October 15, 2009

Reading Old Magazines: The New Geography of Conflict

Wars over timber, shrinking water supplies, and constant forward deployment of our military to protect oil and natural gas reserves, this was the vision that Michael Klare, the Five College Professor of Peace and World Security Studies at Hampshire College and a  proponent of ideas like peak oil, espoused in his May 2001 Foreign Affairs article “The New Geography of Conflict” (subscription required).  Klare is a controversial figure due to his unabashed critiques of the Bush administration and his habit of making the Left look Right. However, in this article, he outlines a pre-9/11 worldview that is interesting to examine in light of the last eight years.

With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, an ideological competition between two superpowers no longer explained global patterns of conflict. Klare tried to find another method for predicting where wars would breakout. His analyses lead him to believe that resources were the key explanatory factor. Klare wrote: “It is only now, with the Cold War safely over, that securing access to vital materials has again assumed a central position in American security planning.”  He believed that supply routes and scarce resources, not “ideological concerns,” would dictate American security interests in the future.

The management of natural resources plays a large role in American foreign policy. Predictions that both the United States and other rising powers like China and old powers like Russia would compete to control valuable supplies has created tensions over rare earth minerals and access to oil routes. Meanwhile water supplies are consistently garnering attention in water-scarce regions.  In a sense, Klare was right, economic concerns are increasingly important to the United States.

Unfortunately, natural resources are not the only thing that the United States has to worry about. U.S. Pacific Command has been spending a significant amount of time not on protecting supply routes as per Klare’s prediction, but on bringing humanitarian aid to those struck by natural disasters. These contingency plans focus more on the stability of countries based on their ability to feed themselves than on how much gold they can export to the United States.  While Klare does say that“[e]nvironmental trends such as global warming will also affect the worldwide availability of many resources, including water and arable land,” he fails to look at the impact that this will have on wider geostrategic implications for the United States. Instead, the analysis is confined to how natural resources will relate to the current system not how they will change the system.

The resources that Klare chose to look at were important—at the time.  Diamonds, gold, and old growth forests are resources that will not likely lose their economic and geostrategic significance any time soon, but he failed to look at resources that were not current hotspots. Coltan, lithium, rare earth minerals, even uranium, all have the potential to affect global conflict patterns in the same way Klare describes, they just do not necessarily match conflict zones as nicely.  Instead, it seems to be a case of matching evidence to conclusions rather than letting the data speak for itself.

In addition, his claim that “resource flows rather than political and ideological divisions” will show where conflicts will occur is unsubstantiated. Religion, ideology, politics, ethnic conflicts, colonial histories, and unequal development rates (just to name a few) will also affect patterns of conflict. The world has not moved based ideological conflicts to only look at economics. Although I am a strong proponent of looking at the economic implications of actions, it is not the only factor that offers explanatory power. Oftentimes natural resources act as a conflict multiplier to these tensions but do not cause them—a caveat he admitted to in an abbreviated conclusion.

Looking at resources as a factor of national security issues is clearly an important component. In fact, it is what the Natural Security program does. Yet Klare fails to widen his view to look at all the implications of resources while shutting off the importance of other factors.  The integration of resource concerns into other security problems starts with authors like Michael Klare, Richard Barnett, George Kennan, and Peter Gleick, just to name a few. Focusing on this important aspect of the global system brings much needed attention to how we manage economic resources.