Strategic Thinking in a Resource-constrained World

Two new reports surveying the strategic trends that are likely to shape the next few decades of global politics point very clearly to the prospect of a severely resource-constrained world. Released two days apart, both the new Chatham House report on Resource Futures and the US National Intelligence Council report on Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds raise a number of important questions relating to conflict and security.

According to the Chatham House report,

The spectre of resource insecurity has come back with a vengeance. The world is undergoing a period of intensified resource stress, driven in part by the scale and speed of demand growth from emerging economies and a decade of tight commodity markets. Poorly designed and short-sighted policies are also making things worse, not better. Whether or not resources are actually running out, the outlook is one of supply disruptions, volatile prices, accelerated environmental degradation and rising political tensions over resource access.

The report outlines what the authors refer to as volatility being “the new normal.” For this reason “High and fluctuating prices are spurring new waves of resource nationalism and making unilateral and bilateral responses more attractive.” This should be cause for concern, especially in relation to the ways in which the response of governments and other actors to scarcity (or at least perceptions of scarcity) can interact with existing tensions and conflicts between and within communities. As the report highlights, “In addition to efforts to reduce demand at home, governments and other actors have moved to ensure access to affordable resources, reshaping the landscape of international politics. The return to largely protectionist and beggar-thy-neighbour manoeuvres – often in reaction to short-term supply bottlenecks or perceptions of scarcities rather than actual ones – can act as fuel to the fire.”

As well as mapping the consumption and trade trends across a series of important resources, the report also discusses the impact of external variables such as population growth and climate change. These are “multiple stress factors” which “render countries vulnerable to different types of shocks such as environmental disasters, political unrest, violent conflict or economic crises – increasing both local and systemic risks. Such factors can create new tensions and flashpoints as well as exacerbating existing conflicts and divisions along ethnic and political lines.”

The report includes a section on resource conflict flashpoints (p. 114) which outlines fifteen different potential flashpoints relating to territorial/economic zone disputes in resource-rich areas, shared water resources and transboundary river systems and resource-related rebellion and insurgency. The report is also linked to an interactive website that maps some of these trends and potential flashpoints.

The day after this report was released, the US National Intelligence Council released their own on the key trends over the next twenty years that the United States will need to adapt to or try and shape in order to “think and plan for the long term so that negative futures do not occur and positive ones have a better chance of unfolding.”

Among other so-called mega trends such as urbanisation and changing demographics, the report echoes the Chatham House research by pointing to an increasingly complex situation in terms of global resources. The report argues that,

“We are not necessarily headed into a world of scarcities, but policymakers and their private sector partners will need to be proactive to avoid such a future. Many countries probably won’t have the wherewithal to avoid food and water shortages without massive help from outside. Tackling problems pertaining to one commodity won’t be possible without affecting supply and demand for the others.”

The key trend or ‘tectonic shift’ as the report calls it is that “demand for food is expected to rise at least 35 percent by 2030 while demand for water is expected to rise by 40 percent. Nearly half of the world’s population will live in areas experiencing severe water stress. Fragile states in Africa and the Middle East are most at risk of experiencing food and water shortages, but China and India are also vulnerable.”

While this may lead some towards overly pessimistic conclusions about a world defined by instability, human insecurity and geopolitical tensions, it is refreshing to see the NIC emphasising the importance of how the US can respond now. In his forward, the Council’s Chairman Christopher Kojm states that “We are at a critical juncture in human history, which could lead to widely contrasting futures. It is our contention that the future is not set in stone, but is malleable, the result of an interplay among megatrends, game-changers and, above all, human agency.” It is worth noting the deliberate use of the phrase ‘alternative worlds’ in the report.

While some degree of adaptation to these structural trends mapped out by both Chatham House and the National Intelligence Council will undoubtedly be necessary, the importance of both of these reports is that they remind us of the need for clear and far-sighted thinking on policy responses now. The worst case scenarios that these reports discuss are not inevitable and risks can be mitigated. National security policymakers will do well to study the scenarios outlined in these two impressive reports and to try and understand the drivers and ‘tipping points’ that lead to certain pathways. Both reports offer prescriptions for current decision makers (the Chatham House recommendations on ‘targeted resource dialogues’ and ‘coalitions of the committed’ are particularly worthwhile). While volatility and uncertainty might be the ‘new normal’ in global resource politics, one thing is entirely certain – inaction and ‘business-as-usual’ when facing “a critical juncture in human history” is a recipe for disaster.

Ben Zala is a Lecturer in International Politics at the University of Leicester.

Image source: Stayraw