Michael Klare: Resource Wars

Published in 2001, Michael Klare's "Resource Wars" ominously foreshadowed much of the American military response to the September 11th attacks, from Afghanistan to Iraq - with the subtext that it's really about oil afterall. But the failure of American military actions to make any significant contribution to oil supply suggests the warfare route may have run its course. Read on for my recent review.  

Warnings about limits to the world's resources being inadequate for humanity's appetite date back at least to the period in the 1970's, when rising oil prices and lines at the pump provided a stark lesson in constraints for the American public. That public awareness has been re-awakened now under similar and perhaps more terminal circumstances. But there are strong indications that an understanding and focus on resource limits has been at the background of government actions for the past three decades and even earlier, despite an outward downplaying of the issue.

Michael Klare's book concentrates first on the issue of petroleum resources, a key flash point in the modern world. Access to petroleum is itself central to modern warfare, and those who control oil have used the revenue to build up their own military capabilities. Aside from American and Iraqi actions in the Middle East, actual conflicts have been limited to minor skirmishes thus far, but the build-up of arms is an ominous sign, as oil becomes scarcer and more valuable.

In the Persian Gulf, Klare documents the decades of first British and then American involvement, propping up friendly regimes and selling vast quantities of advanced weaponry. The expenditures on American might, even before the Iraq occupation (Klare's book was first published before even the September 11, 2001 attacks) have been astronomical; the US Central Command and Fifth Fleet exist largely to protect American interests (oil) in the Gulf region. The outcome of all that spending is pretty clear too: utter failure. Iran was long ago lost to American influence. Iraq seems likely to follow Iran; at the least, American efforts there have only resulted in lower, not higher, oil production. Saudi Arabia and many of the others are unstable, with super-wealthy upper classes threatened by religious fundamentalists and the poor, who only resent perceived American domination of their countrys' affairs.

Klare also reviews the interesting story of US policy in the Caspian region; developments since the Afghanistan war in that region have brought it even more under US influence since Klare wrote. The potential vast oil reserves there and in the South China Sea have brought major nations face to face with one another, staking out claims and influence, but so far avoiding outright war. Klare's discussion suggests that relative peace will not long continue: at some point the resources become valuable enough to risk large-scale combat, with outcomes likely bad for everybody.

Beyond oil, Klare discusses water resources extensively, particularly the Nile, but also a number of other cases where a major fresh water supply is divided among several nations. For rivers, upstream nations can take advantage of the geography to exploit as much of the water as they dare; in some cases only threats from more powerful downstream neighbors (such as Egypt for the Nile) keep the urge to divert water in check.

Other resources have also sparked conflict, in some cases civil war rather than war between nations: diamonds, precious metals and other ores, forests, and so forth. This seems to be particularly a problem in Africa where Klare discusses several recent examples. The existence of the resource draws in money that can be used to buy military capabilities; conflict seems to almost inevitably ensue.

In some respects, Klare seems to overstate the case. In discussing possible solutions to all this, he seems to believe that only international institutions making allocation decisions for scarce resources would be able to tackle the problem. But one wonders - why are we trying to win by force what we can just buy in free markets with money? For instance, Iranian oil is essentially the same as oil from any other nation, it enters as additional supply in the world market and therefore has the net effect of lowering per barrel costs to US consumers. So what does it matter that the US has no influence over Iran these days? And if the foreigners who control oil raise prices for us, all the better for the alternatives we know we're going to need eventually anyway. Many of the resource problems are a matter of ill-defined boundaries that could be resolved quite simply by some sort of international boundary disputes court, surely simpler than an international resource allocation system.

This all suggests that the real motives of governments striving to obtain influence over resource-rich regions is not the benefit of their own people, but the enrichment of certain segments of their society: those who profit more directly from resource extraction activities. Or, assuming stupidity instead of conspiracy, it could simply be an irrational need for control pushing governments in these directions. In either case Klare's book worryingly sets the stage for major global conflict over resources in coming years.

Created: 2005-10-04 03:56:32 by Arthur Smith