The paper studies the influence of states' dependence on the exploitation and export of non-renewable natural resources on the development of conflicts, the so-called resource conflicts. Various authors describe the term “geopolitical economy” in a number of different ways. A major distinction between their views pertains to the role and the importance that the state has in the international political economy and also at the global level. However, drawing mainly on R. Desai's thesis that the modern world is predominantly characterized by uneven and combined development and that states have the dominant role in it (states dominate the political economy on the domestic level and the geopolitical economy on the international level), different types of conflicts will be compared and put into different “geopolitical economies.” The main research thesis is that resource conflicts can be described as geoeconomic-geopolitical conflicts, and these conflicts evolve as outcomes of the geopolitical economy.
The problem area of water wars has not been included in this paper. Due to their complexity and specific characteristics, water wars should be studied separately.
The term “resources” is used throughout the paper for non-renewable natural resources, primarily oil, gas, precious minerals, and ores (excluding water, forests, and arable land).
One-fifth of the world's population currently uses about four-fifths of the world's energy, according to Dobkowski and Wallimann in “Introduction: On the Edge of Scarcity.” With upward trends in consumption, many analysts predict that the world will suffer severe oil shortages in 40–60 years, followed by natural gas shortages in 60–80 years. These non-renewable resources will also be allocated to many more people; the global population will be around 8.5 billion in 2025, 9.5 billion in 2050, and 10 billion in 2075 (Sharp 2007, 323).
Even resource conflict researchers have been divided into two groups with regard to resource abundance or resource scarcity as the cause of conflict, and therefore the object of their study. Le Billon (2001, 564) points out, “According to advocates of the scarce resource wars hypothesis, people or nations will fight each other to secure access to the resources necessary for their survival, the more scarce the resource, the more bitter the fight.” According to the abundant resource wars argument, primary commodities are easily and heavily taxable and are therefore attractive to both the ruling elites and their competitors. Among others, Collier and Le Billon are in the first group, whereas Homer-Dixon and Renner are in the second.
The main external factor congealing the Hobbesian configuration is, of course, the existence of a more advanced state/society complex, which by its transnational expansion has already occupied the international terrain commercially and culturally, whereas the contender state still is struggling to forge national/state unity and demarcate its territory. Therefore, the bureaucratized vanguard cannot and will not relinquish state power; the Glorious Revolution by which the ascendant class confirms its primacy and the relative autonomy of society vis-à-vis the state is postponed (van der Pijl, 1998, 80).
Lefebvre argues that this state mode of production has, particularly since the late nineteenth century, played a major role in securing the territorial preconditions for the accelerated circulation of capital, “Only the state can take on the task of managing space on a grand scale” (Brenner 1997, 148). One of Lefebvre's central arguments in De l'Etat is that the process of globalization cannot be grasped independently of the role of the state in producing, organizing, and stabilizing the spatial scales on which capital accumulation occurs (Brenner 1997, 150).
A third characteristic of the modern geopolitical imagination is its state-centric representation of the global space, what Agnew terms the “territorial trap” (Agnew, 1994). This state-centric approach to world politics has over the centuries evolved both in practical and formal geopolitical reasoning. According to Agnew, it is underpinned by three geographical assumptions, “(1) that states have an exclusive power within their territories as represented by the concept of sovereignty; (2) that ‘domestic’ and ‘foreign’ affairs are essentially separate realms in which different rules obtain; and that (3) the boundaries of the state define the boundaries of the society so that the latter is ‘contained’ by the former” (Agnew 1998, 21–22).
“Geopolitical economy addresses the management of trading structures, corporate networks, and resource financial flows that characterize the contemporary global economy.” “The geopolitical economy has always been securitized but its degree of vulnerability and securitization has undoubtedly increased in the recent decades.” “Geopolitical economy addresses some very old questions of geopolitics, namely controlling maritime choke-points, ports, pipelines and general access to classic ‘strategic resources’ such as petroleum, natural gas and uranium.” “It also encompasses some of the newest ‘strategic flowmations’ of the global ‘space of flows’ such as stock market trading floors, fiber-optic networks, energy transmission lines, satellite towers and Internet routing stations. The less desirable and illicit side of these flowmations—acid rain, trade in toxic substances, transnational smuggling, corruption, the global ‘tubing’ of organized crime—are also vital elements of the contemporary geopolitical economy that should not be marginalized” (Ó Tuathail 2003, 77–78). Sparke's view on the issues that are the objects of study in the geopolitical economy according to Ó Tuathail is expressed in Sparke (2007) and is similar to the issues that Ó Tuathail has emphasized. However, Sparke puts some of these issues in the theoretical perspective of “geo-economics” and accentuates what Ó Tuathail calls “strategic flowmations.” For Sparke and the other authors he mentions, geoeconomics is a historical perspective that is different from the old geopolitics; it does not necessarily emulate it (they can exist at the same time), and it is adjusted to the new era of economic and political relations, as well as technological breakthroughs. For the purpose of this paper, it is also relevant to note that Ó Tuathail mentions, among other things, “the access to classic strategic resources, such as petroleum, natural gas and uranium” as the objects of study in the geopolitical economy.
The rare exceptions are the continent of Antarctica and international waters.
The question of the Arctic remains open. Arctic is considered to be a geopolitically, strategically, and geoeconomically very important area, especially after the shrinking of the polar ice cap (a consequence of global warming). The lines of delimitation on the Arctic have still not been defined among the five participating states (Russia, Canada, the USA, Norway, and Denmark) that have overlapping exclusive economic claims on it. The offshore deposits of oil and gas that have so far been confirmed on the Arctic suggest that the Arctic is a space of great importance and value when it comes to the future of energy supply for Europe, Russia, and North America.
As a distinction between a conflict and a civil war, the number of one thousand combat deaths was taken as a limit.
Quantitative studies of the resource curse have not systematically tracked the historical origins and evolution (rather than the level) of resource dependence as variables in relation to conflicts. As the relative economic and political importance of resource production areas increases, other areas are comparatively peripheralized. Within resource production areas themselves, non-resource aspects also become peripheralized. Arguably, resource areas are also peripheralized in the dependency school understanding that they become dependent on an unequal relationship with center or core areas. The uneven development resulting from such processes of relative centralization and peripheralization, in turn, reflects the social construction, spatial distribution, and mode of production of resources (Roberts and Emel 1992). Peripheralization and uneven development entail tangible spatial effects far beyond the narrow confines of the resource sector, extending into social identities, territorialities, political governance, economic marginalization, and environmental outcomes of relevance to the study of conflicts (Le Billon 2008, 349–50).
While American geopolitical discourses lead to fear-filled fascination with foreign threats ranging from “peer competitors” to “rogue regimes” to “terrorist cells,” geoeconomic discourses compensate and console by offering a hope of transcending the divisions. Over and above the axis of evil and all the other enemies we are told to fear, the level playing field of global free market capitalism is envisioned as thus inexorably expanding and including all (Sparke 2007, 340).
The conflicts in Southeast Asia that took place before 1975 were also products of a clear ideological cleavage which was crucial up until the USA decided to pull out of the region and South Vietnam was taken over by North Vietnam, while Vietnam became a unified country. After 1975, Vietnam became a regional leader. In 1979 it crushed the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia, and in that same year it got involved in a border conflict with the PRC. It is evident that the ideological (Marxism vs. capitalism) rivalry of these parties was not the dominant cause of these conflicts. What was crucial were the interests for territorial control and regional domination (Vietnam) and the desire to prevent regional domination (the PRC).
Most world conflicts are happening in geopolitically unstable regions, primarily because of the struggle to gain control over resources. The conflicts over the control of oil deposits, pipelines, and sea-lanes through which oil is transported represent the finest examples of resource conflicts in the contemporary world.
According to the political economy literature, the characteristics of countries most vulnerable to civil war since 1946 are low per capita income, declining economic growth rate, “weak” state coercive capacity and institutional authority, and political regimes in transition, although the influence of different kinds of inequalities remains debated (quoted in Le Billon 2008, 347).