One of the many achievements of this book is to include the pandemic in its analysis — Yergin must have thought he had finished writing in January. Yet the pandemic is only one new shock to the system; more will certainly be on the way. Yergin ominously compares the present US policy towards China — “a strategic competitor using predatory economics,” says the Department of Defense — to the British and German naval build-up prior to the First World War. Since General Motors sells more cars in China than America, this approach is not only potentially lethal, it is also bad business. China passed the US as the world’s biggest car market in 2009.
These notes of glibness reflect the fundamental problem with the book: telling a single story out of such a vast array of places, trends, dates and people. It is one thing to point out surprising connections, harder to weave them into a coherent picture. Russian foreign policy, for example, is certainly influenced by trends in the international oil and gas markets. So too is the US-China relationship. But it would be wrong to think that these factors are decisive in what Yergin thinks are looming new cold wars. His main point is that things are changing faster than we realise.
Readers of The Quest, Yergin’s 2011 follow-up to The Prize, will find some of the new book’s terrain familiar. A little too familiar in parts. Many of the companies and characters we meet in The Quest, such as George Mitchell and Devon Energy, the Oklahoma group that eventually bought his company, make a reappearance in The New Map. There is, nonetheless, much to admire elsewhere. In chapters on China, the Middle East and Russia, Yergin offers sprightly insights for any general reader seeking to understand tensions in the South China Sea and the strife-torn Middle East or the background to Vladimir Putin’s efforts to restore Russia to great power status. The role of oil and gas remains a central theme throughout.