Resource Wars: The New Landscape of Global Conflict (A Review)

In Resource Wars, Michael Klare presents a series of powerful claims that revolve around the idea that Earth’s strategic resources (oil, water, timber, etc.) are both limited and necessary to the survival of nations – particularly the industrialized superpowers. The intersection of the value of these resources and their scarcity is a prescription for global armed conflict. Klare maintains the position that the wars of the future will be fought primarily over the acquisition and control of strategic resources.

The acquisition of these scarce resources is more complex than simply striking a deal on the market. Let’s take a look at oil. In some cases, internal political stability (Nigeria from 2006 to 2008 and in 2012 and Libya during movements to remove al-Qaddafi from power) can inadvertently threaten the flow of oil out of a country. In other cases, external forces can intentionally alter the flow of oil – through an invasion (Iraq–Kuwait War, 1990), through interference with logistical processes (Iran’s Threat to the Strait of Hormuz, 2011-2012), or through terrorism (In Amenas hostage crisis, 2013).

Interference with logistical processes is of particular concern. The United States Energy Information Administration’s website lists ‘world oil chokepoints for the maritime transit of oil’ – a list that includes the Turkish Straits, Danish Straits, Strait of Hormuz, the Panama Canal, and the Suez Canal, among others. The source declares the Strait of Hormuz the most important oil chokepoint (more on this later).[1]

When I first opened this book I expected to garner deeper insight into the changing landscape of military conflict as it relates to natural resources; into various geographic points where there is a higher likelihood that conflict will precipitate; into how nations have been responding to the scarcity of strategic resources. Klare starts the text by constructing a framework through which we can understand global security and how access to resources might inspire military engagements. He expands on this framework through a general exploration of the oil trade (which constitutes much of the book) and the resource’s many uses. Klare provides us with information on the geography of the oil trade (where it is produced, how much is produced, and to whom it is sold), as well as a brief introduction to some of the major conflicts that have arisen in these locations.

Interestingly, Resource Wars shines a light on conflict between the United States and several Middle Eastern states. Rather than producing a blanket attribution that such conflict stems from the fact that Arab states simply ‘reject democracy and freedom,’ or have an inexplicable hatred for the ‘American way of life,’ Klare discusses how the United States supports Saudi Arabia’s monarchy, for example. The United States provides aid to this undemocratic government – a government that stands in direct contradiction to the ideals of freedom and democracy touted by the U.S.; a government that has directly supported terrorist organizations – in exchange for access to the country’s abundant oil supply. The United States’s financial and military aid, which is fueled by the country’s need to access Saudi oil, has caused great unrest in the region – an unrest that, one might argue, has sparked acts of aggression against the United States. Resource Wars explores this topic, albeit not in great depth, and invites the reader to engage in a bit of critical thinking when analyzing contemporary and historical military engagements.

While Klare makes powerful claims, he substantiates them well across time and space. In constructing his defense, he cites a number of historical events, as well as several then-contemporary events. In the twelve years that have passed since Resource Wars was published, many more incidents have occurred that lend credence to Klare’s position. Nations around the world have made clear their willingness to fight for uninterrupted access to natural resources. As international tensions rise, and as oil, and other strategic resources, increase in scarcity, it is not unreasonable to expect a correlative increase in how often the aforementioned nations will engage in combat to protect their interests.

The Persian Gulf War (Operation Desert Storm) started when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990. Around that time, Iraq had been accusing Kuwait of exceeding oil production quotas and, therefore, driving down the profits being garnered by Iraq. Coalition forces took a decisive victory against Iraqi forces but, as these forces retreated across the border, they set fire to more than 700 oil wells. While the United States became involved for several reasons, one was to protect Saudi Arabia – a nation who, as mentioned before, is of critical importance to the United States’s supply of oil. Oil undoubtedly played several roles in the Gulf War.

Klare discussed the Strait of Hormuz and its necessity to the global oil trade as a logistical passageway. He anticipated future conflict occurring at this location because of its importance. In 2012, the Congressional Research Service (CRS) published a report[2] entitled, “Iran’s Threat to the Strait of Hormuz” which states, (emphasis added)

Some officials of the Islamic Republic of Iran have recently renewed threats to close or exercise control over the Strait of Hormuz. […] However, as in the past, the prospect of a major disruption of maritime traffic in the Strait risks damaging Iranian interests. U.S. and allied military capabilities in the region remain formidable. This makes a prolonged outright closure of the Strait appear unlikely.

This CRS report supports Klare’s writings that various nations stand prepared to defend their interests with military force. When Iran was faced with sanctions and threats to its own economic interests, it threatened the Strait. When the United States was faced with a threat to its own economic interests, it prepared military units to challenge that threat. The United States maintains an exceptional presence in the region to deter disruptions to the stability of the passageway.

Nations with large supplies of strategic resources can exercise power over those whom they supply. Take, for example, the Russian Federation’s recent (and ongoing) invasion/occupation of Ukraine. Gazprom, a Russian natural gas corporation, supplies Ukraine and has the ability to cut the nation off from its supply.[3] This power, frighteningly, extends beyond Ukraine. Russia refuses to hesitate in using this power as a political bargaining chip – a new weapon against those who oppose the interests of the Federation. It is here that we see the true complexity of oil in the new landscape of global conflict.

In Resource Wars, Klare discusses development and social change from several angles. First, he proposes that the most productive future would be one with extensive international cooperation. Klare envisions the growth of international governing bodies and the implementation of global research endeavors. He describes a world where all nations pool their resources, with the United Nations, or a similar agency, distributing them to where they are needed most. He further describes this world as having an international scientific cooperation agreement where global resources are funneled into the development of renewable energy sources.

I have several issues with this angle: First, the pooling of resources is not as straightforward as it seems. When nations have conflicting interests (outside of access to economic resources) they will not be well-motivated to pool resources and support contradictory agendas. Second, we face an uphill battle against international distrust: Will each country contribute as it should? If a country does not agree with a distribution decision made by a governing agency, will it respond with force? Will it withdraw from the agreement? There are many questions left unanswered on this point. Third, if nations come together and research alternative energies and, as Klare suggests, spread the discoveries among all the nations that have participated, where does that leave developing nations who may be ill-equipped to contribute or implement such technologies? Will an even larger gap form between the Global North and the Global South?

Economic crisis is another strong motivational force. A country whose economic well-being is at risk (either in actuality or by perception) is similar to that of an animal backed into a corner – an animal that, when threatened, will strike. If any event puts a country at risk of economic decline, it will take whatever steps are necessary to either prevent the decline or mitigate the damage. Unfortunately, such fear generally holds more weight in one immediate direction: Fear of near-future consequences take precedent over fear of long-term consequences and oil is a perfect example. Nations will fight one another to defend their immediate access to oil, neglecting the fact that our supply of oil will not last forever. Far greater resources have been positioned in alignment with a myopic, short-term view than have been positioned to support a real solution to the global energy crisis. This is not to say that a shift in attention is impossible but, rather, that it is an obstacle to overcome.

Individuals stand on all sides of the issue. We regularly see large-scale movements for environmental sustainability and the development of alternative, renewable energies. On the other hand, we also see support for the destruction of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to acquire the oil that rests beneath it. We see some individuals on the side of international cooperation and others entangled in nationalistic ideology who support taking whatever action is necessary to defend the interests of their home country. We also see individuals petitioning for greater funding for energy research while, simultaneously, we see individuals petitioning in favor of the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline.

Political strength is yet another angle to be considered. During the 2000 American presidential campaign, a debate was held between Al Gore and George W. Bush where the participants were asked about their plans for American energy independence. Al Gore discussed his plans to explore renewable energy sources and reduce American dependence on oil. George Bush countered Gore’s position with his own plan: Tap into the oil reserves beneath ANWR. George Bush won the election and went on to serve two terms as the President of the United States.

When a candidate supports groundbreaking scientific research that can eliminate our dependence on oil, (s)he can discuss benefits such as: 1) Improved environmental sustainability 2) Enhanced national security 3) Increased economic prosperity through a reduction of uncertainty regarding supply, a reduction of scarcity, no price hikes during foreign conflict, etc. Perhaps political power rests in how the issue is framed. If the people can create the political will for change, it can happen. However, we must first ask ourselves: How important is the energy crisis to the American people? How much does a candidate’s position on the issue matter to a potential voter?

Nationalism, as I briefly mentioned above, also plays a major role in these resource wars. For so long as man is divided by nation, and to each nation renders such unconditional preference, man is doomed to engage in global conflict in the interest of his or her homeland. When man is able to transcend the idea of nation-states and, instead, view ourselves as a singular, unified species, we will be able to implement Klare’s ideas of pooling resources, distributing them to where they are needed most, and working together for mutual gain. Furthermore, as we shift from a state of distinct populations to one of a more unified people, we may scale back our out-of-control military spending and invest that into more fruitful pursuits including scientific research, education funding, and more.

I find that Michael Klare’s Resource Wars is a book worth reading. The text begins by constructing a suitable foundation – providing the reader with a working understanding of international security policies, pivotal moments in the transformation of such policy, and the interconnectedness of economic growth and national security. Once that foundation has been established, Klare goes into greater detail on several resources, historical and then-contemporary events, and his predictions for the future. Klare also overs the importance of nonrenewable resources and explicitly discusses why the demand for them continues to increase.

In terms of criticism, I find that Klare could have taken a more daring approach with his text. Considering the growing demand, shrinking supply, and increasing tensions surrounding key resources, the text could have enhanced its overall call-to-action and driven home the hard-hitting truth that we are on the verge of a major, global shift. Humanity is sitting in a pot and the temperature is rising and, in some instances, I found that Klare seemed cautious of sounding the alarm regarding just how devastating resourced-based conflict will be. I also would have liked to see more information regarding the policies of nations other than the United States. While it was clear that the text would focus on the issues through an American lens, and I enjoyed gaining a better understanding of how these issues relate to the country of which I am a citizen, it would have been a positive contribution to expand certain sections with more information from the perspectives of foreign states. Global politics are very complex and it would do us well to tease out whatever interconnectedness, as well as whatever differing perspectives, exist.

Finally, the author introduced a very optimistic and enlightened proposal for an alternative to war – though I found myself disappointed by the fact that this proposal took up no more than three pages. It is obvious that Klare has a solution in mind and he should have spent a greater amount of time elaborating on, and analyzing the feasibility of, his proposed solution. These criticisms aside, I would recommend Resource Wars as an introductory text to any individual seeking to learn more about nonrenewable resources and the immense role they play in the interactions of our species.

References:
[0] Klare, Michael T.. Resource wars: the new landscape of global conflict. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2002. Print.
[1] “U.S. Energy Information Administration – EIA – Independent Statistics and Analysis.” U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Apr. 2014. <http://www.eia.gov/countries/regions-topics.cfm?fips=wotc&trk=p3>.
[2] “Iran’s Threat to the Strait of Hormuz.” Congressional Research Service. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Apr. 2014. < http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/mideast/R42335.pdf >.
[3] “James Surowiecki: Russia’s Unconventional Weapon: Natural Gas.” The New Yorker. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Apr. 2014. <http://www.newyorker.com/talk/financial/2014/03/24/140324ta_talk_surowiecki>.

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