by Mike Hoff

Nation-states historically go to war for conquest, religious ideals, or old-fashioned imperialism. In our current economic environment, with dwindling natural resources and the faint hope of renewable energy unable to feed current demand, the next wars may very well be fought for oil.

In the last century, armed forces need a steady fuel supply or conquered oilfields to fuel the war machine. As the Cold War cooled, authors like Tom Clancy created fictional scenarios of war-like countries attacking oil-rich nations to fulfill their aggressive maneuvers around the world. And countries currently dependent on foreign oil imports, like Japan or Korea, are considered too fragile to mount a sustained attack on the international stage (should they so desire).

The problem in today’s world, is that the decreasing supply of petroleum resources – the Tupi discovery off Brazil notwithstanding – means that growing nations like China, India, southeast Asia, and even Mexico are discovering their GNP hindered by basic supply concerns.

To remedy this economic shortfall, the Chinese government has aggressively invested in exploration and extraction in Canada, Sudan, and other areas. Russia is increasingly dependent upon Western technology to extract more from harsh Siberian fields. And Brazil, previously reliant upon external nations - such as the mercurial government in Venezuela – is now able to stabilize its economy thanks to the Tupi find.

In the past, New World powers like the US, Russia, Canada, and to varying degrees, southeast Asian tigers like Malaysia, Indonesia, and India have been able to drill within (or nearby) to fuel 20th century industrialization and growth. But they too are facing the specter of dwindling local supplies and the need to revise extraction methods – both technically and politically – to keep their nations warm and flourishing. For instance, India has abandoned its deep-rooted desire to subjugate Pakistan (for now) for the sake of the IPI Pipeline.

The possibility that nations will war for petroleum products is not a new idea by any means, and many of the current battles, on and off the field, are being fought for natural resources. As the old adage goes, there’s only so much land on the planet; as well as potable water, edible fish, swamplands, and so-on.

The problem for the next few decades is that money, trade, or old-fashioned charm will not be able to acquire the necessary stock. Many predict oil prices will rise to 2007 levels, due to dwindling supply, high demand (particularly China and India), and antagonism in key supply states (e.g. Iraq, Venezuela). It will become obvious to heads-of-state that the lack of this resource will impede economic growth, especially for Second World countries, and negotiation, technological advances, or wealth will not guarantee a steady supply.

These growing nations will certainly consider acquiring petroleum reserves by force when they are turned away for economic or political reasons (conflicting ideology, old grudges, national fear of sharing, etc.). The current incursion of American (Western?) forces in the Persian Gulf may be seen as the bungled manifestation of Good Ole Boy Foreign Policy. However, future generations may regard it as a necessary foothold in an oil-rich area, with a high-output port that local allies (i.e. Israel) cannot provide.

Battles for refined oil will be quickly exacerbated by those nation-states with imperialist or alienist agendas – and these nations number among the majority of the large producers. Countries that have long yearned to go to war with each other – Iran and Iraq, Pakistan and India, China and Taiwan – can easily hide their militaristic desires under the guise of securing future petroleum resources. Should all-out aggressions flare (again) in the Middle East, citizens will rejoice in the streets in Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Syria, Egypt, Iraq and Iran, that the battle has finally come to bear. This hatred and tribal pugnacity will inflame conflict in oil-producing nations, where there may have been temperance if the supply was more plentiful.

Military strategists will note that few of these conflicts can be successfully fought with merely conventional weapons – but the presence of the U.S., Russia, and China in tinderboxes such as the Middle East, north South America, and ex-Russian states will deter overly aggressive moves. It would be impossible for any Middle Eastern nation, for example, to lob a nuke at their “Western” enemy (Israel, Saudi Arabia, Kashmir, Turkey, etc.) without drawing the armed reprisal of Europe, Russia, or the U.S. (Note that China may be able to stand pat on many of these skirmishes – as long as it doesn’t threaten its peace-loving northern neighbours!). But populous growing nations like India and Russian can rely on million+ armies to carry the war back and forth across the region.

Not only will sabers be drawn and armed divisions deployed, the next generation will see environmental concerns in unspoiled areas of Alaska, northern Russia, Canada, and the coasts of Norway and Brazil discarded as secondary to the need for more petroleum.

It follows that a pessimistic historian could expand this scenario to suppose that all nations would take advantage of this Dwindling Resources War to bully weaker neighbours in Central America, Indonesia, Korea, the Baltic states, and all points of Africa - likely under the cloak of battling terrorism or supporting Freedom Fighters. Far more likely is large drilling platforms becoming military camps in Nigeria, Norway, Canada, Saudi Arabia (obviously), Kazakhstan, Venezuela, and the Gulf of Mexico; any attack from any side will be met with “extreme prejudice.” This state of military affairs would, conversely, leave oil-poor nations in South America, Northern Europe, Africa, and Australia (as usual) largely unaffected.

If oil-producing nations longing for war find themselves the envy of have-not neighbours restricted in their recovery from the current economic crisis, the long-term effects could mirror those of any popular doom-saying fiction writer: limited nuclear combat, population reduction, military occupation, and the forced redistribution of wealth.

Or, on the other hand, perhaps such fear-mongering and hawkish predictions are out of step with today’s global economy. Perhaps OPEC will show price restraint, people will lose their irrational fears of nuclear power, oil-rich nations will embrace democracy and abandon religious fanaticism, ethical grudges will heal, and a safe, renewalable power supply will be deployed across current infrastructure to support the wealth and happiness of over 6 billion people.

Mike Hoff works for the private consulting company, Hussar Innovations