ISSUE 40
WINTER 2002/03
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resource wars

 
 


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EVER SINCE the Cold War’s end, political analysts of all persuasions have attempted to identify the central defining principle of the new international environment-what Thomas Friedman termed ‘The One Big Thing.’ Several authors have attempted to identify this ‘one big thing,’ most prominently: Samuel Huntington, who claims that global security dynamics will be governed by a ‘clash of civilisations’; Robert Kaplan, who vividly depicts a world overtaken by population excess and anarchy; and Friedman himself, who, in The Lexus and the Olive Tree, argues that economic ‘globalisation’ has become the world’s dominant feature. Each of these explanations has something to contribute to our understanding of international dynamics, and each has entered into the global policy debate; none, however, provides a fully satisfactory analysis of current world affairs.

Huntington’s thesis of a global clash of civilisations assumes that states will develop their security policies on the basis of loyalty to a particular religious or ‘civilisation’ community-the Christian West, the Orthodox Slavic bloc, the Islamic world, and so on. ‘Conflict between civilizations,’ he explains, ‘will be the latest phase in the evolution of conflict in the modern world.’ But while some recent developments, such as the fighting in Bosnia and Kosovo, appear to confirm this assertion, others do not. Especially noteworthy is the fervent pursuit of resources in total disregard of any ‘civilisational’ loyalties. In the Caspian area, for example, the United States has aligned with three Muslim states-Azerbaijan, Turkey, and Turkmenistan-against two predominantly Christian ones, Armenia and Russia. A similar pattern can be seen in other areas where resource interests outweigh ethnic and religious affiliations.

Similarly, the outbreak of violence and anarchy in Africa, as predicted by Kaplan, has failed to discourage the major energy firms from establishing lucrative oil operations in these areas, or from developing effective security arrangements with local elites and warlords. In 1999, for example, American oil companies announced major new exploration and production ventures in such troubled states as Angola, Chad, and Nigeria. Similarly, while Friedman’s theory of globalization goes a long way toward explaining the current primacy of economic relations in international affairs, it assumes that major resource disputes will be resolved through market mechanisms-thus ignoring the fact that governments have repeatedly gone to war over what they view as ‘vital national interests,’ including oil and water supplies.

Clearly, it is not possible to explain the dynamics of global security affairs without recognising the pivotal importance of resource competition. For almost every country in the world, the pursuit or protection of essential materials has become a paramount feature in national security planning. While the competition for resources may not be ‘The One Big Thing’ that lies at the heart of all international relations, it helps explain much of what is happening in the world today.

Why have resources become so important? The adoption of an econocentric security policy almost always leads to an increased emphasis on resource protection-at least for those states that depend on raw material imports for their industrial prowess. The almost complete disappearance of ideological conflicts in today’s world has also contributed to the centrality of resource issues, in that the pursuit and protection of critical materials is viewed as one of the state’s primary security functions. In addition, certain resources are worth an immense amount of money-the untapped oil of the Caspian Sea basin, for example, was estimated by the Department of State to be worth some $4 trillion-and so their possession is widely seen as something worth fighting over.

But these factors alone do not explain the current centrality of resource concerns: several features of resources themselves figure in this equation. These include the escalating worldwide demand for commodities of all types, the likely emergence of resource scarcities, and disputes over the ownership of valuable sources of critical materials.

insatiable demand
Global demand for many key materials is growing at an unsustainable rate. As the human population grows, societies require more of everything (food, water, energy, timber, minerals, fibres, and so on) to satisfy the basic material requirements of their individual members. Some nations may consume more than others-the United States alone consumes approximately 30 percent of all raw materials used by the human population in any given year-but almost every society is increasing its utilisation of basic materials.
The growing demand for resources is driven, to a considerable degree, by the dramatic increase in human numbers. During the past fifty years alone, the world population grew by over 3 billion people, jumping from 2.6 billion people in 1950 to just over 6 billion in 1999. The rise in population naturally entails an increased requirement for food, clothing, shelter, and the other basic necessities of life. This alone explains the growth in demand for many materials. But population increase accounts for only part of the explosion in demand; of equal importance is the spread of industrialisation to more and more areas of the globe and the steady worldwide increase in personal wealth, producing an insatiable appetite for energy, private cars, building materials, household appliances, and other resource intensive commodities.
Between 1950 and 1999, gross world product soared by 583 percent. While not all individuals have experienced the benefits of this impressive statistical gain-many millions, in fact, remained trapped in poverty-large numbers of people around the world can now afford items that were previously inaccessible to them. Private automobile ownership, for example, jumped from about 53 million cars in 1950 to an estimated 520 million in 1999. The ownership of refrigerators, television sets, air conditioners, personal computers, and other such items has grown to a similar degree. Because the production and utilisation of these products entails the consumption of vast amounts of energy, minerals, and other materials, the global requirement for many basic commodities has consistently exceeded the rate of population growth.

looming risk of shortages
Growing demand for basic materials is colliding with another key aspect of the global resource equation: the fact that the world supply of some substances is quite limited. While the earth is blessed with vast quantities of most vital materials-water, arable land, minerals, timber, and fossil fuels-there are practical limits to what can be extracted from the global environment. According to one recent study, the earth lost nearly one-third of its available natural wealth between 1970 and 1995 as a result of human activity, more than in any other period in history.

When, or if, particular resources will reach the point of severe exhaustion is not something that can be predicted with any degree of certainty. Nevertheless, it is evident that the world supply of certain key resources is being diminished at a rapid pace - in some cases, exceeding the world’s capacity to exploit new sources or develop substitute materials.

Of the various materials that fall into this sensitive category, the most significant are oil and water. Both are critical for the functioning of modern industrial society, are being used in ever - increasing amounts, and most importantly are likely to be in insufficient supply to meet global requirements by the middle of the twenty-first century. At the beginning of 2000, the world’s proven reserves of petroleum stood at 1,033 billion barrels, or sufficient oil to sustain global consumption for another forty years. If, however, oil consumption rises as predicted the existing supply will disappear in twenty-five to thirty years, not forty.

The global water equation is roughly similar. Although the earth possesses vast amounts of salt water, the global supply of fresh water is relatively limited: less than 3 percent of the planet’s total water supply is fresh water, and much of this amount is locked up in the polar ice caps and glaciers. Of the amount that is readily available half is already being appropriated for human use. As in the case of oil, population growth and higher standards of living are constantly boosting the global demand for water. If this pattern persists, total human usage will approach 100 percent of the available supply by the mid-twenty-first century, producing severe shortages in some areas and intensified competition for access to important sources of supply. Significant shortages of other vital materials can also be expected in the decades to come.

As global consumption rises and environmental conditions deteriorate, the total available supply of many key materials will diminish and the price of whatever remains will rise. In many cases, this will lead to the development of new sources of supply and/or the introduction of substitute materials, thereby alleviating worldwide shortages Also, those societies with the means to do so will simply pay higher prices for whatever they need or desire. But market forces will not be able to solve every resource problem, nor avert all future conflicts over scarce materials. Some commodities such as water cannot be replaced by other substances and many poor societies cannot afford to pay higher prices for essential goods. In these circumstances, conflict may arise between states over access to vital sources of supply, and within states over the distribution of the limited materials available. As prices rise, moreover, contending groups and elites in resource-producing countries will have greater incentive to seize and retain control of valuable mines, oil fields, and timber stands. The result, inevitably, will be increasing conflict over critical materials.

contested sources of supply
The risk of conflict over diminishing supplies of vital materials is all the more worrisome because of another key feature of the global resource equation: the fact that many key sources or deposits of these materials are shared by two or more nations, or lie in contested border areas or offshore economic zones. This situation is potentially disruptive even under the best of circumstances, when the states involved are relatively friendly with one another; when this sort of competition occurs against a backdrop of pre-existing hostility, as is the case in many parts of Africa and the Middle East, disputes over contested supplies of vital materials could prove explosive.

Disorder can arise from several types of resource contests. Disputes may occur over the allocation of a particular source of supply that extends across international boundaries, such as a large river system or an underground oil basin. The Nile River, for example, carries water through nine countries, the Mekong River through five, and the Euphrates three. Because these rivers arise in one set of countries and travel through others before reaching their egress to the sea, the upstream countries in the system are always in a position to control the flow of water to the downstream states; when the upstream states actually use this power to increase their water allocations at the expense of those living downstream, conflict can arise.

Similarly, when two states sit astride a large underground oil basin and one of the two extracts a disproportionate share of the total petroleum supply, this could diminish the oil revenues of the second state and lead to conflict. This was, in fact, one of the key irritants in the Iraq-Kuwait relationship in the late 1980s: Baghdad claimed that the Kuwaitis were extracting more than their rightful share of oil from the shared Rumaila field, thereby impeding its recovery from the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88. Conflict over shared oil supplies has also broken out between Saudi Arabia and Yemen, which share a poorly defined border in the Rub’ al-Khaili.

A second type of conflict arises over contested claims to offshore areas that harbour significant energy or mineral resources. A prime example is the South China Sea, where a total of seven states- Brunei, China, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam-have laid claim to large areas of water.

Finally, disputes can arise over access to bodies of water considered essential for the transportation of vital materials, such as the Persian Gulf and the Suez Canal. A very large proportion of the world’s daily oil intake travels by ship from the Gulf to ports in Europe, the Americas, and Japan. In many cases, these ships must pass through narrow and circumscribed bodies of water, such as the Strait of Hormuz (at the mouth of the Persian Gulf, the Strait of Malacca (between Indonesia and Malaysia), or the Red Sea. Because the free passage of ships through these waters is considered essential for the uninterrupted flow of materials, major importing states have always resisted efforts by local powers to block or constrict them. In 1986, for instance, the United States ‘reflagged’ Kuwaiti ships with the American flag and escorted them through the Persian Gulf, then the site of naval clashes between Iran and Iraq. Concern over the safe transportation of vital materials can also extend to oil and gas pipelines, particularly those that travel through areas of recurring disorder.

emerging landscape of conflict
Each of these three factors-the relentless expansion in worldwide demand, the emergence of significant resource shortages, and the proliferation of ownership contests-is likely to introduce new stresses into the international system. The first two will inevitably intensify competition between states over access to vital materials; the third will generate new sources of friction and conflict. Each factor, moreover, will reinforce the destabilizing tendencies of the others: as resource consumption grows, shortages will emerge more rapidly and governments will come under mounting pressure to solve the problem at any cost; this, in turn, will heighten the tendency of states to seek maximum control over contested sources of supply, thereby increasing the risk of conflict between the countries that share or jointly claim a given resource deposit.

In most cases, these conflicts will be resolved without recourse to violence, as the nations involved arrive at a negotiated solution to their predicament. Global market forces will tend to encourage such an outcome: the perceived economic benefits of compromise are generally much greater than the likely costs of war, and so most states will choose to pull back from their maximum demands if they can be assured of a reasonable slice of the resource pie. But negotiations and market forces will not work in every instance. In some cases, the materials at stake will be viewed as so essential to national survival or economic well-being that compromise is unthinkable. It is difficult, for example, to imagine that the United States will ever allow the Persian Gulf to fall under the control of a hostile power, or that Egypt will allow Sudan or Ethiopia to gain control over the flow of the Nile River. In such situations, national security considerations will always prevail over negotiated settlements that could be perceived as entailing the surrender of vital national interests.

Resource Wars: The New Landscape of Global Conflict Michael T. Klare. Metropolitan Books.

 
     

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