Globalization and Natural-Resource Conflicts

By Pegg, Scott | Naval War College Review, Autumn 2003 | Go to article overview

Globalization and Natural-Resource Conflicts


Pegg, Scott, Naval War College Review


High-profile recent conflicts involving lucrative natural resources in such countries as Angola and Sierra Leone have drawn increasing attention to the link between natural resources and violence. While recent strategic, media, and academic attention has understandably focused on Iraq, the United States currently imports 15 percent of its crude oil from Africa, a figure that is forecast to increase to 25 percent by 2015. The Gulf of Guinea is poised to grow in strategic importance for the United States, and senior military and diplomatic officials are reportedly in advanced discussions with Sao Tome e Principe about establishing a regional U.S. Navy base there.1 This article argues that natural resource-related conflicts in places like West and Central Africa are not well understood. While such conflicts are unlikely to pose substantive operational risks to U.S. military forces, a failure to understand the dynamics underlying them risks exposing U.S. forces to smaller-scale Somalialike military problems and, perhaps more importantly, to serious public relations and reputational risks.

One of the factors that makes natural-resource conflicts especially noteworthy is the alleged role played in them by leading private-sector actors. The sovereign governments of Angola and Sierra Leone both hired the services of Executive Outcomes, a private military company. De Beers has faced mounting pressure over its purchase of diamonds from these war-torn areas. oil companies in Burma, Colombia, Nigeria, and the Sudan have been directly linked to state violence against local host communities.

Traditional security studies have generally neglected profit-oriented naturalresource conflicts. One recent large-scale empirical survey on conflict notes that nine of the thirteen wars identified in 1998 took place in Africa. Its authors posit that "this might be related to the phenomenon of weak states, to the increased erosion of boundaries, and to open or clandestine intervention from neighboring countries."2 They make no mention of any role that natural resources or private-sector involvement might play in generating these conflicts. Similarly, this project limits its definition of armed conflicts to conflicts that result "in at least 25 battle-related deaths."3 Thus, it lists no armed conflicts for Nigeria, because the thousands of fatalities suffered in recent years by groups like the Ijaw and Ogoni in violence surrounding oil extraction in the Niger Delta are not considered "battle related." Policy makers and senior members of Western armed forces might be inadvertently misled by such studies into thinking that resource-rich West African countries are far more peaceful than they really are. With a broadening, or loosening, of this "battle related" criterion, the Ogoni from 1993 to 1995 and the Ijaw from 1998 to 2001 would merit inclusion under this survey's categories of "intermediate armed conflict" or even of "war."4

The cited survey also limits itself to two types of conflict-incompatibility concerning government and concerning territory. As there is no category for wars to control natural resources, countries such as Angola and Sierra Leone are classified as incompatibilities concerning government. This neglect of natural resources is stunning, given that a recent World Bank study found that "the extent of primary commodity exports is the largest single influence on the risk of conflict."5 Three-quarters of sub-Saharan African states still rely on primary commodities for half or more of their export income.

Our focus here is on how the global economic incentives surrounding valuable natural resources facilitate and influence intrastate conflicts. One leading scholar has observed that "viewing the international system in terms of unsettled resource deposits . . . provides a guide to likely conflict zones in the twenty-first century." Nonetheless, the argument advanced here does not extend to traditional interstate conflicts (water wars in the Middle East), let alone systemwide strategic geopolitics (great-power conflicts in the Caspian and South China Seas). …

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