Home The Washington Diplomat December 2009

Analyst Sees Future Conflicts DrivenBy Race for Dwindling Resources

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Michael T. Klare, one of the world’s leading experts on how natural resources influence international relations, sees a global tug of war ahead as supplies of oil, natural gas, uranium and vital industrial metals tighten while demand for them surges.

The importance, and relative scarcity, of these resources will transform the geopolitical and security landscape in the coming decades, Klare argues, as major industrial powers become more aggressive in their pursuit of the planet’s untapped reserves.

“The politics of the 21st century are likely to be driven by the global scramble for scarce natural resources, especially oil. Resource wars will become, in the years ahead, the most distinctive feature of the global security environment,” Klare said in an interview with The Washington Diplomat.

“Until recently, international conflict was governed by political and ideological considerations,” he added. “But the wars of the future will be largely fought over the possession and control of vital economic goods — especially resources needed for the functioning of modern industrial societies.”

This resources race, Klare says, is being propelled by a perception that the world’s stockpiles of essential commodities, especially oil, are shrinking. While the potential peaking and subsequent decline of oil production has captured the most attention, international concern also extends to finite supplies of natural gas and uranium as well as other industrial minerals such as copper, cobalt, chromium and titanium.

Klare is the Five College Professor of Peace and World Security Studies, a joint appointment at Amherst College, Hampshire College, Mount Holyoke College, Smith College and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Before taking up his teaching assignment in 1985, he served as director of the Militarism and Disarmament Program at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington from 1977 to 1984.

Klare has written extensively on U.S. defense policy, the arms trade and global security issues, concentrating on the struggle for access to, and dominance over, scarce natural resources. He is the author of more than a dozen books, including “Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet: The New Geopolitics of Energy” (2008), “Blood and Oil: The Dangers and Consequences of America’s Growing Dependency on Imported Petroleum” (2004), and “Resource Wars: The New Landscape of Global Conflict” (2001). In addition, he is a contributor to Harper’s, Foreign Affairs, World Policy Journal, the Nation and various other publications.

In recent years, Klare has written most powerfully and provocatively on the global rush for energy. “I’ve come to focus on energy as the most potent of resources in terms of its ability to shape relations between the major powers,” he explained. “There is no doubt that a global political realignment of historic dimensions in now under way and it’s driven around the frantic pursuit of energy.”

According to Klare, the world is effectively divided between energy-surplus and energy-deficit states. “As supplies dwindle, particularly of oil and natural gas, those with the ability to export oil and natural gas will become increasingly more powerful in the international system and those who depend on imports will become increasingly weak in the system and will be forced to compete with one another for access to the remaining supplies.”

Klare noted that a massive transfer of wealth is already taking place from oil-importing nations, such as the United States, to oil-exporting nations such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, Venezuela and Russia. “History shows that this kind of wealth transfer has always been accompanied by a shift in political power,” he said.

Klare cites a U.S. Department of Energy report estimating that global oil output will climb to about 100 million barrels a day in 2012. However, global demand will reach 104 million barrels in 2020 and then continue to rise steadily. “It is obvious that the world will face an increasingly wide gap between supply and demand of oil,” he said, pointing out that future oil supplies will be more difficult and expensive to tap.

A battle may also be looming over natural gas. Iran, Qatar and Russia possess 56 percent of the world’s natural gas reserves — a concentration Klare says has significant geopolitical consequences.

“The control over natural gas will be increasingly tight. Russia intends to use its control for political purposes as we’ve seen already. I think we can assume that Iran will do so as well. The two of them have 40 percent of the world’s natural gas,” he said. “So it’s not just that we are seeing scarcity of these reserves, but that the geopolitical constraints will grow. The same will be true of other resources.”

Russia in particular will continue to test out its strength on the world stage, a resurgence propelled by its massive resource wealth. Despite the current economic slowdown, Russia still does not need to import any oil or natural gas, Klare notes, and both American and European officials continue to worry about Russia’s ability to dominate the transportation of energy to Europe from Central Asia and the Caspian Sea region.

“Russia has emerged as a major powerbroker in Eurasia because of its vast supply of oil and natural gas and other resources such as coal and uranium and other minerals such as nickel,” Klare said. “Russia stands out as the only great power with an abundance of resources. That gives it a great advantage in the world system that is emerging today.”

Another key global relationship being shaped by energy considerations is the one between China and the United States. Over the past decade, China’s economy has exploded, as has its consumption — and importation — of oil and other fossil fuels. China’s aggressive drive to gain access to foreign energy supplies is most evident in Africa, where Beijing has developed strong ties with the oil-producing governments of Algeria, Angola, Chad, Equatorial Guinea, Nigeria and, most controversially, Sudan.

At least partially in response to China’s aggressive move into Africa, the United States is expanding its military presence in the continent, Klare said, citing the Pentagon’s decision to create the U.S. Africa Command (Africom), whose ostensible purpose is counterterrorism, although Klare said its work will have a heavy energy component.

But on a broader scale, he believes the United States has two strategic options to deal with China’s energy appetite: One path would be to engage in a fierce competition with China over supplies, while the other would entail finding ways for the two giants to cooperate.

Currently, the United States and China are on track to consume 35 percent of the world’s oil supply by 2025, most of which will have to be imported from politically fragile states. Klare said that if, as widely predicted, global oil reserves have begun to shrink by then, both countries could be locked in a dangerous struggle for diminishing supplies in chronically unstable parts of the world. The costs — in terms of rising military expenditures and the inability to invest in more valuable social, economic and environmental endeavors — would be enormous. He contends it would be far better to avoid these costs and work together on the development of petroleum alternatives, including: renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power, fuel-efficient vehicles, better public transport systems, second-generation biofuels made from non-edible plant matter, coal gasification with carbon capture and burial, hydrogen fuel cells and other energy innovations.

“Rarely has a policy choice been as stark or as momentous for the future of our country,” Klare said. “Rather than engage in militarized competition with China, we should cooperate with Beijing in developing alternative energy sources and more efficient transportation systems. The arguments in favor of collaboration are overwhelming.”

Klare, who has just concluded a busy speaking tour, said he enjoys teaching and writing about the connection between energy and international affairs. He has begun working on a book about the drive to exploit resources in the world’s last remaining frontiers such as the Arctic, the Amazon, and deep under the oceans.

How individual nations tackle resource scarcity will be critical to the overall security environment as well as the effort to confront climate change, Klare said, noting that he expects countries to begin shifting from a heavy reliance on fossil fuels to renewable energy sources.

But he warns it will be a difficult transition. “I’m optimistic about the long term. I think everyone now understands we need to make the transition from our dependence on fossil fuels to an energy system based on renewable resources that are climate friendly,” he said.

“But it will be a monumental change. It’s going to be very hard and it’s going to take time. I’m not sure we’re ready to do it fast enough. I’m afraid there will be an interim period before we get there in which things will get rough. It’s possible that 50 years from now we will have worked through all these problems and come up with solutions. But I’m not sure we’ll be able to get from here to there smoothly.”

About the Author

John Shaw is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on July 9, 2014