20/12/2005 - 21:00

World enters new power play

20/12/2005 - 21:00

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It has been 200 years since Horatio, Viscount Nelson has lain dead after the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. His flagship, HMS Victory, lives on as a shrine at the Royal Navy base at Portsmouth, England; his memory lives on in the hearts of seafarers.

World enters new power play

It has been 200 years since Horatio, Viscount Nelson has lain dead after the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. His flagship, HMS Victory, lives on as a shrine at the Royal Navy base at Portsmouth, England; his memory lives on in the hearts of seafarers.

Trafalgar Day always gives many of us an appropriate pause to remember Lord Nelson, and also to think on his strategic and leadership lessons.  

It was Nelson’s navy that gave Britain its greatest impetus toward global strategic strength, and yet within decades of his death the shape of British power – and the technologies necessary to project it, keep it, and enrich it – had changed beyond recognition.

What Nelson had bequeathed to Britain were his triumphs and his spirit. This provided the basis for the UK to reach the pinnacle of its wealth and authority in the Victorian era. 

Sic transit gloria mundi: so the glory of the world passes away. Britain’s relative position in the world has declined, and continues to decline, and yet Nelson’s works and his spirit still inspire the shape of the world, and particularly its navies.

But, as Ibn Abd Rabbihi al-‘Iqal al Farid, writing in The Precious Necklace in the 10th century, said: “Slowness which is followed by destruction is preferable to haste which results in winning.” 

‘Decline’ of relative strategic power and ‘progress’ in absolute terms are not mutually exclusive. And ‘slow decline’ in strategic power affords reflection as to the prospect for regeneration: strategic reincarnation. Today, the world is in an ‘age of great transition’ – all options are open. 

Significantly, the options for the fuel of progress moving into the 21st century include some which would have been comprehensible in the age of Nelson.

Wind power, which gave the Royal Navy its strength, is a fuel of growing potency in electrical generation. Biomass – the transformation of renewable, agriculturally-produced materials into energy – will be a fuel of even greater potency in the coming decades, even as the coal and oil, which began to gain importance as motive power fuel only a generation or two after Nelson’s death, remain important. 

As the Royal Navy attempted to consolidate its authority over the oceans of the 19th century, it placed its priorities on coaling stations around the world, and then on access to oil. Britain was remarkably successful in both of these logistical endeavours.

And the British economy mirrored the use of coal and oil as part of the engine of the nation’s economic supremacy. 

Energy strategies remain critical to sustained economic power and security into the future. And yet few governments have a coherent, overarching, integrating, and future-oriented energy plan.

The People’s Republic of China, clearly, is developing a coherent perspective on energy into the coming decades. Most other states have merely continued with the linear development of their existing energy infrastructures, or have shown interest in new technologies as isolated endeavours. 

In energy planning, which is central to economic and strategic success, context is everything.

Perth-based Future Directions International created a study, Australia’s Energy Options, to deter-mine the interrelationships between existing capabilities and options, new technologies and resources, regulatory patterns, and global markets.

The study, released in federal parliament on October 6 2005 began shaping an integrated and contextual energy strategy for Australia. 

What became clear in the preparation of this study was the great variety of energy options open to Australia, and to the world.

Of particular importance is the new viability caused by the constant rise in oil prices for refined biomass, to create ethanol fuel as a supplement or replacement for gasoline.

The concept is not new, but only now is it gaining technological and economic feasibility.

This reality restores power and control to the hands of agricultural nations – Japan, Australia, Western Europe, the Americas. All have great power available to them to transform their agricultural output into fuel for motive power. 

That the world is on the verge of a move toward the ‘age of biology’ for this reason and a host of other scientific advances is evident, as Australia’s Energy Options points out.

But most governments and great industrial concerns remain fixed on the path upon which they were already embarked unless great strategic pressure is placed on them.

South Africa, for reasons of sanctions, and Brazil, for reasons of economics, turned to creative thinking to move away from dependence on imported oil. In South Africa’s case, this led to positive new developments in nuclear power generation, with pebble bed modular reactor technology, which is now being sold to China. 

What became clear during the study was that the nuclear technologies with which the world has been preoccupied for more than a half-century were essentially developed as an adjunct and companion to the nuclear weapons industry.

Now, for the first time, the nuclear power industry is beginning to be driven by market realities, rather than the weapons demands which ensured the primacy of uranium for the first half-century of nuclear thinking. Today, a more ecology- and market-favourable substance – thorium – is likely to govern the next generation of power reactors.

This is dramatically better for the environment, the economics, and the containment of weapons-grade fissile material and nuclear waste, and creates the prospect of reactors which cannot suffer the same meltdown potential of the old-generation reactors. 

Think on this: if safe, cheap reactors can replace coal and oil-fired power stations over the next 50 years, and concurrently be used to desalinate water, how will this affect dependence on international patterns of oil distribution?

If biomass refineries can eliminate the need for many countries to import petroleum, what does this do to the global strategic equation? 

Disbursed, small, thorium-based nuclear reactors can be used to end the age when national grids of electrical power pylons were critical to the distribution of electricity. The new ‘national grids’ will be pipelines to distribute water desalinated by coastal reactors into the hinterlands. These are the technologies which will certainly be used by China. But they could transform the fortunes, viability, and security of the US, Australia, Europe, and many other areas. 

Nelson galvanised the European strategic scene at a time of great competition, chaos, and uncertainty. We are again in an age of upheaval and uncertainty. And the tools to change the balance, and achieve victory are there for all states to grasp.

• Gregory Copley is a founding director of Future Directions International and president of the Washington-based International Strategic Studies Association.

 

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