After a generation of taking the availability of resources for granted, awareness of the politics of scarcity has mushroomed since the Arab-Israeli war of 1973 and the ensuing oil embargo. Clearly, access to resources such as oil, food, minerals and fresh water is now high on the agenda of global issues to be faced in the years ahead.1

As to its political aspects, more gloomy observers cite the apparent growth in the number of incidents involving the use of military force over such access, which they see as one aspect of a new mercantilism involving protectionism and trade wars. They stress the increasing vulnerability of Western oil supplies to physical interruption and price increases engineered by Third World suppliers; the effects of rapid population growth and high prices upon the economic viability and food supplies of the very poor countries; the scramble for the offshore resources of the world's oceans; and, most basically, the sporadic outbreak of actual fighting over resources in recent years and the tremendous increase in arms sales to states that seek, in large part, to protect their resources and access routes.

To more optimistic observers, the emerging patterns of economic interdependence between industrial and less-industrial states, and between communist and non-communist states, are seen as trends that may help to reduce, rather than intensify, the long-term prospects of economic and military conflict. They argue that the problems of "scarcity" will change shape over time and that the present dependencies upon oil are neither necessary nor inevitable; that the dire neo-Malthusian predictions of the "population explosion" made in the early 1970s have not come to pass; that the U.N. Law of the Sea Conference will eventually impose some order upon the new maritime era; and that military skirmishes to date have been more than offset by the rapid expansion of trade and other cooperative ventures between a very disparate group of suppliers and consumers.

Regardless of whose predictions turn out to be more accurate, what can be argued with some certainty is that the emerging environment will change some of our basic perceptions relating to the role of force. Thus it seems fruitful to focus upon the strategic elements of the resource debate. Here three particular issues seem most significant: First, to what extent may competition for oil, food and minerals add to the potential for violent conflict in the world? Second, what is the likely impact of resource scarcity, real or imagined, on the military requirements and operational effectiveness of the major military powers? And third, what are the longer-term strategic implications of likely efforts by nations to develop alternative resources and technologies to complement and reduce their current set of dependencies?


By way of prelude, let us look for a moment at the past. History is full of examples of the relationship between military strategy and the need for resources, and for the routes and logistical systems necessary for their transportation.

Access to Egypt's granaries was a vital component of ancient Rome's grand strategy. The fall of Constantinople in 1453 and of Alexandria in 1517 to the Turks, by effectively closing the land routes from Europe to the Far East, helped to give impetus to the development of long-range seagoing capabilities and navigation systems that transformed the military as well as the economic outreach of Western Europe. The exploitation of Latin American silver and gold deposits both attracted Spain to the New World and helped to trigger war between Spain and Britain. The search for resources and markets led the Vikings - like the British at a later time - to develop a blue-water navy to patrol the sea-lanes of empire. Without the discovery of gold in South Africa in the 1880s, it is unlikely that the Boer War between Britain and the Afrikaner's republic would have become the British equivalent of Vietnam.

And, in the twentieth century itself, an extremely bloody and costly war was fought between Bolivia and Paraguay in the 1930s over a disputed area (the Gran Chaco), believed to be rich in oil deposits, and both nations had support from others expecting economic benefits. In the event, Paraguay won, but no oil was found. Perhaps most vividly for older Americans today, Japan's lack of resources undoubtedly played a significant part in its aggressive policies of the 1930s and in the eventual decision of 1941, after the United States had imposed an oil embargo, to attack Pearl Harbor and to seize control of Southeast Asia.

Within the past decade, Britain and Iceland have periodically engaged in military skirmishes in the so-called Cod War, over access to fish. And finally, since 1973 there has been talk of the use of Western military force to "liberate" Arab oil fields in the event of an embargo, and it has even been suggested that Iran, faced with the rapid drawdown of its own oil supplies, may eventually be tempted to attack across the Persian Gulf in order to control the vast reserves of at least part of the Arabian peninsula.

There is, therefore, some evidence, both historical and contemporary, to give support to Henry Kissinger's reminder in early 1974 (in a veiled threat to the Middle Eastern oil producers) that states have on occasion gone to war to assure supply of resources. Equally, though, the historical record suggests that there is nothing inevitable about this. In recent times particularly, short-term problems of resource scarcity have been overcome by combinations of new technologies or substitution, the development of new trade routes, and changing political alignments. Thus, although correlations between access to resources and the projection of military power can be established, most non-Marxist scholars have remained unconvinced that economic and resource explanations alone contribute very much to a general theory of war. Wars, be they historical or recent, large or small, almost invariably involve other determining factors.

The other necessary prelude to this analysis is the clarification of the term "scarcity." A resource may be "scarce" - and a nation perceive itself to be in a condition of "scarcity" requiring action - because there is only a finite supply of the resource in the world and because there exists no known substitute, or because the nation's geography and climate make an adequate supply of the resource extraordinarily difficult to produce or procure. Phosphates may be taken as an example of the first condition; most modern techniques for fertilizing agricultural land are worthless without them, there are no substitutes, and the bulk of the world's supply is located in three areas - the United States, the Soviet Union, Morocco, and the adjacent area, which was formerly Spanish Sahara. And fresh water is, for at least a few nations, an example of the second type of what might be called objective "scarcity."

Over the next decades, instances of this sort may multiply. But for the proximate future, national perceptions of "scarcity" are likely to derive much less from the existence of an absolute situation of shortage, or even the prospect of one, than from difficulties of access in terms of economic and political factors. This is most notably true in the case of oil. If the United States were prepared to accept the economic and political costs of steadily growing dependence upon Middle Eastern oil, there would be far less reason for the energy program that President Carter has put forward.

On the other hand, while the possibilities of substitution and new technology do indeed reduce the importance of outright shortage, particularly in the case of minerals, one should note the opposite impact of national habits, especially in the area of food. It will not do to tell a Japanese or Briton that he could well get along on ten percent less fish, and accept soybeans instead. Even a relatively small shortfall in the accepted levels of supply may amount to the kind of "scarcity" that affects national behavior.

Confusion also arises when comparing the relative degree of scarcity of a material to different consumers. Oil is, in theory, equally "scarce" for the United States, Japan, and Western Europe - in the sense that all three require major imports from the Middle East. But, given the present politics of oil, the United States has a major advantage over the other two in that most oil-producing countries want American military support and, in greater degree, American economic products - ranging from soybeans to arms - in exchange for oil. Again one sees how subjective the concept of "scarcity" is. What matters is a particular nation's sense of scarcity.

Finally, on the question of which "scarce" resources are the most important, if history provides any lesson at all, it is the difficulty of predicting exactly where the most critical future shortages will come and what the strategic and economic implications will be. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, the most important strategic material was the coal needed to fuel the navies and railways of the world. In terms of coal supplies, Britain was the nineteenth-century Saudi Arabia, and its accompanying control of coaling stations throughout the world gave it great leverage in exercising its maritime power. Yet, within 20 years, oil had emerged as the premium fuel, at least for naval shipping, and the Royal Navy became dependent on U.S. oil. It was this change in requirements that gave impetus to Britain's efforts to increase its political leverage over oil-rich countries in the Middle East.


Turning to the present energy crisis, two main effects upon global strategy stand out: it has highlighted the importance of the major sources of oil, especially in the Persian Gulf region; and it has accelerated the scramble for alternative oil sources in areas as diverse as the northern polar region and the jungles of Ecuador and Peru. While we all now take for granted the strategic importance of the Persian Gulf, less than ten years ago the term "energy crisis" was not in household use, and few military analysts were concerned about Iran's military aspirations and the strategic security of the Straits of Hormuz. Middle Eastern oil will remain essential for the Western economies until alternative supplies are found, other forms of low-cost energy are discovered, or a political revolution that changes our lifestyles occurs in the Western world. The last contingency is not likely to occur except in the event of war, when rationing could be invoked and priorities for oil supplies changed.

Access to Middle Eastern oil has been a factor in European strategic thinking for many years, but U.S. dependency upon Persian Gulf oil, especially from Saudi Arabia, is new and is growing at a rate equal to all European Community (EEC) imports; there have also been reports, notably from the Central Intelligence Agency, that the Soviet Union may need to import more oil in the decade ahead. These factors imply that the EEC countries, Japan, the United States, and possibly even the Soviet Union will be "competing" for Middle Eastern oil. In addition, the military buildup by the oil-rich countries themselves, indigenous conflicts within the Gulf, and the proximity of the oil fields to the Arab-Israeli military theater increase the potential for disruption in the area. Even more likely than fighting over access to petroleum is an outbreak of fighting initially not having anything to do with oil - for instance, a new Arab-Israeli war - which could expand to embrace the oil areas and could shatter the political solidarity of the Western world.

Although the Western industrialized nations face many possible military threats to Middle Eastern oil supplies, the most serious would be a situation in which the Soviet Union became embroiled in a conflict whereby it gained control over or destroyed the Saudi Arabian oil fields. Just how this could come about is the source of endless speculation: the prospects for a direct invasion by the Soviet Union of Saudi Arabia seem remote, at least until such time as Soviet air and sea lift capabilities have markedly improved. From bases in the Horn of Africa, Iraq and Afghanistan, Soviet aircraft could mine the Straits of Hormuz or even bomb the oil fields. However, such acts would be considered such a blatant threat to the West that they would probably - but not necessarily - be part of an overall Soviet offensive involving military activity on the high seas, in Europe and in the Far East.

A less dramatic, but for that reason more plausible, threat would arise from formal Soviet political and military alliances with radical governments in the Persian Gulf, including the deployment of forward base facilities there. If a radical Saudi government came to power, either as a result of the internal dynamics of rapid social change or because of military defeat in a new war involving Israel, the Soviet Union might end up in de facto control of Saudi oil without firing a shot. Yet such control should not be equated with withholding or destruction of the oil. The Soviet Union's initial interests would probably point in the direction of continuing supplies to the West. Responses to this contingency would probably politically divide rather than unite the OECD countries (especially if it occurred in the aftermath of another Arab-Israeli war).

Another possibility is that the Soviet Union itself would be motivated by a need to secure access to Middle Eastern oil to fill its own and Eastern Europe's projected requirements. Although the U.S.S.R. has little hard currency to pay for Middle Eastern oil, Soviet inability to meet this demand could have very negative implications for its internal political stability. Thus exchanging its one marketable commodity - arms - for oil may well seem mutually advantageous to both the Soviet Union and certain Middle Eastern countries. Because the West's strategic stakes in the oil are likely to remain greater than those of the Soviet Union for years to come, the Soviet Union could afford to take a gamble in a crisis situation, which, if correctly called, could result in a major shift in the strategic control of the region.

It has also been suggested that in a general wartime situation the Soviet Union would be in an increasingly powerful position to interfere with the flow of Western oil supplies. If the Soviet Union were intent upon targeting the oil, attacks at the source would presently make more military sense than threats in transit. A war at sea involving attacks on oil tankers could be contemplated, but the Soviet Union is not well prepared to consider such operations given its present basing structure, which makes its distant-water fleets extremely vulnerable in any protracted conflict. This vulnerability could be lessened, if the Soviet Union were to establish a presence in southern Africa and the Indian Ocean that gave it major shore-based facilities from which to operate its aircraft and to support and to maintain its surface ships and submarines. If, for instance, the Soviet Union were eventually to have access to South Africa's excellent maritime infrastructure, it would, in effect, be able to control the Cape route, which would have serious implications for the West.

However speculative some of these possibilities may seem, access to Middle Eastern oil has now become a primary focus of U.S. military planning for non-nuclear hostilities - alongside the Central European front and the Korean peninsula. It can therefore be anticipated that continuing efforts will be made to ensure that the United States has the military capability to intervene in the Persian Gulf region in the event of a serious crisis. The precise circumstances under which such an intervention would occur cannot be specified, except that the most unlikely circumstance would probably be a unilateral U.S. invasion against the local countries to secure oil supplies. More likely would be a situation where the United States came to the help of states such as Iran or Saudi Arabia, which felt threatened by their neighbors or by the Soviet Union.

From a military point of view, the United States can probably still deploy major forces to the Middle East at about the same rate as the Soviet Union, especially if local conflict is already underway. For when all is said and done, the Soviet Union cannot disregard the fact that some of the richest oil states and the strongest military power, Israel, are, first and foremost, anti-Soviet. If, from a Soviet "worse-case" perspective, one thinks of having to fight a non-nuclear war in the Middle East, the Soviet planner must assume that Israel and Iran would probably support the West, in which case Haifa, Lod, Bandar Abbas and Chah Bahar, as well as Diego Garcia and possibly Greece and Turkey, could become forward bases for the projection of American power. If Egyptian and Syrian facilities were denied to the Soviet Union, either for political or military reasons (e.g., an Israeli victory giving it local air superiority), it would have problems operating in the eastern Mediterranean, let alone sending an expeditionary force into the Middle East.

Nevertheless, there is no room for complacency on the part of the West. The delicate balance of power in the resource-rich Middle East could be shifted in the Soviet Union's favor if any one of a host of possible events occurred, such as a change of regime in Turkey, Egypt or Saudi Arabia. Furthermore, over time the Soviet Union can redress its present military weaknesses and develop forces and infrastructure capable of greater long-term power projection.

Although the Middle East is the most critical area for conflict over oil, there has already been fighting and military posturing over oil-related issues elsewhere. In 1975, China and South Vietnam fought a brief skirmish over the ownership of the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea. The Philippines is currently deploying military force into forward islands in the South China Sea in consequence of its outstanding conflict with Vietnam and Indonesia over offshore resources. Unresolved disputes between Korea and China, and between Taiwan and China, all point to the fact that the region of the Yellow Sea and East and South China Seas is likely to be the scene for many oil-related conflicts in the future.

Elsewhere, access to the oil in the Cabinda enclave has been a factor in the ongoing conflicts between Zaïre and Angola; offshore disagreements between Venezuela and Colombia, including military posturing, were about potential oil supplies, and in the northern seas there have been disputes between Norway and the Soviet Union over the demarcation of the continental shelf and potential oil resources of that region.

In sum, it is easy to come up with a long list of oil-related disputes. In judging their potential for escalation into military conflict, the state of political relations between competitors for all resources in all-important: where they are good (e.g., Britain, Norway, France), disputes have been resolved; where the competitors will not even speak to each other for other reasons (e.g., Taiwan and China, Greece and Turkey), oil as a catalyst for war becomes more likely.


With regard to possible conflict over minerals, the situation in southern Africa seems likely to be most problematical. The mineral wealth of southern Africa is based on varied items such as gold, chrome, diamonds, uranium and iron ore. In economic terms, the most important mineral is gold. Significantly, the Soviet Union is the world's second-largest producer of gold after South Africa. Although the importance of this conjunction should not be overdrawn - it is not likely to be a threat to the Western monetary system, for example - it does offer potential opportunities to the Soviet Union. If the export of South Africa's gold were curtailed or fluctuated wildly - either as a result of deliberate policy by a successor regime in Pretoria or, more likely, because of increased industrial disruption in that country - the Soviet Union would certainly be in a position to benefit from selling more of its own gold. Again, the advent to power of radical regimes in South Africa, Rhodesia or Namibia would create general uncertainties for Western consumers. Although these regimes would probably benefit from mineral exports to the West, it can be questioned whether they would have the capacity to market the minerals if the infrastructure were in disarray and capital investment was difficult to obtain. In this regard it is worth remembering the great importance of access to the railroads of southern Africa for the transportation of minerals. For example, Zaïre presently has to export most of its copper through South African ports owing to the absence of a railroad link between its copper mines in Shaba province and its ports, the temporary closure of the Benguela railroad through Angola due to civil war, the overloading of the alternative railroad between Zambia and Tanzania and the poor port facilities at Dar Es Salaam.

Problems relating to gold are different from problems relating to chrome, vanadium or uranium. For example, uranium is found in large quantities primarily in southern Africa, Canada, Australia, the Soviet Union and the United States, and its supply is linked to the debate on the future of nuclear energy. If, for whatever reasons, uranium exports from the United States, the Soviet Union, Canada and Australia were restricted, it can be argued that South Africa and Namibia would become more important to West Germany and Japan, who need major imports of uranium. Yet, it is difficult to imagine the circumstances under which these consumers would consider the role of force to secure uranium supplies. It is more likely that military conflict in southern Africa not directly involving the consumers will make access to these minerals more precarious.

In all these situations, it is also important to distinguish between the economic and military implications of mineral scarcity. In a situation where the wartime rules of economics apply, changes in supply-and-demand schedules can be implemented without seriously jeopardizing overall military potential - provided adequate stockpiles are available. However, in peacetime situations where there are clear economic trade-offs between shifting supply-and-demand schedules and stockpiling strategic materials, the preferred course of action is less obvious. Marginal changes in mineral costs or short-run disruptions in supply may have a serious effect upon a peacetime "boom" economy but less effect in wartime. In general, the strategic problem of mineral access is not nearly as serious for the United States as the problem of oil, unless a war of the magnitude and duration of World War II is contemplated. For Europe and Japan, however, the mineral stakes are higher and for that reason there also may be scope for disagreement among the Western allies on preferred political actions to be taken to secure access to them.


In addition to oil and other mineral resources, access to food and water is also a potential source of conflict. The bulk of the world's food supply comes from relatively small areas of the land and sea. Food from the land requires constant supplies of fresh water and, if productivity is to be high, adequate supplies of fertilizers. Thus land-food scarcities often correlate with fresh water scarcity and fertilizer scarcity. Two of the three primary fertilizers are derived from petroleum products and from phosphates. The costs of the former have increased; the latter are non-substitutable.

In the case of land food, recent military skirmishes and posturing have occurred over access to grazing areas, water supplies, and fertilizer deposits. Usually, however, these are very localized disputes and have only become serious when they coincide with other conflict issues. Thus the various crises between Israel and Syria and Jordan over access to the waters of the Jordan River reflect the intensity of the Arab-Israeli conflict rather than the seriousness of water shortages themselves. Similarly, the potential for war between Algeria and Morocco over the Spanish Sahara and its phosphate deposits has to be seen in the context of the historical rivalry between these two countries. However, in this case, it can be suggested that the phosphates of this region are likely to become extremely important in future global terms since neither the United States nor the Soviet Union is expected to remain net exporters of phosphate.

Fish are a much more serious actual and potential source of conflict. Conflict over food supplies usually arises because of asymmetries in demand and distribution rather than because of shortages in total supply. The bulk of the world's major fishing areas is located in less than ten percent of the oceans, and most fish are found within 200 miles of shorelines. For both dietary and historical reasons, a great many important nations are accustomed to a high fish content in their diets - notably the Soviet Union, Japan, Korea, and most of the countries surrounding the South China Sea. The advent of advanced fishing technology has made it possible for such fish-seeking nations to range far from their own zones and into territories historically fished by other nations.

Hence, it is not surprising that over the past ten years there have been a large number of fishing incidents involving the use of force. Aside from the Anglo-Icelandic Cod War, the most serious have been in the northwest Pacific, where there have been numerous encounters between Japanese, Russian, and North and South Korean fishermen, sometimes involving death. In the 1960s, there was violence in the southwest Atlantic between the Soviet Union and both Argentina and Brazil. This gave impetus for Argentina and Brazil to extend their territorial seas out to 200 miles and to deny the Soviet Union access. Soviet fishermen then shifted their focus of attention to the rich fishing areas in the southeast Atlantic off West Africa.

The U.N. Law of the Sea Conference now has agreed in principle to a general rule of 200-mile offshore zones of economic control, which would embrace fishing rights. And a very large number of nations, including the United States, have already acted unilaterally to establish such zones. Apart from the remaining problems of delineation, interpretation and policing, the establishment of 200-mile fishing zones, while resolving some disputes, may tend to increase the intensity of competition in the remaining areas. Thus increased Soviet fishing activity in the remaining "free" areas of the southern seas is seen by some in the context of an overall expansion of Soviet maritime power. The prospects for confusion, Western misperception, and Soviet deception as to the true purpose of the fishing activities are great for some of the remaining rich fishing areas off Angola, Namibia, Somalia and Saudi Arabia.

The one area of the world that contains enormous quantities of seafood but does not, at present, fall under anyone's jurisdiction is the Antarctic. The area south of the Falkland Islands contains billions of tons of Antarctic krill. These tiny shrimp-like crustaceans are found there in abundance (in part due to the Soviet and Japanese over-fishing of the whale population, some of which can eat up to five tons of krill an hour). It has been estimated that 50-100 million tons of krill per year could be extracted from this region on a sustainable basis. This could equal or double the world's total seafood catch, depending upon whether the low or high estimate is correct, and already Russian and Japanese fishermen are trying to exploit this resource. The main problems with krill are, first, that it decays very rapidly when caught and therefore needs almost instant freezing, and second, that it is not particularly tasty after it has been frozen. Were other states to become seriously interested in exploiting the krill, there would be potential for disputes and possibly conflict over access to the resources of the far southern seas. This could have some importance in the case of Antarctica because it is not only believed to contain oil and minerals but is also the world's largest source of fresh water.


Turning to the impact of resource scarcity on military planning, it is already clear that the combined impact of the energy crisis and the search for alternative resources has begun to influence the configuration and mission of peacetime military forces. Increasing numbers of countries are buying and deploying forces either to deter resource conflicts or to make sure they can contain them if they occur.

While the major arms buildup being conducted by Iran and Saudi Arabia has many objectives, protecting their oil resources and oil lines of communication (in the case of Iran especially) has undoubtedly been highly significant. The effect on Soviet planning is more speculative. While one can assign a number of broader political objectives to the Soviet effort to extend its influence in Africa, including the acquisition of base rights for its own sea-control missions, the possibility of posing a threat to the major oil lifeline of the West cannot be absent from Soviet thinking.

Far less portentous, but by no means insignificant, is the kind of situation that may be developing in areas of offshore oil exploitation. In the North Sea, for example, where such activities have expanded rapidly - and where there is also a dispute between Britain and several EEC countries over the exact extent of fishing zones - even Britain has felt constrained to initiate new force deployments (including the so-called Tapestry missions by the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy) designed to meet a number of requirements, including political presence, surveillance and, if necessary, protection of offshore resources. While one would hardly foresee actual military conflicts among nations that otherwise enjoy very close relations, there is certainly the possibility that military forces may be required to police increasingly strict transit regulations, as well as to control fishing.

And if one visualizes the extension of similar offshore oil activities in such areas as the Yellow Sea, the possibilities for conflict and for interference with normal maritime activity become progressively greater. Inevitably, contiguous states are bound to respond by developing more extended patrol and other military capabilities.

Similarly, the progressive extension of 200-mile economic resource zones worldwide is already resulting in a proliferation in the number of military vehicles, especially patrol vessels, around the world. Such vehicles can easily be armed with new generations of sophisticated stand-off weapons, such as anti-ship cruise missiles.

To carry the argument one step further, the extension of offshore jurisdiction, in part due to expectations of resource availability, together with the military and constabulary forces designed to protect and survey these areas, may mean that access to certain regions is likely to be more politically controversial than in the past. For example, it can be questioned how free U.S. access from its major base in the Philippines, Subic Bay, through the South China Sea and the Indonesian Strait into the Indian Ocean would be in the event of a new Middle Eastern war, if the local states were to decide that U.S. military deployments through their waterways were to help protect Israel. Such considerations would have been unheard of ten years ago. Yet today they at least have to be discussed by military planners.

Similarly, constraints on Soviet military freedom of movement through the North Sea regions may become greater, given the surveillance activity in that region and the fact that there are numerous hazards to shipping, which, from the Soviet point of view, could have anti-military potential. Another area where "closed seas" are likely is the Persian Gulf, where the ability of the great powers to deploy in this region against the will of the major littoral states can no longer be taken for granted.

The point is not that these areas are becoming "closed" in a legal sense; neither is it to say that local powers will be able to deny the United States or the U.S.S.R. access in wartime. But in a "limited crisis" situation the major powers might not wish to exercise their access rights for fear that the political costs of doing so would outweigh the benefits.

Thus, one wonders whether the United States would today repeat its 1971 action during the India-Pakistan war, when it sent the Enterprise through the Straits of Malacca into the Bay of Bengal against the wishes of the littoral states. These constraints, although perhaps not decisive in time of major war, have begun to influence the manner in which the maritime powers can deploy their forces for the important peacetime presence mission.

If the political access problem is examined in conjunction with the overall logistical requirements for maintaining a maritime presence worldwide, the emerging environment is even more constrictive for countries like the United States. Overseas basing facilities and fuel supplies are still essential, and without them even nuclear-powered ships would have difficulty fulfilling any major military mission that involved high-tempo operations.

At still another level, the high costs of petroleum have already diminished the force readiness of the major U.S. fleets. The number of sea days that the Sixth Fleet has been able to operate since 1974 has been reduced considerably, which, in turn, has had its impact upon operational capabilities. The extent to which concern about the U.S. military establishment's oil bill is a new factor in planning can best be illustrated if one could imagine the United States having to fight another war of the same intensity and duration as that in Vietnam but at today's oil prices. During the height of the Vietnam War, U.S. forces consumed more than one million barrels of oil a day at prices one-quarter to one-fifth of today's. Although the United States could undoubtedly obtain the oil if it were needed, the political and economic consequences would now be so great that the President would have to decide almost immediately whether the situation warranted putting the nation onto a full-fledged war footing.


Over the long term, many of the issues discussed in the previous sections may be superseded by fundamental structural changes in the nature of the international system that may bring about new strategic alignments and perceptions of security among new groups of states. Of the many resource factors that could alter strategic coalitions, two are worthy of special note. First, the need for resources may lead to the expansion of new geographic frontiers and the development of new logistical systems to exploit those frontiers; second, intensive programs to discover and develop alternative economically viable resources, especially energy sources, may have important military spinoffs.

The Soviet Union, Brazil, central and southern Africa, the polar regions and the deep ocean, as well as outer space, offer major prospects for further development and exploitation by the end of the century. The Soviet Union is still an underdeveloped country. Its population, although large by world standards, is concentrated in several high-density regions, leaving vast tracts of Siberia, the Soviet Arctic and Far East virtually empty. Attempts to develop and settle these areas have been beset with difficulties, not the least of them being climate and the absence of roads or railroads. In recent years there has been talk of joint U.S.-Japanese-Soviet investment in the infrastructure and technologies to extract oil and natural gas from Siberia and the Far East. However, mutual suspicions on all sides have, so far, effectively limited the extent of this cooperation. Were such a relationship to evolve or were the Soviet Union able to succeed in developing the area on its own, the effect would be to create a new industrial area that would use local energy sources. In this regard, the Soviet decision to build a new railroad parallel but to the north of the present trans-Siberian line is of considerable strategic importance not only in the event of a war in the northeast Pacific, but also as a means of supporting a greater Soviet maritime presence in the Pacific.

Brazil has plans to become a continental power by the end of the century and, perhaps more than any other country in the world, reflects today the same sense of manifest destiny found in the United States in the nineteenth century. An essential ingredient of this destiny involves the opening of the frontiers along its long and distant borders and in the interior of the Amazon Basin and the Mato Grosso. Since Brazil's borders are contiguous with all the states of South America except for Chile and Ecuador, the internal dynamics of Brazil's economic development will inevitably have strong political repercussions on her neighbors. So far, the impact of Brazil's expansion has been most noticeable in the southwest, where good agricultural land and the need for energy has led to development plans for the gigantic hydroelectric complex at Itaipu on the Parana River on the border with Paraguay and less than 100 miles from the Argentinian border. Itaipu symbolizes the complicated geopolitics of the La Plata Basin, and the extent to which the expansion of Brazilian economic power and its concomitant need for energy and a logistical infrastructure have drawn its neighbors into a closer web that has the potential both for cooperation and conflict. Although the elements of resource conflict between Brazil and Argentina are often stressed - for instance the impact of the Itaipu dam upon the water level in Argentinian ports - this could change if, as some believe, Argentina, rather than Brazil, were to discover major offshore oil, a commodity in short supply in Brazil.

In the Amazon, the plans to settle the interior, although suffering major setbacks due, among other things, to the oil crisis and the greater appeal of the southwest, are bringing Brazil into direct contact with the bordering countries of Peru, Colombia and Venezuela. This "spread" of Brazilian economic activity is occurring at a time when the border states themselves are slowly expanding towards their interior boundaries. The result is that enormous areas of land that, until recently, have not been considered important in a strategic sense have now begun to be so. The unanswered question, though, is over what time frame Brazil will be able to establish a major economic presence in the Amazon Basin. Early estimates of the speed with which the region would be settled as a result of the new trans-Amazon road and generous land offers to the overpopulated northeast have proven to be greatly exaggerated. Nevertheless, by the end of the century, and possibly sooner, parts of the interior could begin to resemble the United States in the mid-nineteenth century.

In Africa south of the Sahara, several areas have enormous potential in terms of resource development. The Sudan could become another major land-food area; Zaïre, South Africa and Namibia could become leading mineral exporters. However, here, as in the Amazon and Siberia, with the exception of South Africa, the logistical systems and skills are not available: whether they will become so will probably depend far more upon external political factors than in the previous cases.

Each of the polar regions is potentially important: in the north the resources, primarily oil and fish, are already a major strategic issue and the question of "ownership" of these resources is a matter for negotiation or conflict among the major Arctic powers (the United States, Canada, the U.S.S.R., Norway and Denmark). However, the southern polar regions are presently not owned by any state and yet, as mentioned earlier, abundant but difficult to retrieve resources are to be found there. The circumstances under which Antarctica could become a focus for strategic concern might well be conditioned by future political developments in South America, where there remain serious disputes between Argentina and Chile and between Argentina and Britain over the status of the offshore area near the Beagle Channel and the Falkland Islands respectively. If oil were discovered off southern Argentina, and if France were to start towing icebergs to Saudi Arabia, as has been proposed, then the area would almost certainly be perceived to be more important by everybody.

The last two frontiers, the deep ocean and outer space, offer the most dramatic prospects for a new geopolitical era. If the economics of deep-sea mining and outer space resources prove attractive, they will undoubtedly be exploited, since the basic technology for doing so is already here. However, this technology is only available to very few countries and, in the case of outer space, the United States has a major economic advantage over the U.S.S.R. with its development of the space shuttle. This latter system could become an extremely important logistical system if - and it is still a big if - the economics of space prove as important as advocates have made out.

In strategic terms, the advanced industrial powers, but especially the United States, have the ability to either "go it alone" or to cooperate in sharing expertise for deep-sea and space exploration. So far the United States has been generous - some would say overly generous - in its willingness to cooperate in these ventures. Were the international climate to change toward more open economic confrontation, the United States could, if it made the commitment, adopt a more aggressive and self-serving ocean and space policy and, with political will, forge a new economic order and a new dimension to its imperial role.


Turning to the impact of new technologies, it is at once obvious that the prospects for nuclear weapons proliferation have been enhanced by the increased demand for nuclear power reactors throughout the world, which in turn stems directly from attempts to alleviate the energy crisis. With this example in mind, it is well to ponder some of the potential military implications of the numerous research-and-development programs currently underway at the laboratory level to solve our resource problems.

Once more, history can be a useful guide. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, few military experts foresaw the impact of the steam engine and the internal combustion engine upon land, sea and air warfare. Yet railways and the motorized vehicle probably did more to change military strategy and tactics between Napoleon and the Treaty of Versailles than all the improvements in firepower and weapons system design. In recent times, the breakthroughs in the design and costs of micro-electronics have greatly improved the lethal effectiveness of non-nuclear weapons. Yet this trend was not foreseen by those writing about military affairs in the early 1960s.

Therefore, if we can be reasonably sure of anything about the future, it is that major changes in military performance could well result from technological breakthroughs not initially related to the more narrow confines of military research and development. For example, the development of a lightweight, powerful, long-endurance fuel cell of sufficiently low cost to warrant mass production could revolutionize the conduct of conventional warfare without requiring any basic changes in weapons system design. Eliminating, or drastically reducing, the dependency of modern military forces upon the internal combustion engine and its cumbersome, increasingly costly and vulnerable petroleum-oil-lubricant supply line would introduce a new flexibility into the operation of a military division or company similar to the freedom given to submarines with the introduction of the nuclear-powered engine.

More exotic examples could be suggested, especially those that could result from the spinoffs of economic exploitation of space alluded to earlier. The ability to build vast solar power stations and establish research colonies of scientists and technicians initially tasked with the job of "mapping" the unknown and maintaining existing space systems has far-reaching military implications, and the country that has developed the infrastructure and technology will have a major initial advantage.

At the other extreme, in the deep ocean, advanced technology developed for ocean mining and processing can also have military implications. That the CIA's Glomar Explorer used deep-sea mining techniques in the effort to locate and to retrieve Soviet submarines from the ocean bed is the best evidence that much of this technology is already with us.


To summarize, wars over access to scarce resources are neither necessary nor inevitable, but they can occur for complex reasons. Three military issues over scarce resources can be identified: first, military conflict to control, destroy or to protect a given resource, such as an oil field, a watershed, fishing areas, arable land, or precious mineral areas; second, military deployments to annex or protect a land or sea area believed to contain or to be close to potentially valuable resources such as offshore islands near oil-bearing rock formations; third, military conflict that affects access routes to and from sources of supply - sea, air and land lines of communication, especially straits, and airstrips, railroad systems and ports. In each of these three categories, the importance of the resource factor will vary. We can distinguish between a conflict where the resource conflict is the dominant factor, e.g., the Anglo-Icelandic Cod War, and those conflicts where it is a secondary, albeit potentially catalytic, factor, e.g., Greek-Turkish conflict over possible Aegean oil deposits.

Access to Middle Eastern oil will remain the most serious, if not the most likely, resource-related possible source of conflict for the next decade. Elsewhere there may be higher probabilities of resource conflict but their impact may be regional and economic rather than a potential catalyst for World War III.

The indirect effects of resource scarcity are already having an impact upon military policy leading to the establishment of "constabulary" forces, which could eventually place greater constraints on access in regional sea areas now considered "international." These factors, together with the effects of high fuel costs upon military operations and training, and uncertainty over foreign base rights, suggest that Soviet and U.S. ability to exercise political-military power in distant waters may eventually decline.

Finally, over time, the interaction of population, technology and resource trends may lead to the opening up of new geographical frontiers, including outer space, and the development of new technologies, which have major military application. In strategic terms, the long-run prospects for the United States look poor if our vision is restricted to current resource dependencies and logistical systems. If, however, the United States shows imagination, it can exploit its undisputed lead in advanced technology and continue to be the pathfinder in a potentially revolutionary new era. However, whether the United States will have to contemplate this role in the context of growing international conflict or improved cooperation will be dependent in large part on its ability to overcome the short-term constraints of the energy crisis.


1 This material draws upon research by the author for a project at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy on "Scarce Resources and International Conflict," funded by the Rockefeller Foundation.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • Geoffrey Kemp is Associate Professor of International Politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University. In 1974-75 he worked as a program analyst in the Department of Defense and in 1976 served as a consultant to the Committee on Foreign Relations, U.S. Senate, where he co-authored the study, U.S. Military Sales to Iran.
  • More By Geoffrey Kemp