Clearing the Air

January 2, 2008 Topic: EnergySecurity Tags: Peak Oil

Clearing the Air

Mini Teaser: In the previous issue of The National Interest, David Victor argued that the threat of resource wars is exaggerated. Michael Klare weighs in.

by Author(s): Michael T. Klare

"WHAT RESOURCE Wars?" performs a worthwhile service by provoking debate about the role of resource competition in contemporary world affairs. Yet, as a window into the reality of resource-related violence, it comes up short.

Victor's missteps are partly methodological. He too narrowly defines "resource wars" as "hot conflicts triggered by a struggle to grab valuable resources." This classification severely underestimates the number of worldwide resource-driven battles. What's more, the sort of wars he depicts-the staple of European imperialism-may have become less frequent in the modern era, but they have hardly disappeared. Surely Saddam Hussein's August 1990 invasion of Kuwait fits his definition-a resource "grab" that was only reversed after intervention by a half-million U.S. troops. But this is not the type of resource conflict that has most troubled the planet in recent times.

By failing to address the role of resource revenues as a motive for war, Victor leaves out a large share of the armed violence now racking the planet. In reality, we have experienced a spate of internal conflicts over control of valuable oil fields, copper mines and what Paul Collier has called "lootable resources"-diamonds, old-growth timber and other valuable commodities that can be smuggled out of the country and sold on lucrative foreign markets. Conflicts of this sort typically pit corrupt central governments against warlords, ethnic militias, separatist groups, criminal organizations and other non-state actors. Ultimately, each group seeks to garner the rents generated by ownership of the mines or oil fields in question or to monopolize the illicit trade in lootable commodities.

Some of the bloodiest and most destructive conflicts to occur in the past 25 years fit this description, including those in Congo-Brazzaville, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Sudan. Many other recent conflicts share these features, though ethnic, religious and political differences may be the central provocations-in Angola, Chad and Colombia, for example. And Victor's myopia is particularly striking in its failure to mention two conflicts of particular concern to the United States: the sectarian struggle in Iraq and the insurgency in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria.

The internal fighting in Iraq, of course, has many sources, some going back centuries to the original schism between Sunni and Shi‘a Muslims and the divide between Kurds and Arabs. But control of oil plays a major part in the conflict. As is well known, Saddam Hussein favored the Sunnis at the expense of the others, using income derived from Iraq's oil fields-almost all of which are located in Kurdish and Shi‘a areas-to create a Sunni middle class. Now most Kurds and many Shi‘a appear determined to create mini-states of their own, retaining control over all oil revenues generated within their respective territories. For many Sunnis, it is precisely the fear of being sidelined in this process-with no oil revenues at all-that is fueling their resentment of the Shi‘a-dominated government and prompting their support for the insurgency.

Anticipating Professor Victor's rebuttal, I know this is not all that is at work here, but with the stakes so high, everything matters. The United States is failing in Iraq. The future of American power is at risk. Quelling the violence is one of our most daunting and lethal challenges. Ignoring the resource dimension entirely means ignoring one of the key factors in this conflict.

The situation in Nigeria also poses a significant problem for the United States. In their eagerness to reduce the nation's dependence on Middle Eastern oil, one U.S. president after another has extolled the benefits of greater reliance on African producers. By some optimistic accounts, West Africa-led by Nigeria-will provide one-fourth of America's oil imports by 2015.

But all this assumes that Nigeria will be able to overcome its internal difficulties, and so far there is no evidence that this will occur. Most of Nigeria's onshore oil is produced in the Niger River Delta, a swampy area abutting the Gulf of Guinea, whose poor inhabitants have long been mistreated by governing elites in Abuja, the nation's capital. While some $200 billion in oil rents have poured into Abuja over the past forty years, almost nothing has trickled down to the delta region, which has suffered incalculable environmental damage from careless drilling practices. A stream of broken promises has led tribal militias in the delta-some tied to criminal organizations-to take up arms against the central government, attacking oil facilities and kidnapping foreign oil workers in a bitter campaign to extract a greater share of the oil wealth. The result has been a substantial drop in Nigerian oil output and a resultant increase in the global price of crude, now at near-historic highs.

These may not be "resource wars" as Victor sees them, but they are resource wars nonetheless. Their impact on our world is undeniably substantial.

Professor Victor's other significant problem is an apparent unfamiliarity with the realities of global resource depletion. He devotes much of his article to China's global quest for raw materials and the country's unfortunate habit of searching for supplies in the "armpits of governance", like Chad, Sudan and Zimbabwe. With encouragement from the United States, he contends, the Chinese can be steered away from such danger zones and be persuaded to invest in more stable countries, like Australia. This makes eminent sense, except for one thing: Most of the mines and oil fields in safe, stable parts of the world are exhausted, and most of what's left can only be found in the "armpits of governance."

Take oil. At one time, the United States was the world's leading producer, along with such (then-)friendly states as Canada, Indonesia, Mexico and Venezuela. But times have changed. Production in the contiguous United States peaked in 1971 and is now running at about half that level. Likewise, most of these other states are in decline or soon will be-Canada's environmentally destructive tar sands aside. Of the dozen or so countries out there with the capacity to boost production-notably Angola, Azerbaijan, Chad, Equatorial Guinea, Iran, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Libya, Nigeria, Russia and Sudan-virtually all are in the "armpit" category.

The same holds true for many vital minerals. The world's largest producing copper mines, located in Chile and Indonesia, are now thought to be producing at their maximum sustainable rate and are liable to soon go into decline. Copper is key to many industrial applications, and so large consumers like China are scouring the world in search of new supplies. As it turns out, some of the world's most promising new ore sites are located in arguably the mother of all armpits-the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). But this status has not deterred the Chinese from announcing a $5 billion investment in the DRC's mining industry.

This development is so worrisome because China-like the United States-is marrying its investment in these troubled areas with arms and military assistance. Instability in these countries can clearly lead to resource disruption. Say what you will, government officials in both Beijing and Washington are plainly fearful that their growing reliance on these armpits of governance makes them vulnerable. In turn, that fear has led them to beef up the internal security forces of their favored suppliers. In justifying increased aid to Nigerian security forces, for example, the Bush Administration noted in 2006 that "Nigeria is the fifth largest source of U.S. oil imports, and disruption of supply from Nigeria would represent a major blow to U.S. oil security strategy." Because the greatest risk of disruption occurs in the delta, "[U.S.] assistance supports efforts to increase security and stability in the vulnerable oil-producing Niger Delta region." And escalating conflict paired with increased armaments is less than ideal.

There is a war under way in the Niger Delta region, a war fueled by resentment over the inequitable allocation of resource rents. The United States, driven by oil interests, is indirectly involved in this war by supplying arms and military expertise to the Nigerian forces involved in suppressing the insurgency. Likewise, China has been an indirect party to the conflict between the Sudanese government in Khartoum and the rebels in the south, a conflict being fought over very similar issues. Could these be the harbingers of things to come, of growing U.S. and Chinese involvement in internal resource wars in unstable areas of the world? It is hard to know for sure, but "What Resource Wars?" doesn't provide the background necessary to fully consider this question.


Michael T. Klare is the author of Resource Wars: The New Landscape of Global Conflict (Holt Paperbacks, 2002) and Blood and Oil (Holt Paperbacks, 2005). He is also the Five College Professor of Peace and World Security Studies, based at Hampshire College, and the defense correspondent of The Nation magazine.

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