Klare, Michael T. Resource Wars: The New Landscape of Global Conflict

Klare, Michael T. Resource Wars: The New Landscape of Global Conflict – Book Review

Peter Dombrowski

New York: Henry Holt, 2002. 304pp. $15

Michael Klare argues that most wars of the future, like many of those of the past and present, will be caused by conflicts over natural resources, especially oil and water. As a consequence, he suggests that American national security policy focus “on oil field protection, the defense of maritime trade routes, and other aspects of resource security.” This position represents a reaffirmation of the industrial and economic dimensions of U.S. national security. In effect, if Flare is right, we are witnessing a resurgence of a materialist strand of American strategic thought that has been prominent at least since Alfred Thayer Mahan. For strategists, neither the clash of civilizations, the tragedies of identity politics, nor the long-buried animosities of religion or ethnicity are sufficient motivations for the major sources of conflict in the modern world. Rather, conflicts and national security policies are about the struggle for natural resources.

Lest anyone think that this is a purely American phenomenon, Flare suggests that the “economization” of international security affairs holds not just for the United States but also for most countries, including China, Japan, and Russia. Insatiable consumption coupled with finite, poorly distributed resources, as well as with a propensity to use armed force, leads to a conflict-ridden future.

Much of Klare’s argument reads as if it were inspired by the tumultuous events of the 1970s, specifically after the first global oil shock helped to alert the world to upcoming neo-Malthusian dilemmas. The 1973-74 oil crisis, among other events, forced the United States and the world to face the reality that petroleum supplies are finite, poorly distributed across the globe, and vulnerable to rogue states. Academics and policy entrepreneurs then spent much of the decade cataloguing the vast number of critically important natural resources that were in short supply or projected to be, given consumption trends and demographic growth. Klare continues to assume that resource shortages lie in wait for humanity as a whole and for specific societies in particular.

Unfortunately, Klare barely pauses to consider the possibility that diplomatic, economic, and political developments might ease potential resource conflicts before they escalate into armed conflicts. After all, countries fighting over access to water or oil could simply negotiate arrangements or allow market forces to dictate outcomes; the author himself notes examples and cases where diplomatic solutions have succeeded in the past. In fact, the absence of economic reasoning in this book is startling. After all, economists from cranks to countless mainstream professionals have demonstrated how market forces can help manage the worst aspects of resource shortages. Thus energy shortages that lead to price increases in turn encourage consumers to conserve; consumption is reduced, as well as overall dependence. Hence, despite tremendous economic growth, Western Europe, Japan, and even the United States have become much more energy efficient since the oil shock of the 1970s. Substitution effects are also possible, although perhaps not for a resource as fundamental and elemental as water.

This book is less than persuasive on the topic of politics. In its final section, which describes alternatives to war, Klare sets up a straw man, arguing that “it seems reasonable to ask whether a resource-acquisition strategy based on global cooperation rather than recurring conflict might not prove more effective than guaranteeing access to critical supply over the long run.” He then answers his own question by claiming that “such a strategy would call for the equitable distribution of the world’s existing resource stockpiles in times of acute scarcity.” In short, Klare suggests a utopian solution to a deeply practical set of problems. It is more likely that many, if not most, of the various potential resource “wars” outlined here will be settled short of war (or at least of a major war) by various methods of muddling through. Grand bargains over potentially equitable distributions of various resources seem unlikely given the present state of international politics.

Even if one accepts Klare’s dire assumptions about the possibility of shortages and conflicts, his list is very traditional. Oil and water conflicts are old news. He does not mention the possibility of new competitions, for resources like satellite “parking spaces” or access to ocean fisheries, that might lead to clashes among great powers. Nor does he explore in great detail demographic realities that underlie competition for water and energy. For many of the water conflicts, for example, the key variable is tremendous population growth, which makes old agreements obsolete and intensifies bargaining over future resources.

Criticisms aside, Resource Wars offers readers a great deal. Klare provides thumbnail summaries of numerous conflicts great and small, from the South China Sea to the headwaters of the Nile. He represents each case with grace and economy. He reminds us of the oft-forgotten histories and details of geography that matter greatly in resource wars. More importantly, Klare provides a useful corrective to the ideational, historical, and political explanations of international behavior so popular today. Even the Arab-Israeli conflict is linked to competition for land and water in ways that some who focus on the religious conflicts, the shadow of the past, and the various weaknesses of the Israeli-Palestinian and other Arab authority structures forget. In short, academics, policy makers, and military officers should pay close attention to those regions that have the greatest potential for armed conflict based on the relative scarce supplies of critical resources.


Naval War College

COPYRIGHT 2004 U.S. Naval War College

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group