Book Review: Oil and war do mix

Book Review

Oil and war do mix

Resource Wars: The New Landscape of Global Conflict, by Michael T. Klare. New York: Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Co., 2001, 289 pp.

Richard A. Matthew

Throughout his career, Michael Klare has written engaging, thoughtful, and timely pieces on emerging security issues. His latest book, Resource Wars, is another very readable and remarkably well-timed work that ought to be a welcome addition to the desks, night tables, and reading lists of all those interested in contemporary world affairs.

In particular, chapters 2 and 3 should make this book immediately appealing to a broad audience. These chapters offer a concise and well-documented discus- sion of the links among oil, conflict, and national security that provides a useful framework for understanding the terrorist attacks of September 11. Klare makes it very clear just how important Persian Gulf oil is to the economies of the United States, the Middle East, and the rest of the world. For example, oil provides 39 percent of the world’s energy, a share that is not likely to decline by much over the next 20 years. Five Gulf states (Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates) possess two-thirds of the world’s oil, completely dwarfing the nonetheless significant supplies that exist in the Caspian and North Seas, Venezuela, Mexico, Russia, Nigeria, and the United States. As long as economies depend on oil, the strategic value of this region is assured.

Klare explicitly situates the terrorist activities of Osama bin Laden and his associates in the context of U.S. efforts to forge a mutually beneficial relationship with the government of Saudi Arabia and to constrain the hostile actions of Iraq and Iran in order to protect access to Persian Gulf oil. He also provides details about the several-year effort to track and capture bin Laden that raise anew tough questions about the dramatic failures of U.S. intelligence.

Resource Wars thus makes a valuable contribution to current efforts to explain al Qaeda’s attacks on U.S. soil. But even were this not the case, the book would be of wide interest, for it takes a strong position on an issue that has been the subject of extensive and often acrimonious debate for over a decade.

Conflict after the Cold War

Since the end of the Cold War, scholars, policymakers, politicians, and others interested in world affairs have discussed the global prospects for war and peace with renewed vigor. On one side are the pessimists, who perceive a rapid, widespread, and probably unstoppable slide toward instability and violent conflict. They argue that the constraints on the use of force that existed during the Cold War have been removed. They contend that communication and transportation technologies have increased contact between cultures that are suspicious of or hostile toward each other. In particular, U.S. culture has swept across the planet in a flood of Marlboro cigarettes, fast foods, and Baywatch episodes that threatens to overwhelm the values and customs of many local cultures.

Pessimists also worry that the deepening of North-South inequalities and the cumulative effects of rapid population growth, economic failures, environmental stresses, and political corruption, all of which are predominant in the developing world, are producing a pool of underemployed, angry, and often well-armed youth, wildly trigger-happy and highly susceptible to various forms of fanaticism. Robert Kaplan sees signs of a “coming anarchy”; Samuel Huntington speaks of the “clash of civilizations”; Benjamin Barber writes about “Jihad versus McWorld”; and Thomas Homer-Dixon spotlights “environmental scarcity and diffuse civil violence.” In each case the message is clear: The next few decades are likely to be marked by great misery and conflict in the world.

These claims have been energetically contested by a remarkably optimistic group of analysts and commentators, including William McNeill, Francis Fukuyama, Thomas Friedman, and Michael Doyle. Encouraged by the expansion of democracy, trade, and human rights, they see many positive trends at the global level. The end of the Cold War, they suggest, has made it possible for the United Nations to play a more effective role in conflict resolution and peacemaking. New technologies have fostered information sharing, confidence building, and cross-cultural understanding, and they have enabled the creation of transnational coalitions aimed at saving the environment, ending the scourge of landmines, promoting education, and providing opportunities for development.

These analysts argue that the ideological rivalries that shook the world throughout the 20th century have largely come to an end, and democratization and trade are now laying the foundations for world peace and prosperity. The motivations for conflict are gradually being undermined as more people discover a stake in the international system and experience at first hand the benefits of, and the need for, extensive and permanent cooperation. The conflicts evident today are not a foretaste of global collapse but rather the last barrage from pockets of resistance to world peace, or the anxious outbursts of groups not yet satisfactorily integrated into the world system. The former groups must be uprooted through international coalitions; the latter must be given aid and encouragement.

Klare’s take on this debate is clearly presented in the final pages of Resource Wars. “Whereas international conflict was until recently governed by political and ideological considerations, the wars of the future will largely be fought over the possession and control of vital economic goods–especially resources needed for the functioning of modern industrial societies.” Indeed, “resource wars will become, in the years ahead, the most distinctive feature of the global security environment” as demand, boosted by population growth and economic development, increasingly exceeds nature’s capacity to supply many essential commodities.

One of the implications of this thesis is that “regions that once occupied center stage, such as the east-west divide in Europe, will lose all strategic significance, while areas long neglected by the international community, such as the Caspian basin and the South China Sea, will acquire expanded significance.” Unfortunately, these resource-rich areas are generally unstable places in which competing interests are quick to use force.

In Klare’s worldview, Africa, with its vast stores of untapped energy, timber, and mineral wealth, emerges as the hot spot of the future. He predicts that conflict there and elsewhere will frequently take the form of civil strife, often amplified by outside interests that are increasingly willing to send in private military companies, such as Executive Outcomes and Sandline International, to protect their holdings and keep resources flowing as freely as possible. At times, however, competition for natural resources will trigger interstate wars, especially over access to scarce transboundary supplies of water and oil.

At the conclusion of the book, Klare argues on behalf of a “resource-acquisition strategy based on global cooperation” and suggests that robust international institutions managing energy and other resources might be set up that would significantly reduce the incidence of violent conflict. But this brief discussion does little to change the foreboding tone of the rest of the book. Ultimately, Klare must be aligned with the pessimists who worry that the world lacks the will and the capability to prevent widespread conflict in the decades ahead. The emphasis on the growing importance of the link between natural resource scarcity and interstate warfare is Klare’s particular contribution to this perspective.

The implications of environmental scarcity

Klare’s approach to the general debate over the present and future prospects for war and peace places his study in a literature about the security implications of environmental change that has mushroomed over the past 10 years. Proponents of this line of inquiry generally contend that the rate and magnitude of environmental change, largely due to human activities, are unprecedented in human history. They examine the social effects of this remarkable period of environmental change, especially insofar as national or human security is concerned. Highlights of this literature include: 1) claims by scholars such as Ronnie Lipschutz, Daniel Deudney, and Aaron Wolf that interstate resource wars are unlikely because developing substitutes, shifting to alternative commodities, or acquiring resources through trade are almost always more cost-effective approaches than the use of force; 2) arguments by writers such as Peter Gleick and Daniel Hillel that the threat of interstate resource wars, especially over water and oil, is in fact increasing; and 3) arguments exemplified in the work of Homer-Dixon and Norman Myers that environmental scarcity is most closely linked to subnational conflict and human insecurity.

Klare’s work falls mainly into the second category of analysis, although elements of his study also endorse Homer-Dixon’s well-known position. Klare constructs his argument that control of resources will be the primary motivation for future civil and interstate wars by considering, in turn, examples of conflict or potential conflict related to oil, water, and minerals and timber.

The four chapters on oil, which include a useful overview of the issue as well as detailed case studies of the Persian Gulf, the Caspian basin, and the South China Sea, are the strongest chapters in the book. The case of the Persian Gulf has received considerable scholarly attention, but the other two are less well known. Klare does not add a great deal of new information to the field, but he provides the reader with an excellent and very accessible analysis.

The two chapters on water are somewhat less comprehensive but still provide a useful overview of the challenges posed by growing water scarcity. Klare examines the potential for conflict in four shared river basins–the Nile, Jordan, Tigris-Euphrates, and Indus–that have been widely studied in recent years by scholars such as Gleick, Miriam Lowi, and Arun Elhance. The single chapter on minerals and timber largely reiterates Homer-Dixon’s thesis about the deepening linkages between environmental scarcity and diffuse subnational conflict. With its very brief discussions of resource-driven conflicts in Bougainville, Sierra Leone, and Borneo, this chapter appears to be almost an afterthought to the far more extended treatments given to oil and water.

The bottom line

Klare is rather parsimonious in acknowledging the work of other scholars in the field. This leads to three shortcomings. First, the bibliographic material is not very extensive, and the reader is rarely guided toward other key works. Second, although Klare makes some allusions to the literature on geopolitics, he does not build on this or on recent treatments of it. Consequently, an obvious question–to what extent does his vision of the future suggest that the world is revisiting the violent competition for resources that characterized the colonial era before the 20th century–is left unanswered.

Third, and more seriously, counter-arguments receive virtually no consideration at all. One would have liked Klare to take on directly the arguments of Lipschutz, Deudney, Homer-Dixon, Wolf, and many others. These authors contend that there is little empirical evidence supporting a causal relationship between resource scarcity and interstate war. Moreover, they believe that the factors that make interstate resource wars unlikely will probably continue to dominate, even in tense settings where shared river basins cannot meet the demands of all riparian states or the rights to lucrative oil fields are contested. Specifically, they say that there are almost always alternatives to war that can be pursued more cheaply. Responding to these concerns would have strengthened Klare’s case.

But ultimately, these are minor flaws in an important and generally well-crafted book. In fewer than 300 pages, Klare provides a very well-written introduction to key strands of the environmental security literature, makes an important contribution to the debate over the worldwide prospects for war and peace in the coming decades, and provides a framework for understanding some of the motivation for al Qaeda’s terrorist actions.

Richard A. Matthew ( is assistant professor of international and environmental politics in the Schools of Social Ecology and Social Science at the University of California at Irvine, and director of the school’s Global Environmental Change and Human Security Research Office.