September 10, 2012
TSG IntelBrief: Scarcity-Driven Conflict
As of early September 2012, the effects of climate change, to include severe water shortages, are rapidly shifting from primarily an environmental concern to one that will soon fall squarely within the rubric of national security. It should come as no surprise that such an irreplaceable commodity could be largely overlooked as a vital and contentious geopolitical issue years after it became clear that access to sufficient water supplies was becoming a major transnational challenge. Despite broad recognition that the economies of developed countries — as well as those of developing countries with aspirations for expansion — were inextricably dependent on the steady flow of oil from increasingly volatile regions, many nations operated for decades under the assumption that expanding oil requirements could always be satisfied through commerce (and, perhaps, a bit of diplomacy). While the precise source of the needed oil supplies might shift, for example from the Middle East to Central America to Russia and back to the Middle East, the fundamental premise that drove policy was that oil would be reliably available at a reasonable price for the foreseeable future.
As the global consumption of oil dramatically rose — in large measure due to the increasing employment of energy-dependent technologies and the maturing economies of countries such as China and India with populations that exceed one billion each — economic power as a means to obtain energy was more frequently augmented (and sometimes replaced by) by military power. Perhaps the most notable example of this new reality was Operation Desert Storm launched in 1991 under the banner of liberating Kuwait after it was invaded and subsequently occupied by the formidable Iraqi Army, then the fourth largest army in the world. While much was made of the unprovoked assault and the heinous crimes committed by Iraq during the occupation, the major interest for the leading powers of the coalition formed to counter the Iraqi action was something far different than supporting international law and the protection of Kuwaiti sovereignty. For the West and many states in the Middle East, the prospect of Iraq controlling what would have possibly been the largest oil reserves in the world was unacceptable; for the former, this warned of tenuous oil supplies at higher prices, while for the latter this meant Saddam Hussein could almost unilaterally set the price of oil on the world market.
Commodities…and Precious Commodities
Although these pragmatic concerns understandably drove national security policy, the very public emphasis on sovereignty issues was fairly disingenuous. Such an international commitment to dislodge the Iraqi forces from Kuwait — with 34 nations taking part in the coalition and the U.S. alone deploying over half a million military troops — would be difficult to conceive if Kuwait had not been one of the largest oil producers in the world. How many countries would have signed on for the fight if Kuwait had instead been a leading producer of sandals or artificial turf?
While oil is currently an irreplaceable commodity, other commodities — especially the strategic minerals that are essential for the production of such ubiquitous products as smart phones — are quickly gaining equal status as the fundamental building blocks of modern life. Yet when life is pared back to a more austere level, none of these commodities holds the same life sustaining value as water. Without oil, modernity would disappear; without water, humanity would end.
Politics aside, climate change is real, present, and persistent. An inescapable byproduct of the changes currently unfolding — manifested in both drought and flood, in record heat and insidious cold — will be punishing shortages of water, food, arable land, and navigable seaways. Add to this the explosive growth in the global population that is placing unprecedented demands on water and food supplies. The resulting political fallout in terms of chronic instability, regional conflicts, and humanitarian crises will cause nations to begin to redefine these environmentally-based issues as existential national security interests. And when that happens, military power will begin to trump economics and diplomacy as the primary vehicle for resolving differences.
The Geopolitics of Scarcity
The Soufan Group has reported on the geopolitics of drought, environmentally-driven terrorism, and the failing global power grid. In the coming weeks, we will carefully examine a number of related issues, to include the prospect of commodity wars, the transnational impact of failed states, the search for alternative sources of energy, and how this emerging geopolitical landscape will shape the nature of national interests, the formation of alliances, and role of the international community.
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