its own energy dependence on the rival next door and now is paying the price.
A precondition of Europe being saved from itself must involve a real rethinking of its entire energy policy, which is painfully overdue. Such a new policy direction would see that natural gas (as well as nuclear power) is an important step on the road to ultimately dealing with climate change, and one that also values security of supply, because in the end geopolitics fundamentally matters.
Those who may save Europe from the consequences of its ruinous energy policy — including the U.S. and Qatar — must be rewarded as the continent diversifies away from its unhealthy dependence on Russian natural gas. After all, there is a limit to the number of times that the Old Continent can be saved from itself.
This post was originally published in The Hill.