“It was always about oil, dear!”

Issue 26 - May 2009

T S Gopi Rethinaraj

ONE OF the most controversial and misunderstood issues in history and contemporary affairs is the relationship between natural resources and international conflict. When Iraq under Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in August 1990 it was pretty clear that the Iraqi regime invaded its tiny and helpless neighbour to control its oil wealth and bail itself out of a serious financial crisis resulting from the eight year war with Iran. The US-led military campaign six months later to oust the Iraqi forces from Kuwait was also about oil. If Kuwait had just produced dates and not oil the United States would not have come to its rescue, nor would Iraq have coveted it. Current public perception about America’s long military involvement in the Middle East also mainly revolves around oil.
Anxiety about future “resource wars” has always been a fertile ground for many writers to influence readers with different inclinations. But the relationship between natural resources and international conflict is not as simple as suggested by most writers on the subject. Clifford Singer, a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, offers a refreshing yet sober analysis of this perennial issue in Energy and International War: From Babylon to Baghdad and Beyond. The author guides the reader through some of the most important military conflicts during the past two centuries and provides interesting and original insights about the role of energy resources in these conflicts. After a brief examination of the social and economic conditions that led to widespread practice of slavery (viewed primarily as energy source) in different societies and the conflicts over gold, silver, and other valuable minerals, the book focuses primarily on the mineral energy resources—coal, oil, gas, and uranium—that played crucial roles in wars and economic growth since industrialisation.
With the advent of the industrial revolution, coal and iron ore resources acquired military and economic significance for major powers during the nineteenth century and first half of the twentieth century. After the 1872 Franco-Prussian War, Germany occupied the iron-ore outcroppings in Alsace-Loraine region in France. German access to additional iron-ore resources was valuable for increased steel production during the preparation for both world wars. Even though Germany’s decision to occupy Alsace-Loraine after the 1872 war was an afterthought rather than the sole motivation for the war, it left an enduring impact through much of the twentieth century in the French perception about the relationship between natural resources and international conflict. Now it is almost unthinkable that coal and iron-ore resources can generate international conflict because market forces and international trade mechanisms have ensured supply security for resource-poor industrial countries since the end of World War II. But, as the author highlights, Europe paid a heavy price for a rather late realisation that access to heavy industry minerals could be assured through collective bargaining and management. What primarily started as a consortium to manage coal and iron-ore supply for the reconstruction of Europe after World War II later laid the foundation for the European Union.
The book also has an interesting discussion on uranium supply security. Uranium mining and production was highly regulated and controlled through the Cold War because of its military significance, although the civilian nuclear energy industry was the largest consumer. Both the United States and the Soviet Union had access to adequate uranium resources for their military and civilian nuclear programs within their territories and spheres of influence. Britain also had convenient access to Australian and Canadian uranium for its military and civilian nuclear programs. Until relatively recently, China’s demand for uranium was solely for military use and was met by domestic production. France was an exception. The decision to embark on an ambitious military and civilian nuclear program after World War II depleted its domestic resources rather quickly. This led France to pursue neo-colonial policies in some of its former colonies like Niger and Gabon during the Cold War in order to have preferential access to uranium resources. The end of the Cold War and the subsequent demilitarisation of uranium mining operations worldwide prompted the French to abandon this policy. The book also suggests that commercial reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel—originally meant to deal with uranium supply security—will have to be abandoned or delayed until economic and political conditions become favourable.
Oil and natural gas present peculiar problems. The contours of natural gas supply and geopolitics is complex but manageable. Oil is the only mineral energy resource that continues to generate international security concerns. This is because nearly two thirds of the world’s conventional oil reserves are located in a geopolitical hotspot, and a convenient alternative fuel for large scale adoption in transport is decades away. The world is still grappling with the issues surrounding oil supply security since Winston Churchill made the decision just before World War I to convert the British naval fleet from coal to oil. After that war most of the Arab Middle East fell from the Ottomans to British and French control. The importance of this transfer of control of transport fuels became obvious after Japan’s attack on the Pearl Harbor and Nazi Germany’s military campaigns. Lack of access to oil played a major role in hastening the military defeat of Germany and Japan during World War II. This resulted in the perception that oil is a strategic resource with military connotations although oil consumption by the world’s militaries today constitutes a very small fraction of total oil consumption, according to the author.  What then explains America’s continued military presence in the Persian Gulf? Is it about protecting the free flow of oil from the Straits of Hormuz or containing Islamic radicalism and spreading democracy in the region? There are no simple answers to these questions, but the book provides a useful conceptual framework for understanding the dynamics of oil supply security and the future of international conflict over control of natural resources in general. Speculation about impending wars over water, energy, and other critical resources is a common theme exploited by serious scholars and pulp writers. There have been frequent suggestions that conflicts among major consumers of oil are inevitable and will lead to formation of new military alliances. Regional developments and the nature of military alliances, however, highlight the flawed nature of such assessments. But the idea of resource wars has special appeal because resource conflicts dot human history. During all the major phases of human advance—hunting-gathering to farming to industrialisation—natural resources have played crucial roles in the fortunes of tribal groups and societies. Resource conflicts also have a particularly strong resonance in developing societies that emerged from colonialism because of the prevailing perception that colonialists came with the objective of plundering natural resources.
American scholarship in international security generally suffers from an insular world-view. This book, however, breaks from the mould and has a broader appeal to an international audience. The author reveals how “generational lags” in history often led to distortions in the perception about the relationship between resources and conflict and resulted in enormous human suffering during major wars. And those who forget history are doomed to repeat it. The human race is at the cusp for internalising these historical lessons to avoid future recurrence of wars driven solely by motivation to control natural resources. When that happens, transition to energy sustainability and supply security is relatively easier. But conflicts driven by nationalistic, religious, and ethnic fervour can create immense mental blocks to realise these obvious truths. Dr Singer’s book is a significant contribution to a better understanding of the human predicament and a necessary reading for students, journalists, scholars, policy makers, and anyone seriously interested in the relationship between natural resources and international conflict.

T S Gopi Rethinaraj is a faculty member of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore.