Monday, June 28, 2004

Conflict, Sure. War...Maybe? 

Kevin Drum gets it right on how the Iraq War was and was not about oil:
The Iraq war wasn't "about oil" in the sense that we simply wanted unfettered control over Iraq's oil production. It wasn't even about making sure that Anglo-American oil companies were the ones who won the contracts to produce and export Iraqi crude, although that was a nice bonus.

But it was about oil in the broader sense that the only reason we care about Middle East stability in the first place is that it supplies the oil the modern economy depends on.
The case is maybe a little overstated (terrorism, domestic politics/Israel are surely other reasons we care about Middle East stability), but basically correct, I think.

But then his post, following the logic introduced in this Washington Post article, veers a bit into ill-considered speculation:
My guess is that 50 years from now Gulf War I and Gulf War II will be considered merely the opening salvos in a single, longrunning conflict: the first of the large, modern wars fought primarily to protect the oil supplies of the West.
I agree with Kevin and the Post: oil is likely to cause a lot of friction [couldn't help myself] over the foreseeable future. But should we expect to see Kevin's "large, modern wars" or the Post's "new kind of war?"

Maybe, but oil in and of itself isn't the reason why. There are a lot of theories out in International Relations land which purport to explain why war breaks out when there are other means for resolving disputes. Neorealists suggest that "large, modern war" breaks out when there are shifts in the underlying polarity of the international system. In this narrative, "revisionist" powers like a rising China or EU might try to knock the US off its perch as the sole existing hegemon. Oil plays a role (as a material resource underlying the military power of the relevant nations), sure, but it's hardly along the lines Kevin suggests. Finding some replacement energy source might change the theater of war, but war itself would remain equally likely as long as the changes in the relevant states' relative power wasn't affected.

Proponents of the dominant "rationalist explanation" school say war breaks out because of miscalculation, either because one or both sides can't accurately determine the other's resolve to fight (this is probably what happened in Iraq, as Saddam apparently didn't believe the US would actually invade) or because there's no way for one or both states to credibly commit to a negotiated solution.

It's not clear in either of these cases that we'll see war break out over oil. If anything, the Bush administration's invasion of Iraq should increase other states' knowledge about US resolve on this issue, making war less likely in coming years. And there's no particular reason to think that most of the states mentioned in the Post piece (China, Japan, Russia, the EU and the US) won't make use of the monitoring and enforcement mechanisms they've designed for issues like trade and control of Antarctica to resolve problems arising over oil. In short, without an argument for why oil is a special case, there's no reason to point to oil and declare "here lie the seeds of war."

As I've mentioned before, there's another argument for why war breaks out: some issues are indivisible, such as (perhaps) control of Jerusalem. In cases like these, there's no negotiated solution possible, just outcomes which suit one side or the other. It's really hard to make the case that this applies to oil, since we've repeatedly seen deals in civil wars (such as the one in 1997 in Congo) where disputants share oil revenues. One could quite plausibly make the case that the current global oil-economy status quo is also a sort of negotiated settlement which keeps war from breaking out.

What's my point? There's no doubt that oil will continue to drive world politics for the foreseeable future. Wars, even "large, modern wars" may break out, too. But there has to be more to the story to connect the dots, and the mere fact of oil's importance doesn't do the trick.

UPDATE: A Fistful of Euros wonders about the implications for Europe (and Europe's security stance) of the same trends in the global oil economy.

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