Brace Yourself, World

Imagine a world plagued by ethnic, religious, and political turmoil, soaring population growth and troubling global climate change. Now add to that volatile mix a shortage of oil, water, timber, and other natural resources—and an insatiable demand for those resources. That, Michael T. Klare writes in Resource Wars: The New Landscape of Global Conflict, is a snapshot of the world to come. And unless policy makers take steps to conserve natural resources and set parameters for distributing them fairly, industrialized nations and Third World countries alike may find themselves enveloped in explosive conflicts over control of the Earth's shrinking bounty.

Resource Wars makes a compelling case that the quest to regulate natural resources will become the "One Big Thing" to dominate security policy in the 21st century. Klare's credentials—he is a peace and world security professor at Hampshire College and past director of the Program on Militarism and Disarmament at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington—add intellectual heft to his thesis.

Nations need oil, natural gas, coal, and other resources to drive their economies and fortify their defenses, and they need water to survive. Warlords and potential dictators, meanwhile, covet diamonds, gold, copper, and other minerals for the wealth and power that they bring. Respectable nations and international pariahs alike have shown a willingness to fight for those resources. "Whereas international conflict was until recently governed by political and ideological considerations," the author writes, "the wars of the future will largely be fought over the possession and control of vital economic goods."

Oil is king in Klare's tome. He details its historical significance in conflicts major and minor, including both world wars and the Persian Gulf War, and in economic upheavals such as the one in the early 1970s. The competition for access to oil, and to protect the pipelines and maritime routes used to transport it, is global. "Black gold" is increasingly important to nations such as China, as their populations swell and their economies expand. And the competition extends beyond the Middle East to include the Caspian and South China seas.

Russia and the United States are engaged in the "Great Game II" as they try to forge strategic alliances with former Soviet republics such as Georgia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan. Many people, Klare notes, view these Caspian nations as the new "oil El Dorado." Asian nations, meanwhile, are battling for control of the offshore reserves in the Spratly archipelago, a series of reefs, shoals, and islands in the South China Sea. China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam all have military bases in the region. Klare says that the area is "the most likely to witness large-scale warfare."

Oil won't be the only prize in the resource wars, however. Klare also identifies water as another flashpoint. Water has triggered conflict at least since biblical times, when the Israelites took over the fertile "promised land," he writes. But in the 21st century, population growth, global climate change, and damming practices make conflict even more likely. "No less than 145 nations depend on shared river systems ... and a good number of these are almost wholly dependent on such systems," Klare notes. The nations most likely to see the restriction of water as "a justifiable cause of war" are those located along the Nile River in Africa, the Jordan and Tigris-Euphrates systems in the Middle East, and the Indus River, which is an issue in the long-running feud between India and Pakistan.

Klare devotes less space to the role of diamonds, copper, timber, and other minerals in such hot spots as Angola, Sierra Leone, Congo, Papua New Guinea, and Borneo because the impact of those minerals is not as far-reaching. But those conflicts, among the most violent and persistent of the day, lend further weight to his argument that resource wars are fast becoming more likely than ideological ones. Chock-full of comprehensive tables, detailed maps, and helpful footnotes and appendices, Resource Wars is a policy wonk's dream. But those same tools also tell interesting stories. A chart detailing military action in the South China Sea since 1988, for example, uses a friendly format to illustrate the threat of oil conflict in that region.

Klare could have dedicated more space to Africa. "All of the preconditions for recurring violence," Klare writes, "can be found here: large concentrations of vital materials, numerous territorial disputes in areas harboring valuable deposits, widespread political instability and factionalism, the presence of private armies and mercenaries, and a history of collaboration between foreign resource firms and local warlords." Yet he does not mention the problems until late in his study—and then almost in passing.

The book, which raises the specter of potential wars at nearly every turn and for just about every reason, may also leave readers a bit pessimistic. Klare, for instance, describes a colorful map of the "new geography of conflict" that includes "a wide band of territory straddling the equator." But he also periodically tempers his warnings with statements such as these: "In most cases, these conflicts will be resolved without recourse to violence." Unfortunately, Klare does not suggest any "alternatives to war" until the last few pages of the book. And then his proposed solution—the establishment of global authorities to coordinate international conservation and broker agreements for distributing resources during crises—seems rather generic.

One can only hope that Klare has a sequel in mind: Resource Peace: The Recipe for Global Compromise.