The New Cold War The Global Battle for Natural Resources

By Erich Follath

Part 2: Money, the Bomb, and 'Wild Peace'


Nagasaki, 1945.
DPA

Nagasaki, 1945.

Hiroshima and Nagasaki demonstrated the horrific consequences of nuclear weapons -- as well as mankind's horrible potential for self-destruction -- but the bomb turned out to have uses aside from total destruction. One was to help differentiate between the haves and have-nots. Thus, it comes as no surprise that, following the British and the French, the Chinese pushed open the door to the club of nuclear powers in 1964, with the Israelis (unofficially) following suit in 1967.

Despite the fact that an end to the Cold War was repeatedly proclaimed during the détente phases, it was only the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 that brought real change. The Soviet Union -- too big, armed to the point of bankruptcy and cut off from new technologies -- was essentially forced to declare itself bankrupt before its own citizens and the world.

In the end, the Soviet Union's departure from world history was marked by a sigh, and not some horrible explosion, thanks in part to the level-headedness of then-premier Mikhail Gorbachev, who had no option but to support reforms. The collapse of the Soviet Union also spelled the end of monolithic blocs. But after an initial phase of euphoria, even the Western victors quickly realized that the "end of history" predicted by their triumphalists had not come about.

A post-Cold War interlude

The Cold War, the age of the permanent but generally manageable conflict, initially turned into a phase of "wild" peace. During this transitional period it became clear that the US model of democracy wasn't necessarily transferable, that the dangers to world peace had not evaporated, but simply shifted, and that major countries of the Third World could no longer be forced to act as proxies for anyone else.

The economic reforms in Leninist-capitalist China and (more than a decade later) in democratic-socialist India, released tremendous forces that changed and continue to change the balance of power in the increasingly globalized world of the 21st century.

Ultimately, however, "wild peace" in the wake of the Cold War -- the period between 1991 and 2001 -- was nothing but an interlude in which the actors on the world stage positioned themselves. Europe searched for its identity and possibly its own path, while opening membership in its Union to the countries of the former communist East. An insecure and humiliated Russia set out in search of new alliances and tried its hand at a form of state capitalism with democratic overtones. The US, as the sole remaining superpower, settled in to its dominant global role for an indeterminate period of time, making itself "indispensable," as former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has said, in crisis situations the world over. It also continued its military buildup -- to the point where the 2007 US military budget will equal the weapons expenditures of all other countries in the world combined.

From the wild peace to a new Cold War

However, America was unable to stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons. In 1998, India and Pakistan successfully detonated their nuclear warheads, and North Korea declared itself a nuclear power in 2005. There have also been unsettling developments in the bomb's motherland. In violation of the provisions of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Washington planned to support the development of "mini nukes" -- thereby lowering the threshold for the use of the most horrible of all weapons.

But a few years later, it looked as though the wild peace could develop into a permanent state of non-war. Although Islamist underground groups were attempting to attract international attention with the spread of terrorism, they chose suicide attacks as their preferred weapon. Nuclear power, no matter how imposing, was no match for the perfidious concept of the human bomb. Though unsettling for the West, the problem seemed manageable as long as the attacks by murdering "martyrs" were mainly limited to the Middle East and only sporadically affected US interests.

Osama bin Laden in a video grab from January 19, 2006.
AFP

Osama bin Laden in a video grab from January 19, 2006.

Of course, all that changed on Sept. 11, 2001, when al-Qaida terrorists attacked America's heart, and about 3,000 people died in New York's World Trade Center, at the Pentagon in Washington and in a Pennsylvania field near Pittsburgh. What had been a "wild peace" suddenly turned into a hot war -- if an understandable one, as long as it was seen as a punishment of Afghanistan. The country's Islamist Taliban regime had, after all, provided safe haven and logistics for al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden and his fellow terrorists.

But Afghanistan wasn't a big enough prize for the White House. President Bush, and especially Vice President Richard Cheney and hawkish Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, used misinformation about supposed weapons of mass destruction to inflate support within the US population and an international "coalition of the willing" for launching a military campaign against Iraq and its dictator, Saddam Hussein.

Not many in Washington were concerned by the global community's refusal to sanction this step. The attacks of Sept. 11 had made Americans painfully aware of their physical vulnerability, as well as shining a spotlight on the unreliability of its partners and the potential hostility of an entire world region. After all, 15 of the 19 terrorists on the Sept. 11 aircraft were originally from Saudi Arabia, whose corrupt royal family had supported Bin Laden for many years.

Quagmire in Iraq

Bush's Iraq campaign was about toppling a dictator, America's strategic interests and its military bases, and the attempt to "implant" democracy in the Middle East. More than anything, though, it was a war for oil.

Iraq has enormous oil and natural gas reserves. And whoever controls the land on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers can exercise decisive influence over developments in this volatile region, sometimes dubbed the "world's gas station" because of its vast natural resources.

But it's been clear for months now that the campaign has failed. The US occupation force was not greeted with flowers and, as a result of its inability to provide even the most basic necessities, such as water and electricity, it is increasingly abhorred by the Iraqi people. Terror wrought by al-Qaida, which made Iraq its new center, has claimed more Iraqi victims than Americans.

Despite all appeals to stay the course, Baghdad will not be able to liberate itself from economic lethargy through oil exports anytime soon. Almost daily terror attacks against pipelines have reduced production even further. Former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi already says that his country is descending into civil war. But US President Bush continues to believe in "victory" and that world has become "a safer place" since the Iraq invasion.

A clear majority of Americans now oppose the war, and many feel bitter about the negative image a country considered a democratic leader is currently projecting in the wake of scandals from Guantanamo to Abu Ghraib. Throughout its history, the United States has alternated between periods of global intervention and domestic navel gazing, and it could become increasingly introverted in the near future. A second military adventure, in Iran, for example, is highly unlikely to happen, partly because most Americans are apparently more concerned about a 50 percent increase in gasoline prices in the last 48 months than about a distant country's nuclear ambitions.

The big problems remain: the proliferation of nuclear weapons, radical Islamism and terrorism. No one knows how to prevent an Iranian president who -- at least verbally -- is committed to the destruction of Israel from building nuclear weapons. Osama bin Laden has managed to establish, in large sections of predominantly Muslim and economically backward states, his Islamist worldview as a counterweight to a supposedly exploitive, "godless" Western society. Although al-Qaida's role as a tightly run terrorist organization has diminished, its comprehensive ideology of terror has spread throughout the world, making it more dangerous than ever before.

Saudi Arabian oil refinery: A chess piece in the new cold war
DPA

Saudi Arabian oil refinery: A chess piece in the new cold war

Only an improvement in living conditions -- including integration into globalized world trade under free, non-protectionist conditions and, in particular, personal opportunities for advancement -- can reduce the hold radical leaders have over people in these countries. This social change is the prerequisite for a civil society and, when it comes to democratic social interaction, is far more important than free elections, for example. It can only be achieved through the production, supply and equitable distribution of consumer goods, and it is based on the condition of undisturbed access to all types of natural resources, including fossil fuels, uranium and renewable energy.

A major problem has been pushed to the forefront. All major powers -- the United States, Europe, Russian and up-and-comers China and India -- have now made resource security a top priority political issue. They have devoted considerable efforts to building a network of pipelines across deserts and grasslands and beneath the oceans. As they court the custodians and owners of the resources, trickery, bribery and bargaining have become the order of the day. But in the foreseeable future, this battle is likely to be waged below the threshold of military conflict, which means the intermediate phase of "wild freedom" following the collapse of the Soviet Union has shifted to a different era: the New Cold War.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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