When historians sit down to write about World War III, they may have a convenient subtitle for it: "The resource war." The Reagan administration and its allies in Congress are pushing the argument that the United States is engaged in a struggle with the Soviet Union over access to strategic and critical minerals in the developing world. It is, they say, a crisis rooted in US and allied dependence on imports for key materials such as cobalt, manganese, chromium, and platinum group metals.
The main advocates of the resource-war proposition are Secretary of State Haig and Secretary of Interior Watt in the administration and Rep. James Santini , Democratic chairman of the House Subcommittee on Mines and Mining, in the Congress. Mr. Santini has introduced a bill entitled the National Mineral Security Act to establish a coherent minerals policy. The administration has set up a task force on strategic minerals policy that has shunned exposure to journalists.
The focus of much of their attention recently has been on South Africa, which they see as a reliable free world partner and major producer of many of these minerals. The loss of South Africa is considered unthinkable. They posit a worst case scenario according to which the Soviet Union and a radical black nationalist South African regime would deny that country's strategic minerals to the West through a "supercartel." The Soviets are the second most important producer of many of the minerals in question. The administration is currently fashioning a policy of "constructive engagement" toward South Africa in order to thwart the Soviets in their devious schemes.
It is my view that this subject warrants much further public debate. It would be difficult to argue that the US is notm in need of a comprehensive minerals policy. Nevertheless, some of the foreign policy assumptions of the resource-war advocates need to be questioned.
* Cartels: Soviet and South African collusion. Those who propound the resource-war thesis are quick with examples of Soviet collusion involving third-world countries that produce minerals. Not so with South Africa, whose white-ruled government is presumed to be above these nasty collusive tendencies.
But savvy students of international markets with no particular ideological ax to grind point out that Soviet communists and South African capitalists already enjoy a cozy relationship when it comes to marketing certain metals.There are reports of sighting prominent South African platinum-mining figures in Moscow. These reports, coupled with the almost obsessive secrecy surrounding data on South Africa's platinum production, make it hard to accept the ritual denials by both parties of any collusive activity.
* The Soviet menace in southern Africa. The South Africans have been warning for years of the growing red menace in the region.They have launched a "total strategy" aimed at fighting the communists and are eager to enlist the material aid of the West. They would welcome a formal military arrangement with the Western powes. Indeed, some of the resource-war advocates are proposing just that: a tri-oceanic alliance including South Africa and various third-world partners.
There is, however, little hard evidence that the Soviets are engagng in any major military buildup in the region. Soviet armaments there are mainly defensive and rather dated in technology. But there is evidence that the Soviet-bloc countries are anxious to compete with Western nations on the international metals markets.
* Decreasing US dependence on imported minerals. In their zeal to push the resource- war proposition, advocates tend to downplay developments toward decreasing US dependency on imports that are already underway. Some industry experts contend that the US could become much more self-sufficient than it is.
For example, the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico recently reported the invention of a hard metal that does not contain cobalt. It is made of tungsten, nickel, iron, and boron carbide. The tungsten, which the US must also import, can be replaced by molybdenum which is mined in New Mexico. Yet the resource-war folks continue to argue that cobalt is absolutely essiential to US security and that there are no known substitutes for it.
A ratonal stockpiling policy could also go a long way toward decreasing dependence.
* US Africa policy. In terms of foreign policy, the resource-war agenda carries serious implications for Africa. It is now clear that the administration no longer feels the need for an Africa policy. A South Africa policy, yes. Because this fits in with its global strategy for fighting communism.
So far this policy has been translated into helping the South Africans backpedal on the long-drawn-out negotiations for independence in Namibia. It has encouraged the South Africans to step up their attacks on neighboring Angola and Mozambique without fear of being reprimanded by their newfound friend in the White House. It has brought the administration into conflict with black African nations for whom the apartheid system is abhorrent.
The administration is building its Africa policy on sand, gearing up for a resource war that may well be of its own making.