Resource Wars: The New
Landscape of Global Conflict
By Michael T. Klare
289 pages, $26
A little-noticed bump in that ongoing American experiment recently
protested in Quebec, Gothenberg and Genoa occurred in September
1997, within the Army's Operation CENTRAZBAT 97, when 500 82nd Airborne
Division paratroopers became the first American soldiers to deploy
in the onetime Soviet satellite state of Kazakhstan.
Ostensibly, this military exercise involved our supporting the
nations of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan against purported
"renegade forces." But a more plausible justification for such an
American and Kazakh generals
Operation CENTRAZBAT 97, a record-setting
paratroop drop that may preview the future of
America's militarized persuit of scarce resources.
involving the longest-distance airborne operation in history--
concerns the enormous petroleum deposits of the Caspian Sea basin.
That petroleum belongs not to the Russians now, but to the marketplace.
As Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott put it that same year,
"It would matter profoundly to the United States" if American oil
interests were denied access to "an area that sits on as much as 200
billion barrels of oil."
While the notion of "war for oil" was a rallying cry against the
1991 Gulf War, officials like Talbott now are more candid about
military supervision of petroleum's westward flow. Indeed, the record-setting
paratroop drop may preview the future of America's militarized pursuit
of increasingly scarce natural resources.
Michael T. Klare sees such a future in Resource Wars, his
ninth book on military affairs. With a coolly expansive perspective,
Klare identifies numerous locations worldwide where the intersection
of security conflicts, geography, and supply and demand may provoke
violent battles over essential resources within our lifetimes. Klare
foretells a decisive return to pre-Cold War priorities, when nation-state
brinkmanship over resources was always evident, from the violent
excursions of 19th-century colonialism to the last years of World
War II, when the Axis war machine became overextended in direct
proportion to its hunger for raw materials. The crucial difference,
however, is the enormous change in population density, technology
and environmental stress since 1945.
What Klare terms "the competitive pursuit of petroleum plenty"
is central to his model of future resource wars. Klare regards the
Persian Gulf as the region most likely to experience conflict in
the decades ahead, especially considering the region's ongoing and
bitter schisms. Tracing a long history of British and American intervention
supplementing the region's internal conflicts, he notes that the
oil price inflation of the '70s allowed the Arab states to modernize
their own arsenals, while the "Carter Doctrine" of 1980 virtually
legitimized all manner of military intrusion by U.S. troops.
More wars over oil in the Middle East seem like an obvious prediction,
but Klare's work is valuable because it is so attuned to the big
picture. As he makes clear, major conflagrations are just as likely
to develop around, say, China's heavy hand in asserting control
over minor offshore territories like the Spratly Islands, beneath
which lie potentially vast undersea reserves. There already have
been armed skirmishes over these islands between China, Vietnam,
Malaysia and the Phillipines; these nations (along with Singapore
and Japan) quietly have refitted once-modest navies for deep-sea
warfare, all of which implies that future clashes could quickly
envelop U.S. forces.
While Klare is no alarmist, he offers a ghastly glimpse into future
decades. He plausibly concludes, for instance, that half of the
world's known liquid petroleum supplies will be consumed by 2020,
with total depletion foreseeable between 2040 and 2060. Furthermore,
barring substantial new discoveries, the domestic U.S. petroleum
reserve, an estimated 28.6 billion barrels in 2000, will likely
be consumed by 2010. While one might hope for "greener" solutions
in response to this Road Warrior scenario, Klare demonstrates
that issues of resource "protection" have already been ceded to
the U.S. military, rather than to diplomatic or economic initiatives.
While contemporary warfare and petroleum seem fundamentally inseparable,
we here at home in the Brita Nation may consider water a benign,
mundane element of living. Yet Klare notes, "In a vast area stretching
from North Africa to the Near East and South Asia, the demand for
water is rapidly overtaking the existing supply." As with the pending
conflicts over fuels, the nations facing these shortages possess
engorged militaries (often due to proxy arming during the Cold War)
that engage in intractable internecine warfare, exemplified by the
sort of bloody, low-intensity combat of the Ethiopia-Eritrea war.
Even in relatively stable nations, that many of these contested
water sources cross borders practically guarantees protracted conflicts;
often, upstream riparians (possessors of underground aquifers or
river headwaters) are "muscled out" of their proportionate share
of fresh water by downstream aggressors. For example, while Egypt
makes no actual contribution to the Nile's annual flow, it has consistently
"appropriate[d] the great bulk of its waters for its exclusive use"
through military action in northeast Africa. As Anwar el-Sadat once
commented, "The only matter that could take Egypt to war again is
Given that freshwater usage outpaced population growth by 3-to-1
between 1950 and 1990, Klare concludes that at that rate of increase
humanity could be consuming 100 percent of the world's renewable
freshwater supply in two or three decades--if that water were divided
evenly without geopolitical prejudice. But, as Klare tragically
observes, water isn't distributed evenly: Conflicts in the Third
World--particularly around the Jordan, Tigris-Euphrates and Indus
river basins--already seem inevitable.
Klare's chapter on "Fighting for the Riches of the Earth" reflects
on locales like Sierra Leone and Liberia, where the postwar, post-colonial
social contract has been obliterated by the child soldiers and machete-wielding
thugs of minor autocrats with excellent money-laundering services.
Klare shows exactly how the traffic in diamonds and other commodities
is directly connected to the spasms of warfare conducted by violent
splinter groups like Sierra Leone's Revolutionary United Front,
and how the 25-year factional struggle in Angola has mutated from
an ideological clash to an oil-and-gem grab. It's an amazing confirmation
of efficient free-market savagery for the new century. As with oil-related
strife in places like Nigeria, mainstream corporations such as De
Beers abet economic devastation and bloodshed by "purchasing diamonds,
minerals, timber and other commodities from the combatants."
Meanwhile, the postmodern warfare business entrenches itself in
these conflicts: Private military companies, like Britain's Sandline
International, now function as heavily armed temp agencies, selling
the service of downsized military personnel to the highest bidder,
with contracts running into the tens of millions and few questions
Klare also reminds us that this militarized resource grab has dire
consequences for the remaining native peoples in the rugged interiors
where most commodity extraction occurs. In the case of the Malaysian
Dayak, the government-sponsored logging of their forested homeland
has created a long-simmering conflict, which erupted in 1997 with
atrocities committed by Dayak militias, the regular Army and the
private security employed by logging interests.
Klare views these far-flung conflagrations not as "random or disconnected
events" but as "part of a larger, interconnected geopolitical system."
In his vision, the "political and ideological considerations" with
which we normally associate protracted interstate conflicts are
rapidly becoming window-dressing for the struggle over essential
Klare's is a rigorous and coolly executed work with sobering implications
for the next several decades of life on earth. While his scholarship
cannot be faulted, perhaps his restrained tone ultimately limits
his vision. He neglects certain phenomena of capitalism that feed
directly into projections of resource scarcity. Consider the triumph
of American consumerism: As the SUV cult blights the nation with
an insane volume of light-truck traffic, parallel enthusiasms strew
badly constructed McMansions through the suburbs, needlessly pushing
the planet's limits.
Likewise, Klare declines to discuss the militarized drug war that
is transforming portions of Mexico, Colombia and other nations into
charnel houses--an entirely different but no less tragic model of
resource conflict. While Klare's basically acultural perspective
sways the reader through sheer mastery of facts, these elements--our
domestic profligacy and law-and-order hypocrisy--would add an essential
chiaroscuro to his clean lines. Our culture points to a ruthless
resignation already in place that arrives straight out of the European
1930s, a collective psychic assent to the coming era of violence,
pollution and thirst.
Mike Newirth wrote "Arsenals of Democracy" in the October