What does a freshly baked Cronut from NYC have to do with human rights abuses in South Asia? To many Americans, the combined flakey-doughy flavor explosion is a conflict-free indulgence.

Yet, domestic, regional and geopolitical motivations guide the production and regulation of the processes that make the Cronut possible. From where, for example, does the Cronut fryer draw its energy?

Projects, such as the Spectra pipeline—which supplies millions of barrels of controversial, hydrofracked natural gas to New York City through Manhattan’s West Village neighborhood—are far removed from the consumer’s understanding of how their desired (fried) good or service is related to energy politics. But, they are the very reason we have the luxury to utilize products that require the usage of energy, such as natural gas.

The Cronut—like nearly all commodities—does not exist in a political vacuum.

Domestic pipelines and their international counterparts not only influence where we are able to find an abundance of pastries, but mold the very geopolitical interactions that direct foreign policy.

The Fuel for the Cronut Fryer

There is no reason why the average American would be able to locate the Caspian Sea on a map. (Geography, it seems, is not one of our strong suits.)

Yet today, business deals that take place in the region not only connect oil and gas tycoons to Central and South Asian leaders, but shape relationships between heads of the world’s most powerful states, fuel decades-long feuds, and impact the human rights of those states’ citizens.

An important element of the Caspian Sea power rivalry is the construction of (and investment in) pipelines, which allow transit states to amass a variety of political and financial gains, such as “access to oil and gas for domestic consumption, foreign investment and jobs, and transit fees,” according to Iranian political scientist, Mahmoud Ghafouri. More importantly, the presence of pipelines serves as bartering power between the host state and other investors and buyers.

For the United States, the advantage extends further. U.S. officials and their transnational corporate counterparts will tell you additional pipelines (read: non-Russian) will increase competition and serve as a benefit to consumers. What the American-run pipelines actually do is maintain a check on Russia’s energy monopoly in the region, contain Iran’s influence (if pipelines avoid Iranian passage), and diversify energy supply for the U.S.’s partner nations.

International maritime disputes and geopolitical gridlocks have prohibited the full development of Caspian Sea resources. But movement to actualize proposed projects is under way.

The proposed Trans-Caspian Pipeline (TAPI)—which would run from Turkmenistan, through Afghanistan and Pakistan, and end in India—would help satisfy Pakistan’s energy deficiency, promote peaceful interaction between Pakistan and India, and diversify India’s energy supply, according to the Oil and Gas Journal.

Photo credit: TwoCircles.net

Yet, a more pointed analysis looks at exactly who benefits from the construction of the pipelines. Or moreover, it examines the ways in which people suffer to ensure a political environment friendly enough to allow private deals.

No Frills Imperialism

Mike Whitney, writing for the alternative political magazine Counterpunch, views pipeline construction from a darker vantage point. For Whitney, political insecurity is a key factor in the ability of U.S. corporations—as well as other international and state-owned companies—to exploit foreign resources.

Through this lens, instability and chaos beget financial profit. “It’s easier to steal whatever one wants when there is no central power to resist,” he writes. While the Wall Street Journal dubbed the TAPI pipeline as one “that could keep peace in Afghanistan,” Whitney calls American ownership of the project by a U.S. conglomerate an example of “stripped-down, no frills 21st century imperialism.” (Chevron and ExxonMobil are vying to become consortium leaders.)

Examining political security in Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India might actually confirm Whitney’s connection between resource extraction sites and political volatility.

The Corruption Index

All four countries represented in the TAPI pipeline are in the bottom (more corrupt) half of Transparency International’s global Corruption Index, which measures the perceived levels of public sector corruption by state. Two of the four proposed pipeline countries—Turkmenistan and Afghanistan—are in the bottom ten.

It would be speculative to say the reason for pipeline development in any of the four proposed countries is due to a desire to manipulate politically corrupt states. It is, however, important—from a U.S. policy perspective—to consider the ways in which financial support (investment and development) for corrupt governments encourages politically amoral behavior.

For example, Afghanistan has the fourth-highest risk of human rights abuse, as shown by Maplecroft’s Human Rights Risk Index; Pakistan is ranked fifth. As the U.S. State Department continues to support developments of the TAPI pipeline—citing the enhancement of regional growth and U.S. security as reasons for its advocacy—we must consider whether this also tacitly condones human rights abuses by corrupt governments.

Photo credit: Flickr Creative Commons

Yet, natural gas politics are not as simple or clear-cut as Mike Whitney would have us believe.

While the development of natural gas (and oil) pipelines has the potential to enrich corrupt regimes, failure to develop energy outlets will further weaken governments and exacerbate existing shortage crises.

In India, for example, 40 percent of the country’s 1.2 billion people—70 million households—have no access to electricity at all. For these families, expanding energy supplies is crucial.

As natural gas pipelines continue to be developed in Central and South Asia, we (as constituents and shareholders) must consider the long-term damage that arises from the U.S. endorsement of these arguably corrupt governments. These regimes infringe upon human rights and perpetuate a system of patronage politics, in which only a slim portion of society sees monetary gain.

If not, we risk marginalization of large chunks of the population—and radicalization not far behind.

So, next time you wait in line for that butter-infused Cronut, think not only about which flavor will rock your world, but how your breakfast is connected to pipeline politics—whether through fracking tactics in the U.S. or via human rights infringements in the Caspian Sea.