WASHINGTON, D.C. -- A former ambassador to Tanzania praised the goals behind a coming Obama administration energy initiative in Africa while another former ambassador warned of possible competition between China, Russia and other nations over a new Arctic sea lane opened by climate change.
Former ambassadors Mark Green and Tom Loftus appeared at a WisPolitics.com/WisBusiness.com event Wednesday night at George Washington University to discuss the role of energy in U.S. foreign policy. Both are former state Assemblymen and candidates for governor; Green, a Republican, served under George W. Bush, while Loftus, a Democrat, served under Bill Clinton. They were joined by retired Rear Admiral Neil Morisetti, the United Kingdom's climate and energy security envoy.
Loftus said the United States is behind in grasping the importance of what he called "a new silk road" between Europe and Asia that cuts up to 40 percent off the time it takes for ships to travel to Asia via the Suez Canal. Russia is claiming control of the northern route, which could have a shipping season akin to the Great Lakes with the help of a modern icebreaking fleet. The U.S., meanwhile, is short on icebreakers but long on distraction.
"We are stuck in the camel caravan countries, and that's a problem," said Loftus. " We need to catch up." He urged a stronger U.S. naval presence in pushing for the northern route to be international waters along with recruiting help from Norway. "(Norwegians) will not be distracted," he said. "We are easily distracted. We are sort of sequestered in place."
Green, president and CEO of the Initiative for Global Development in Washington, said President Obama will be traveling this summer to Senegal, Tanzania and South Africa to unveil a new energy initiative that will focus, in part, on the private sector. Green said energy is key to Africa's development and health, adding while he'll reserve final judgment on the Obama initiative until he sees the details he likes the goals and overall purpose.
"I think it's hard for Americans to appreciate how great the energy deficit is throughout the continent," he said. "In Tanzania, where I served, only 14 percent of citizens have access to electricity. In Kenya, Uganda and Ethiopia, it is one out of every five."
Without reliable energy, he said it's impossible for these countries to rise economically, even though many are blessed with abundant raw materials.
"Development isn't just about having raw materials," he said. "It's also about being able to process them, manufacture and add value in the process. But how do you do that without a reliable, dependable electric grid?
"On top of that, how do you have access to what's happening around the world in this Internet economy if you don't have reliable electricity?
"And third, the lack of reliable electricity makes the rest of our programs in Africa far less effective. The largest part of our foreign assistant is in global health" dealing with problems like malaria and AIDS, he said. "But it's very hard to get over the finish line if you don't have refrigeration."
The former Green Bay-area congressman also said protecting the continent's environment depends on developing new energy technologies. That's because now many Africans cook over open fires, which is inefficient, highly polluting and leads to dangerous deforestation.
Green said one of the most important reasons for the Obama reason to take this up is American companies "know how to do this. We have in the private sector a number of businesses that are very good at building energy capacity. This is something that we can add and make a difference."
Morisetti said Britain, which is now an exporter of energy because of North Sea resources, will become a net importer by 2020.
"Energy and foreign policy will be linked forever," he said. "The sea routes need to be protected… but we will need a new model."
He agreed with Loftus that Russian control over the northern route through the Arctic may become a "flash point."
Loftus said the Russian port of Murmansk is developing rapidly. He also noted that China's government and business community have made stronger ties to Iceland -- with the intention of making sure its energy supply lines are protected.
The conversation also briefly touched on growing oil and gas production in the United States, which some experts have said could lead to U.S. energy independence by 2030 and negate the need for this country to rely on volatile Middle Eastern countries for oil.
But Loftus said the United States, as the globe's major power, has diplomatic agreements that require it to guarantee other countries' access to oil. Potential U.S. energy independence wouldn't change those commitments, he said.