Tuesday, May 15, 2001

Religion and ideology generally catch most of the blame for being causes of war. In reality, competition for scarce resources has been a contributing cause for many wars. It is entirely likely that battles over water holes were a primary cause of conflict among our primordial ancestors in the wilds of Africa and Asia. The situation is not improving as we enter the information age.
Our primitive ancestors fought over water. The industrial age added competition for fossil fuels as a cause for conflict. As Americans continue to suffer rising energy prices, the issue of resources becomes increasingly topical. Conflicts over the sources of pollution may well become a very real cause of conflict in the post-industrial age. Michael T. Klares “Resource Wars,” is a timely addition to military literature devoted to the root causes of future conflict.
Mr. Klare, a writer with several books on international conflict on his resume, has written a scholarly and comprehensive study about the roots of resource conflicts that currently threaten world peace. He traces the problems associated with water and fuel issues as well as the problems related to minerals and timber throughout the world.
The author does a credible job of cataloging the causes of resource conflicts. From the obvious issues of access to oil in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf, to the lesser known, but potentially more dangerous petroleum-related issues in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, he coherently lays out the causes of conflict. A war in any of these regions would likely involve interests perceived to be vital to the United States and would risk our involvement. Of the five nations laying claim to the Spratlys, two are close U.S. allies.
China, the largest and most dangerous nation to stake a claim, remains a key potential Asian competitor. Americans will go, and have gone, to war when their access to vital resources has been threatened. The Gulf War and our reflagging of oil tankers during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s are recent examples. Our continuing interest in the Persian Gulf region cannot be attributed entirely to the principalites who run the regions primary oil producing kingdoms and emirates.
The distinct possibility of regional conflicts over access to water are less likely to involve the United States, but they will likely involve valuable U.S. allies. In Africa, control of the flow of the Nile is a crucial issue to our valued Egyptian partner. Next door, Israel is at odds with several of her Arab neighbors over the flow of water in the Jordan River Basin. Just to the north, Turkey feuds with several allies over access to several vital water sources. Conflicts over these issues may not immediately involve the United States, but they would almost certainly strain relations with key allies.
Several of the most vicious ongoing wars in the world involve conflict over minerals, notably diamonds. The atrocious behavior of all sides in Sierra Leones civil war is fueled by competition over that troubled nations diamond mines. The mutilation and killing of innocents in that conflict cannot totally be attributed to competition for resources, but it is a key contributor to the violence. Recent headlines point to the distinct possibility that conflict over resources by ethnic groups in Indonesia could cause further exacerbation of the tendency to make that troubled archipelago Asias first failed state.
Mr. Klare resists the obvious impulse to sensationalize the problem of resource-based conflicts and their future potential for violence. Consequently, the book is a rather dry read and not likely to be an international best-seller, but it is a story worth telling. It is a work that will likely be footnoted in strategic and academic studies for some years to come. There is room in strategic literature for scholarly writing and Mr. Klare has done a superb job of detailing a troublesome source of future conflict and crises.
If there is a weakness in the book, it is in its failure to address the potential for wars over pollution. The U.S.-Canadian debate over the roots of acid rain temporarily strained relations between two good friends over a decade ago, but the potential for conflict between states in Asia, such as China, that remain heavy polluters and their neighbors who have largely moved on to post-industrial concerns is a potentially troublesome area for study. Some observers have suggested that it may even become a cause for internal conflict in China. That said, the author does touch on forestation issues and their potential for conflict.
“Resource Wars” should be required reading for those in the national security community who attempt to predict where our strategic interests lay and where we may be forced to deal with international turmoil.

Gary Anderson is a retired Marine Corps officer.

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