21st-century conflicts

An interview with author Michael Klare

Author Michael Klare

Author Michael Klare

In a sharp turn from the direction taken on energy policies for the past 30 years, the Bush administration is calling for an escalation in the use of coal, expanded off-shore and Arctic drilling for oil and natural gas and is considering building new nuclear power plants. Conservation will take a back seat in the new administration’s drive for energy independence.

Last year Bill Gates went through 4.7 million gallons of water—nearly 60 times the consumption of a typical homeowner. His water bill was $24,828. He probably gladly paid it (or more likely never saw it), and it made the news not because Americans face water shortages but because the bill ranks decently high among outrageous consumption stories.

But, reports Michael Klare, director of the Five College Program in Peace and World Security Studies at Hampshire College, such news may soon be cause for alarm.

Klare’s new book, Resource Wars, argues that resources—water, timber, minerals and especially oil—will be the main cause of strife in the post-Cold War era. Although domination of resources has always been central to government strategy, Klare believes this will become truer as world population grows and resources become depleted. Gone will be the days of war waged for ideology. In its place will emerge a battle of economic interests, with the earth’s natural resources as the ultimate spoils.

Resource Wars is full of information about oil politics. It also looks at a much less talked-about resource: water. Klare predicts countries that share major water arteries—such as the Nile, the Jordan, the Tigris-Euphrates and the Indus—may well come to blows over this increasingly scarce resource. He is not alone in this opinion. “The next war in our region,” observed then-Egyptian Foreign Minister Boutros Boutros-Ghali in 1998, “will be over the waters of the Nile, not politics.”

AlterNet talked to Michael Klare about his new book and what may be the next great shift in international relations.

How did you come to write Resource Wars?

My interest in resource conflict grew out of the work I was doing in the 1990s on the international trade in conventional weapons. During the Cold War, this trade was largely governed by the military rivalry between the two superpowers. When the Cold War ended, however, new trade patterns began to develop. In attempting to analyze these patterns, I was repeatedly struck by the relationship between arms transfers and resource issues. Whether in the South China Sea area, the Caspian basin or Africa, there seemed to be a direct link between resource competition and the procurement of arms. This triggered my interest in resource issues, and I got so fascinated by the topic that I decided to write a book on it.

What do you make of Vice President Dick Cheney’s April 30 announcement that the U.S. cannot “simply conserve or ration our way out” of the current energy crisis?

Cheney has it all wrong. It’s really the other way around. There is simply no way that we can build one new power plant a week over the next 20 years [as he says we need to do] to increase our energy supply. Even if we can find the money and procure sufficient coal, oil and gas for all these plants, American communities are not going to make room in their back yards for that many new refineries, nuclear reactors, nuclear-waste dumps, coal-burning power plants and gas pipelines. Even a determined president cannot force American citizens to permit this. So the only way to meet our future energy needs is to bring demand into better alignment with supply. Inescapably, this means conserving our use of electricity and accelerating the development of fuel-efficient vehicles.

For much of American history the struggle to dominate resources has played a central role in U.S. foreign policy. What was different during the Cold War?


To a great extent, the Cold War was a struggle for the control of Europe. This was a struggle over the political orientation of the states and peoples involved, and so ideology rather than resource competition was the dominant factor. But the struggle to dominate resources did not disappear entirely during this period. In the Middle East, the United States was far more concerned about the threats to oil production than to the ideological competition with the Soviet Union. In fact, many of the famous strategic “doctrines” of the Cold War era—the Eisenhower Doctrine, the Nixon Doctrine and the Carter Doctrine—were intended to protect U.S. access to the region’s vital oil supplies.

Many Americans are aware the U.S. has national interests in the Middle East and the Caspian Sea region because of our dependence on oil. Why are we less aware of our dependence on water—and the fact that our supply of it is not endless?

The United States is fortunate in that it is blessed with an abundant supply of fresh water. Unlike many countries in the Middle East and Asia, we do not depend for our water on rivers that originate in another country, and so we do not have to worry about an unfriendly upstream country cutting off our essential supplies. The situation with respect to oil is quite different: We now rely on foreign sources for over half of our oil, so we have to worry about political conditions in key supplying areas like the Persian Gulf and the Caspian basin. Nevertheless, our supply of fresh water is not limitless, and we are beginning to deplete many key aquifers [underground sources of water].

It is possible, moreover, that the greenhouse effect will result in declining levels of rainfall in many parts of the United States, adding to the pressures on our domestic water supply. If this occurs, Americans are likely to become far more sensitive to the natural limits on water consumption.

When polled, a majority of Americans say they are pro-conservation. But then many turn around and buy an SUV. Why is there a disconnect between words and actions when it comes to energy conservation in the U.S.?

Basically, people aren’t confronted with the dangerous consequences of over-consumption in their daily lives. Most Americans enjoy access to adequate supplies of water and can afford to pay higher prices for gasoline, so they are not overly concerned about future scarcities. But I believe that the reality of scarcity will become more evident in people’s lives if, as is likely, more regions of the country experience the power blackouts now plaguing California and a rise in global temperatures results in widespread and persistent drought.

Where do you see the greatest potential for conflict? And how prepared is the U.S. government to react to such a conflict?

The greatest potential conflict remains the Persian Gulf area, because this is where the greatest concentrations of oil are located and where we also see considerable discord and instability. Right now, the United States has about 25,000 troops in the Persian Gulf, and many more are available in the United States for rapid deployment to this area. We have also stockpiled vast supplies of armaments in the region. So this is the area where U.S. troops are most likely to become involved in conflict over oil.

But there are other areas where we might become involved. For example, the United States could become involved in future conflicts in the Caspian Sea basin, as that area becomes more important as a source of energy. Conflict could also erupt in the South China Sea, as a result of a struggle between China and its neighbors (some allied with the United States) over the control of offshore oilfields. Indeed, the recent collision between a Chinese fighter jet and a U.S. reconnaissance plane is a possible harbinger of such conflict.

Can human ingenuity—be it new technology or the creation of new international arbitration institutions—help stem conflicts that might arise over resources?

I believe that human ingenuity can reduce the risk of conflict over resources. For example, new methods of seawater desalination could help reduce the pressure on shared freshwater supplies in North Africa and the Middle East. Similarly, the development of fuel-efficient vehicles would reduce the pressure on contested oil supplies. The risk of conflict would also be reduced if the people who depend on shared river systems like the Nile and the Jordan adopted plans for the equitable distribution of existing supplies. But I fear that we are not moving fast enough to take the necessary steps. Unless we make resource conservation a greater international priority, we could see conflicts erupt when scarcities become more severe.

What do you imagine the world will look like in 2050, should the struggle for resources go unchecked?

I would expect a much higher level of international conflict over access to critical sources of oil and water, such as the Persian Gulf area, the Nile River basin, the Jordan and so on. Conflict will also erupt within many countries, as various groups (whether defined by class, ethnicity, tribe or religion) fight over the control of arable land, energy supplies, water and so forth. We could also see unprecedented levels of international migration, as people move from overpopulated and drought-stricken areas to countries with adequate supplies of land and water. In many cases, these migrations would spark violent resistance from those already living in the more desirable areas.