The New Cold War The Global Battle for Natural Resources

The global economy is booming, and experts predict it will stay healthy. But competition for natural resources will change the balance of power among the world's nations as a new age of conflicts over energy begins. In a new online series, SPIEGEL documents the global competition for dwindling supplies of natural resources.

By Erich Follath

British troops in Kuwait 2003: Coordinating the battle for global resources

British troops in Kuwait 2003: Coordinating the battle for global resources

It isn't always bombs and bayonets, wartime victory or surrender that shift the coordinates of world politics. Sometimes tectonic changes happen in less than spectacular ways.

That was what happened over half a century ago, when the Americans handed over patents for computer technology to the Japanese for a few dollars. What could those backward people in the Far East, weakened by the war, possibly do with the patents, the Americans wondered? But the industrious and highly motivated Japanese developed the technologies and built global corporations that forced Western companies in the entertainment and automobile industry out of the market.

A similar thing happened back in December 1978, when Chinese Premier Deng Xiaoping managed to convince fellow senior members of the Chinese Communist party -- in a resolution that was adopted with little fanfare -- to tolerate initial experiments with a free market economy. China has since transformed itself into a major economic power able to compete with the likes of the United States and Europe.

The rise and fall of nations is a game in which the cards are sometimes concealed, played by surprising and unexpected rules.

It's no different today, now that a new cold war has begun. We live in an age of dramatic distribution battles over resources that are becoming increasingly scarce and yet required in ever-growing amounts. It's also an age in which international politics are increasingly determined by questions of energy security. The cards are just now being reshuffled for potential winners and losers. Americans have discovered India as a new strategic partner, and energy-hungry China is making overtures to its old rival Russia. Strange bedfellows.

The point future historians will define as the start of this era is anyone's guess. Perhaps it'll be the day in May 2005 when the world's most expensive oil and natural gas pipeline was dedicated in a festive ceremony in the Azerbaijani capital Baku. That pipeline stretches from Azerbaijan through Georgia and ends at the Turkish port of Ceyhan -- a geographically remote and highly controversial project that was promoted by Washington in an effort to curb Iranian and Russian influence in the region.

Or it might be the day China secured resources for the next few decades in a $70 billion deal in Tehran.

Iran threatens to use oil as a weapon; Russia has already used natural gas as a political tool in its dealings with neighboring countries, and it can even shut off the natural gas spigot to Europe. Venezuela is toying with the idea of cutting off oil shipments to the United States, and terrorist organization al-Qaida recently tried, for the first time, to blow up Saudi Arabian oil facilities.

In a recently published study, experts from the investment bank Goldman Sachs and international political consultants from Washington, London and Singapore named international terror as the number two threat to the global economy. According to the report, only one issue poses a greater threat: raw material shortages and the related high price of oil.

In these frosty times, even the American superpower is getting nervous. US President George W. Bush, the domestic oil lobby's man in Washington, and long a proponent of unchecked consumption of fossil fuels, has recently made a surprising about-face. In his address to the nation in late January, Bush said that America was "addicted to oil," deplored the unstable situation in the energy-rich Middle East, and proposed that the nation wean itself off the black drug.

Bush had nothing but good things to say in his speech. He waxed lyrical about hybrid cars, biodiesel, wind and solar power. His proposals included expanding nuclear power, offering the Third World a "global partnership for nuclear energy," coupled with small reactors and a US guarantee for delivery of fuel rods. His critics say the idea is nothing but a new form of imperialism designed to generate dependency.

Terrorism is only the second-greatest threat to the world economy -- behind shortages of raw material.

Terrorism is only the second-greatest threat to the world economy -- behind shortages of raw material.

In any case, Bush's visit to India in early March set a historic precedent. Washington offered New Delhi a privileged energy partnership, which would include shipments of nuclear fuel and state-of-the-art reactor technologies -- despite the fact that India never signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and should, by all rights, be treated as a nuclear pariah.

This American initiative hasn't gone unnoticed in Europe. European Union Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner recently announced that the EU is making "the issue of energy security a key element of its foreign policy," a necessary shift that she attributes to recent "wake-up calls."

An increasingly desperate-seeming Europe is searching for a common resource policy. "If we can speak with one voice," says Gérard Mestrallet, CEO of the French energy management company SUEZ, "we can apply pressure to any supplier." But it's a rocky path from energy dependency to becoming an energy powerhouse, as was all too apparent at an EU summit in Brussels earlier this year, which produced little more than statements of intent.

Back to the future

So why does this new cold war seem, in many respects, so much like the old one that followed World War II? What are the differences? Where and how has the emphasis shifted?

The first Cold War started with the bomb -- and with a dispute. After defeating Hitler's Germany, the Allies in World War II split into two camps, partly as a result of deep feelings of mistrust between then-US President Harry Truman and Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. It was clear that Moscow planned to use whatever means necessary -- some rising almost to the level of armed conflict -- to secure its war spoils and aggressively expand its sphere of influence.

After the American scientists had successfully tested the first nuclear bomb in the New Mexico desert on July 16, 1945, and -- a few days later -- American bombers dropped the most horrific of all bombs onto Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the balance of power initially shifted toward the US. In a secret memo, the military heads of the project were already estimating the "atom bomb requirements for the destruction of strategic regions in Russia." The memo went on to list possible target cities, including the Soviet capital, Moscow.

Only after the USSR had detonated its own nuclear weapon in August 1949 did Stalin's backward realm regain the rank of "superpower" (even though the Soviet Union's rigid ideology, bureaucratic calcification and excessive military buildup already constituted the germ of its downfall). An equilibrium of horror developed which, in the face of the credible threat of mutual destruction, at least ruled out a "hot" military conflict between the superpowers.

Ronald Reagan in Berlin, 1982. The Cold War led to "a horribly stable world."

Ronald Reagan in Berlin, 1982. The Cold War led to "a horribly stable world."

This precarious nuclear balance guaranteed Western Europe, including West Germany, a long period of peace. Of course, for many others it was, in the words of author George Orwell, "a horribly stable world," one in which the ideological rivalry between the superpowers led to the formation of blocs, or clearly defined spheres of interest.

Those who lived on the right side of the Iron Curtain were well off, living as they did in prospering, democratic societies with free market economies. Not as well off were those who -- like the Hungarians in 1956 and the Czechs and Slovaks in 1968 -- wanted to break free from the Soviet straitjacket and, following the bloody suppression of resistance, were forced to feel their chains even more painfully.

But some Third World countries weren't even in a position to offer their citizens the horrible status of "Soviet satellite state." Washington and Moscow weren't fussy when it came to choosing allies; in fact human rights were the least of their concerns. Both superpowers thought nothing of propping up "allies" unconditionally, even if they were brutal dictators on the "right" or on the "left."

The US and the USSR never allowed themselves to be forced into a major direct confrontation. But large parts of Africa, Asia and Latin America never enjoyed Western Europe's enduring peace. Instead they were plagued by violent conflicts -- the "conventional" proxy wars waged by the superpowers on their territory. The biggest losers during this era were those living in underdeveloped regions, which the major powers selfishly used as battlegrounds -- and as suppliers of cheap energy.

Take, for example, America's relationship with Saudi Arabia. For decades Washington supplied the country's corrupt princes with the latest in modern weapons and fighter aircraft. In return for cheap fuel, America showered its supplier nations with billions. Hardly anyone was interested in whether the blessings of US currency ever reached the majority of people in these countries, or whether their rulers instead used the money to suppress democratic movements.


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