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World War III: It's Here and Energy Is Largely behind It

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I've been advancing a thesis for several months with friends that World War III is now underway. It's just that it's not the war we thought it would be, that is, a confrontation between major powers with the possibility of a nuclear exchange. Instead, we are getting a set of low-intensity, on-again, off-again conflicts involving non-state actors (ISIS, Ukrainian rebels, Libyan insurgents) with confusing and in some cases nonexistent battle lines and rapidly shifting alliances such as the shift from fighting the Syrian regime to helping it indirectly by fighting ISIS, the regime's new foe.

There is at least one prominent person who seems to agree with me, the Pope. During a visit to a World War I memorial in Italy last month Pope Francis said: "Even today, after the second failure of another world war, perhaps one can speak of a third war, one fought piecemeal, with crimes, massacres, destruction."

In citing many well-known causes for war, he failed to specify the one that seems obvious in this case: the fight over energy resources. It can be no accident that the raging fights in Syria, Iraq, Libya, and the Ukraine all coincide with areas rich in energy resources or for which imported energy resources are at risk. There are other conflicts. But these are the ones that are transfixing the eyes of the world, and these are the ones in which major powers are taking sides and mounting major responses.

In Syria, Iraq and Libya, of course, it is oil and also natural gas that underlies the conflict. The ISIS forces in Syria and Iraq have seized oil refineries to power their advance. They and every fighting force in the world understands that oil is "liquid hegemony."

In the Ukraine natural gas supplies lurk in the background as rebels (supposedly with Russian help) fight to separate parts of eastern Ukraine from the country. The Russians who hold one of the largest reserves of natural gas in the world have threatened to cut off Ukraine, a large importer, this winter and to curtail supplies to Europe which depends on Russia for about 30 percent of its gas. The threat against Europe is in response to trade sanctions levied on Russia for its alleged role in helping Ukrainian insurgents.

Since summer, a friend and I have been periodically reviewing the World War III game board to assess whether the war is heating up or cooling down. The temperature changes as we have gauged them would look like a sine wave on a graph revealing no definitive trajectory. And, that is just the kind of war that I believe World War III will be--years of indecisive battles, diplomatic ploys, half-hearted engagement by major powers, and new, unexpected conflicts arising in unexpected places.

There are, of course, many other reasons for the conflicts I cite. But I wonder if the major powers would be much engaged in these conflicts if energy supplies were not at stake. So, the resource wars that are developing, especially those relating to energy, are not about direct conquest so much as concern about access to energy resources, or to put it more clearly, concern about possible interruptions to the flow of energy resources.    

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