Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Jumping the Resource Gap: The Coming Conflicts over Scarcity and What the World Can do to avoid them

When you think about the world’s most dangerous and pressing conflicts, most people picture Arab-Israeli tensions, civil wars in Africa, or even America’s interventions in foreign states. What few people intuitively think of as the world’s central conflict-causing issue in years to come, however, is the growing resource scarcity of key industrial items that has already led to great power jockeying. In his 2012 book The Race for What’s Left, Michael L. Klare details why almost every single resource the global economy depends upon is running out, and how countries are trying to grab up the rest before it’s too late. These resource- and landgrabs are not likely to lead to a friendlier global arena, to say the least, and may spell disaster if great powers come to blows.

The most obvious example is oil: you would be hard-pressed to find a single American, especially one with a car, who isn’t aware of the fact that oil is a scarce resource. Rising gas prices and oil wars and diplomacy have marked US foreign policy since WWII. The end of “easy” oil, primarily in the form of deposits in the Middle East, has led to increased exploration of riskier sources. From the tar pits of Alberta to the deep offshore wells off of North and South America (as well as every other continent), oil exploration has taken a front row seat in the quest for more resources. Russia, Norway, Greenland (administered by Denmark) and others have begun setting the stage for conflict over arctic territories believed to hold vast oil resources. This has raised concerns about the implications of invasive oil wells in the delicate arctic environment, already beleaguered by climate change and global warming.

Environmental concerns also abound on the issue of deepwater drilling. The Deepwater Horizon oil explosion was almost certainly a result of hasty exploration that overlooked safety measures, and that disaster is not likely to be the last in the hazardous practice of deepwater drilling. Still, when the choice is to put entire coastlines at risk or have no more access to the black gold, governments and corporations the world over are not likely to be more concerned with the communities than the oil. Oil extraction from the tar sands of northern Canada would be no less environmentally hazardous. Fraccing for natural gas has already been exposed as dangerous to the areas in which it takes place.

Hydrocarbons are not the only area in which countries are likely to compete for resources. Common minerals such as copper and aluminum, as well as rare earth metals essential for electronics production are running out. Formerly rich deposits of common elements like copper have dwindled as world demand has skyrocketed. Rare earth metals have already caused waves in international politics: China, a key holder of REMs, has restricted and even banned exports of the metals to foreign countries both as a practical move and a political one. Without elements like lithium, for example, there is no way to produce advanced technologies like lightweight lithium batteries. That REMs and other minerals are concentrated in the hands of just a few countries makes the likelihood of conflict go up due to the political motivation behind any decrease in exports.

Besides the shrinking of deposits of gas, oil, and minerals, the final area of crucial resource scarcity is less obvious because it comes not in the form of a deposit, but the very earth you stand upon. Land scarcity, especially arable land scarcity is a growing problem to which many countries are already seeking solutions. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states have made huge efforts to buy up agricultural land in Africa and South Asia. China, although seemingly more than large enough to support its population, also has its eye on the pie as its growing citizenry outpaces the viable agricultural land. The issue of landgrabs is problematic for a few reasons: first, what are the implications of foreign powers owning a large share of another country’s land? Second, what about the moral implications of a country growing food in a place like Africa where food scarcity, famine, and malnutrition are continuous threats? Third, will third party agriculturalists really take as good of care of the land as natives of the country?

All of these areas of resource scarcity paint a fairly frightening picture: if countries do not find an alternative to current consumption patterns, then war between them over resources is inevitable in the future. As Klare argues, the only viable solution is then to find alternative sources of energy and minerals and come to a consensus about resource distribution, use and laws. Unfortunately, given the state of international consensus on any issue, let alone one that threatens both the national security and the economy of every nation on earth, the alternative solution is not likely to even be sought until it may be too late.

 The Race for What's Left by Michael. T. Klare formed the basis for this article.

Monday, February 25, 2013

From Iron Dome to the Arrow 3

Last November, as delineated in a past article, Israel launched a military operation targeting Islamist militants--chiefly Hamas--and their capacity to fire rockets into mainland Israel. Operation Pillar of Defense, as it was called, debuted the Jewish state's Iron Dome missile defense system, which intercepted just under a third of the missiles launched from Gaza. The Iron Dome was an important step forward for Israel's "multilayered defense system" and adds extra missile defense capacity along with the existing David's Sling and Arrow 2 missile defense systems. The new missile defense system--dubbed the Arrow 3--is designed to target Iranian Shihab 3 missiles and other long-range rockets. The joint Israeli-American project was tested today with remarkable success, and it's set to be fully operational by 2016.

A diagram of the Arrow 3 defense system. From JPost.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Syria is Burning: The Devastating Effects of Nonintervention

I have a Syrian friend named Ahmed, a kind and friendly owner of a local cafe in Allston. As I'm grabbing my morning coffee, Ahmed and I talk politics often as he knows my interest in international relations focuses mainly on the Middle East. In our four years of friendship, he's offered some of the most astute and accurate observations of Middle Eastern politics I've ever heard. I remember a conversation we had early last summer that began as most of our conversations do, with me asking how his family still in Syria was doing. With his characteristic smile and cheerful demeanor, he dismissed my concerns. "They all live in Aleppo," he said. "The regime could never afford to touch Aleppo. That's where all of the rich and powerful people live."

Aleppo in October 2012.

Fast-forward eight months to today and much of Aleppo is a burned out shell, reflecting the desperate situation across all of Syria. Since the end of the Eid al-Adha “ceasefire” in late October, fighting has ramped up along with casualties, compounded by a harsh winter faced by civilians who have in many cases lost everything. In a conflict that has left at least 70,000 people dead, 2 million internally displaced, and 700,000 refugees, the frontlines have stagnated throughout much of the country, leading to fears of a drawn out and devastating war of attrition. Since the uprising began in March 2011, Western governments have contented themselves with tentative UN moves handily blocked by Russia and China. Regional powers support whichever side serves their interests, and competing factions within Syria’s neighbors oftentimes arm both.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Outlining the Impact of the Kenyan Elections on Somalia - By Aaron Stanley

Kenyans are cautiously approaching the first general elections since violence erupted following the 2007 election. The elections will be a test for one of Africa’s most prosperous and stable nations, a hub of East Africa, and quickly becoming one of the primary locations for business on the continent. Regional consequences are plenty: crucial players in Somalia’s stability; economic partners with South Sudan; and key players in the East African Union, destabilization and turmoil in Kenya will have significant consequences beyond the country’s borders. Internally, the implementation of a new constitution, citizen confidence in the government, and significant internal investment in infrastructure, business development, and citizen services, will all feel a considerable depression in effectiveness and growth if disturbed by a violent transfer of power. This article specifically examines how the elections could play a unique role in the continued stability of Kenya’s fragile northern neighbor, Somalia.  

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

South Sudan: Stumbling or Crumbling?

A cattle raid may sound like petty thievery, but in the Jonglei state of South Sudan where inter-communal violence has thrived for years and where cattle herding is the dominant economic pursuit in the northeast, cattle raids are a sensitive issue. For those whose livelihoods depend on it, cattle herding is virtually the only economic opportunity they have, underscored by the country's total lack of infrastructure. This coupled with longstanding tribal conflicts provide the context for a cattle-raid-turned-massacre of more than one hundred people in Jonglei yesterday. Among the dead are women, children and 14 Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) soldiers. It is believed that militia leader David Yau Yau--in rebellion after losing parliamentary elections in 2010--coordinated the attack.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Escalating Tensions With North Korea: Should We Be Worried?

Two weeks ago yesterday, the U.N. Security Council voted to tighten sanctions against our favorite rogue state, North Korea, as retaliation for a rocket launching that North Korea engaged in on December 12 of last year. Obviously, this enraged Kim Jong-un, the nascent dictator of North Korea and son of Kim Jong-il, who ruled North Korea from 1994 until his death in late 2011. In several vociferous statements last week, Mr. Kim claimed that there would be repercussions, specifically for the U.S., and that North Korea would be conducting their third nuclear test since 2006. There is much debate over what to think of this, with many foreign policy experts finding credence in this threat, while others are unconcerned.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Fraternizing with the Enemy: The US and Iran Announce Openness to Bilateral negotiations

Yesterday as the Ravens and the 49ers faced off in the Super Bowl, two other global powers in a decades-long standoff finally made some progress towards peace. On Saturday, Vice President Joe Biden stated that the US is open to direct talks with Iran if it demonstrates that it is “serious” about negotiating. At the same Munich Security Conference on Sunday, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi responded by saying that Iran is also open to direct talks with the US about its nuclear program. The window for diplomacy is certainly narrow: during President Obama’s first term, there was a single meeting between the two powers that only lasted 45 minutes. Still, the prospect of bilateral negotiations may be the only way for the two powers, and likely the rest of the world, to avoid a disastrous armed conflict.