Ismail Serageldin, former Vice President for Special Programs of the World Bank warned in 1995: “If the wars of this century were fought over oil, the wars of the next century will be fought over water.” In truth, “the challenge of freshwater scarcity and ecosystem depletion is rapidly emerging as one of the defining fulcrums of world politics and human civilization. A century of unprecedented freshwater abundance is being eclipsed by a new age characterized by acute disparities in water wealth, chronic insufficiencies, and deteriorating environmental sustainability across many of the most heavily populated parts of the planet. Just as oil conflicts played a central role in defining the history of the 1900s, the struggle to command increasingly scarce, usable water resources is set to shape the destinies of societies and the world order of the twenty first century. Water is overtaking oil as the world’s scarcest critical natural resource. But water is more than the new oil. Oil, in the end, is substitutable; but water’s uses are pervasive, irreplaceable by any other substance, and utterly indispensable.” (Solomon, 2010, p. 367). Proponents of realist theory would argue that Serageldin is correct, and that in light of increasing water scarcity, conflict over water is inevitable. However, since Serageldin’s pronouncement more than fifteen years ago, while there has been conflict, not one water war has ensued and international cooperation over water issues have been the norm. According to neoliberal institutionalist thinking water scarcity provides a motive for cooperation since water interests transcend national boundaries and states stand to gain from cooperative efforts addressing water supply issues. (Dinar, 2009). Constructivists would argue that cooperative efforts would be expected so long as states can gain from those efforts. Should the status quo become upset, constructivist thinking would indicate states would reevaluate their position(s) and pursue courses of action in reaction to the changing situation. (Viotti and Kauppi, 2009). So which school of thinking is correct and which outcome is most likely? Water wars or water peace? As Allan (2009), Bierman and Boas (2010), Solomon (2010) and others illustrate, the state of world peace and the future of human civilization is balanced on the delicate fulcrum of each nation state’s supply and access to freshwater. While the world’s leaders may choose differing courses of action in response to water scarcity according to the school of thought they subscribe to, ultimately they will all share the same cause of action: the forcing of their hands by climatic change affecting the water cycle and precipitation distribution combined with accelerating population growth. Humanity is at a crossroads. This article will argue that increasing global water scarcity and water quality deterioration will hasten either a global degeneration into a Hobbesian state of war or spark a transformation of nation states into a peaceful global civil society.
In the past, United States promulgation of human rights has been seen by other nations as sovereign intrusion. (Viotti and Kauppi, 2009). And the “lack of intellectual agreement among social-contract theorists, utilitarians, Kantians, and others who think about values in universal terms is part of the global confusion on such matters. This lack of consensus on human rights—how we are to understand rights and values and what we are to do about them—underlies the global debate on what commitments and obligations we have to fellow human beings throughout the world. Disagreement on what and whose human rights ought to be recognized hinders the construction of a just world society.” (Viotti and Kauppi, 2009, p. 441). The emergent right to water in conjunction with other international declarations on the rights of women and children, the emergence of new networks of activists and NGOs dedicated to the establishment of these rights, such as the water justice movement’s demand for change in international law to eliminate the commodification of water and instead universally assign governments to hold water in the public trust (Barlow, 2007) and Kaldor’s assessment that humanitarian concerns are taking precedence over sovereign issues may indicate those barriers to the construction of a just world society are evaporating.
One final key in determining which path the world will follow in dealing with water scarcity is the role played by multinational corporations (MNCs). While scapegoated in India, the role of MNCs in the commodification of water is a serious issue with many advantages and disadvantages. In addition to the aforementioned groundwater depletion issue which exacerbates global water scarcity impacts, one of the major advantages of MNCs in the water business has been in the increase of water productivity and conservation.
“While cities are learning to use their existing water more efficiently, industry has been the largest single contributor to the unprecedented surge in water productivity. Across the industrial spectrum, water is a major input in production. Alone, five giant global food and beverage corporations—Nestle, Danone, Unilever, Anheuser-Busch, and Coca-Cola—consume enough water to meet the daily domestic needs of every person on the planet…. American companies began to treat water as an economic good with both a market price for acquisition and a cost of cleanup before discharge in response to federal pollution control legislation in the 1970s. With characteristic business responsiveness wherever operating rules were clear and predictable, they sought ways to do more with the water they had and to innovate in their industrial processes so that they needed to use less overall. The results were startlingly instructive of the enormous, untapped productive potential in conservation.” (Solomon, 2010, p. 469).
The Obama-Chavez handshake got a lot of press. The Left seemed pleased, the Right enraged. Conservatives probably saw all of the “hard work” former President George W. Bush did taking a tough stand against dictators as having been given away so early into a new administration. If you believe that Bush’s position was a wise one, it is easy to see why Conservatives would feel this way. After all, people like Chavez are repugnant and, like the leaders of Iran and North Korea, they are not too friendly towards the freedoms that Americans hold dear. Chavez did, after all, shut down a television station because they didn’t support his policies as well as many other things.
But is Obama’s embracing of these people really so terrible? The short answer is: we won’t know for many years.
Barack Obama campaigned on bringing a change to American foreign policy and, indeed, he has done so. George W. Bush’s policy of not talking to people like the Iranian president may have been morally justified but was it wise? In shutting out people like Iran’s president Bush prevented any sort of progress from happening unless it started on their end first. These leaders have staked their reputation on opposing America at every turn. Indeed, it has become the red meat that they base their support on even as their economies crumble, all the while blaming America so as to deflect blame from their own shortcomings. In embracing these leaders and showing that the United States does not necessarily view them as being evil President Obama does remove some of this power. This is the good part. The bad part is that we will not know for several years whether this policy of openness will result in our “enemies” taking advantage of us because they view communication as a sign of weakness.
It seems that critics like to point to President Jimmy Carter’s naive view of engagement as the “Obama model” while holding up President Ronald Reagan’s hardline stance as being the gold standard. After all, Jimmy Carter didn’t do too well with foreign leaders while he was in office. The Shah of Iran was deposed and a more brutal regime replaced him and the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan which led to the Taliban and, not long after, al Qaeda while Ronald Reagan’s “Evil Empire” stance led to the bankruptcy of the Soviet Union in 1989. But times have changed somewhat.
The Soviet Union was, like the United States, a superpower with many of the same abilities and goals as the United States in terms of needing to project power whereas countries such as North Korea, Iran, and Venezuela do not have the size nor the projection of power that the Soviet Union had. So the comparisons are not “apples to apples” although certainly all four countries did not have leadership which was inclined towards friendly relations with the United States.
One thing we have seen under the “Bush Doctrine” of shunning unpleasant regimes is that these leaders have struck up alliances with one another so as to attempt to either counter-balance or make the U.S. believe there is a counter-balance to our friendly relationships. Bush called this the “Axis of Evil” and, while I believe he was correct, his strategy did not produce any regime change in those countries. If anything, he allowed those leaders to show that their hardened views of the United States were justified.
Right now President Obama is still in his honeymoon stage with American voters and world leaders. This period cannot last once he begins to make defining decisions regarding Pakistan, Israel, Iran, and Russia. President Obama was not, despite his vast amounts of charm, able to secure any real concessions from European leaders during the recent G20 summit which was a telling example of how, even with our “friends” it is not really about “cowboy” diplomacy under Bush versus Obama’s “Apology Tour” as, if it were, then countries like Germany and France would have agreed to put their troops in harm’s way in Afghanistan or accept Gitmo detainees.
So if our “friends” didn’t feel like helping President Obama out how will our “enemies” do better? This is the central issue in Obama’s approach towards foreign policy. Relationships take time to blosom and so do results but leaders such as Chavez and Ahmadinejad rule with a different set of responsibilities towards their “voters” than to leaders such as Sarkozy and Merkel. Indeed, Chavez and Ahmadinejad have less responsibility towards following the wills of their people so it appears unlikely that they will change their behavior.
While it is too early to tell what the results will be of President Obama’s efforts the evidence suggests that not much will really change even if the volume of hate may decrease.
President Obama is rolling the dice on not being seen as a weakling when it comes towards standing up for the interests of the United States but, then again, much could be said of George W. Bush when he cut off many countries from his speed dial.
– Harrison @ Just Politics..?