Top U.S. Security and Foreign Policy Trends to Track in 2013

  • January 9, 2013
  • Will Rogers

Natural resource and environmental issues have gained more attention from the national security and foreign policy communities in recent years– from concerns related to the U.S. rare earth supply chain to opportunities that might accrue from America’s growing abundance of natural gas. Which ones might get pressing attention in 2013? Here’s a list of the top U.S. policy trends I’ll be watching in 2013, in no particular order.  

  • Growing interest in understanding water security at the regional and state level in U.S. intelligence and security assessments. Water security took on a more prominent role in national security and foreign policy discussions in 2012. Some of this is owed to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who has helped elevate water security issues during President Obama’s first term. After all, it was the State Department that commissioned an intelligence community assessment on water security that was released in March 2012 (Global Water Security). And Secretary Clinton elevated the issue at the 2012 UN General Assembly meeting last September when she participated in a roundtable discussion on water security.

    But I suspect that water security will continue to gain attention from the administration, even as Secretary Clinton steps down from the State Department. The National Intelligence Council’s recent Global Trends 2030 report specifically pointed to water scarcity as a part of a broader megatrend referred to as the “food, water and energy nexus” that will impact U.S. security interests – a good indicator that the intelligence community is examining the issue closely. And if he’s confirmed as Secretary of State, Senator John Kerry would likely bring a fresh perspective on water security, which has received some attention from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee under his leadership as chairman

    The next logical step is for the intelligence, security and foreign policy communities to give greater attention to understanding the regional and state level impact of water scarcity and the potential consequences for U.S. interests. Hydrological modeling remains difficult, however, and that will necessitate greater collaboration between the intelligence, security, foreign policy and scientific communities – including the U.S. national labs. This will be something to watch in 2013.

  • State and local governments giving more attention to examining the potential impacts of climate change.The Defense Department is already beginning to work on the next Quadrennial Defense Review - which, like the 2010 QDR, is expected to incorporate an assessment of the security challenges from climate change. But we won't see the fruits of that labor until 2014. In the meantime, keep an eye out on climate security assessments from state and city governments this year. 

    Hurricane Sandy thrust climate change back on to the map for many state governments, municipalities and cities that face potential challenges stemming from climate change. Although scientists cannot definitively link Hurricane Sandy with climate change, climate scientists say that these weather-related phenomena, from droughts to hurricanes, could become more frequent and severe as a result of climate change. Consequently, we may see state and local governments give greater attention to assessing their potential climate vulnerabilities in order to prepare for the kinds of costly damages and debilitating disruptions experienced in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, like fuel shortages and power outages. 

    State and local governments would be wise to learn lessons from other efforts to assess the impacts of climate change at the municipal level. A good model could be the risk management report published by the New York City Panel of Climate Change in 2010 - one informed by regional- and local-level climate models. The study could provide a useful framework to inform city planners’ thinking about ways to adapt to the changing climate.

  • Continued cooperation with U.S. partners around military-grade biofuels as part of strengthening defense ties with countries in the Asia Pacific and elsewhere. During last year’s annual Rim of the Pacific naval exercise – RIMPAC – the U.S. and Australian navies featured ships and aircraft operating on a 50-50 blend of conventional petroleum fuel and algae-based biofuel. (The biofuel blend used by both countries for the exercise was provided by the Naval Supply Systems Command.) The exercise led to an agreement between the United States and Australian navies to work together to develop military-grade biofuels for a larger demonstration exercise planned in 2016 (when the U.S. Navy will deploy its Great Green Fleet). 

    The U.S.-Australian agreement illustrates an important opportunity for the U.S. military to use cooperation around biofuels as a way to broaden and deepen its relationship with ministries of defense, particularly in the Asia Pacific. Such cooperation would enhance the military’s energy security by helping develop more reliable sources of energy abroad. Indeed, even as the United States is poised to reap domestic benefits from increased energy production at home, the U.S. Navy and other services operating abroad will still rely on foreign sources of energy given that they acquire fuel in theater. This is particularly true in the Asia Pacific, which receives most of its energy from the Middle East and North Africa. Working with partners in the Asia Pacific to develop indigenous sources of biofuel could serve mutual interests by helping our partners and military hedge against potential supply disruptions from the Persian Gulf and Africa.

  • More clarity about U.S. supply chain issues in the defense acquisitions process, particularly with respect to rare earth metals. In March 2012, President Obama issued an Executive Order (EO) on National Defense Resources Preparedness with the broad purpose of identifying the resources and services critical to U.S. national security. The order was intended in part to address one of the greatest hurdles for U.S. defense planners and others in the U.S. government trying to address resource-related challenges: the lack of fidelity in the supply chains for defense systems, energy technologies and other products that undergird the national defense and economy.

    The president’s EO paved the way for providing more clarity in an area of the defense and industrial supply chains that U.S. acquisitions experts have struggled with: subcontracts. Indeed, in our work on the defense industrial base, evaluating material issues for some defense systems has been a challenge because subcontractors do not always provide information about their supply chain issues, in part because of proprietary concerns. The EO states that the "Each Secretary shall authorize the heads of other agencies, as appropriate, to place priority ratings on contracts and orders for materials, services, and facilities needed in support of programs approved under section 202 of this order," which may encourage subcontractors to disclose their supply chain issues within the acquisitions process.

    Given the importance of subcontractors to the entire acquisitions process, including them in a review of material issues will provide the U.S. government with greater fidelity of the broad range of supply chain challenges that could manifest, including those related to rare earths, which are critical to some defense technologies. Watch for continued progress on this front throughout 2013.

  • A more thorough assessment of activity in the Arctic to help inform U.S. Arctic policy. Shell’s recent experiences in the Arctic are raising important questions about the future of commercial activity in the Arctic, with direct implications for U.S. policy in the region. The Arctic’s harsh environment has stalled Shell’s efforts to explore for energy, contributing most recently to the New Year’s Eve grounding of Shell’s drilling rig, the Kulluk. These kinds of incidents have added to the growing chorus of critics charging that some commercial companies are not Arctic ready – and may not be for some time.

    At the same time, the U.S. government is facing questions about whether or not it is adequately resourced to respond to challenges that could arise in the Arctic Circle. For example, will the Coast Guard need to ramp up its physical presence in the Arctic Circle to provide reliable search and rescue response to a growing community of Arctic adventurers - from ecotourists and energy explorers? After all, the Coast Guard today has a temporary base in Barrow, Alaska, above the Arctic Circle, but most of its personnel and helicopters are 1,000 miles south in Kodiak. 

    To answer this and other important questions, the U.S. government is going to have to engage in a better assessment of commercial activity in the Arctic in order to determine what resources it should be prepared to provide. I hope we’ll see increased government attention on this point in 2013. It is long overdue.

  • A clearer position on the future of U.S. natural gas exports. The national security and foreign policy communities are giving greater attention to changes in the global energy landscape, particularly the opportunities that may accrue from increased U.S. natural gas production. Officials in Washington have been particularly consumed by the question of whether or not the United States should prepare to export liquefied natural gas – LNG. Policymakers are asking when and under what economic conditions would exporting LNG provide the best economic returns for the U.S. economy. And a report released in December by the Department of Energy concluded that exporting LNG would help the U.S. economy across all the scenarios that economists forecasted, and that those benefits would increase as LNG exports grow in the future.

    LNG export policy will likely become an important part of U.S. energy discussion in 2013. The Department of Energy is already reviewing export licenses that could enable U.S. producers to export natural gas abroad. And I suspect we’ll see firmer policy on the future of U.S. natural gas exports this year. 

  • These are just some of the U.S. policy issues related to natural resources and the environment that I will be tracking in 2013. Others abound. For example, the administration may continue to push for Law of the Sea Ratification this year. 

    What other policy issues should we be following? Provide your comments below!