We’re planning to release our much-anticipated minerals report this week (followed by outstanding works by other CNASers in the weeks ahead). I know you’re all anxious, especially as our report goes beyond the media darlings – rare earths – to compare a half dozen minerals that you need to know about.
Today I want to provide a little bit of background on our research, as I think that helps in understanding what you’re reading. CNAS began exploring the minerals topic with a small, off-the-record working group discussion on minerals in the fall of 2009 in our conference room. It was very helpful in getting to know some of the nation's top experts, and in scoping such a universal topic down into what the U.S. security and foreign affairs communities should care about.
Through 2010 we were working on major climate change and energy projects, so our work on minerals was primarily through background research, interviews, site visits and a panel of experts I moderated at a defense attaches event. Will and I did things like tour a facility that manufactures rare earth magnets for defense equipment. I did a thesis on supply disruptions affecting U.S. interests in grad school, and much of the research informs the new CNAS report. I read through Congressional hearings, CBO reports, and academic literature going back to 1903. Many documents I copied from microfiche were so old that the word "stockpiling" was still hyphenated. That's freaking ancient.
One of the main lessons I took from all this was that history is repeating itself, big time. The historical literature on minerals and national security shows periods of intense debate and unique research, interspersed with near silence. Historically, the U.S. government has reacted once mineral-related problems are already perplexing policy makers. Because, you know, why bother being proactive? We like our diplomats and political appointees to have to wrestle with crises that should be handled as relatively minor risk management issues. These times of heightened analysis were primarily during the World Wars, through the 1950s, and from the 1980s into the early 1990s. These periods of intense policy research reflect high-level officials having to deal with events like actual disruptions of defense-critical minerals from southern African suppliers during the Cold War and apartheid eras, for example, and periods of disruption fears while the United States dueled with the then-Soviet Union for favored proxy/purchaser status or direct control of uranium supplies.
The current wave of minerals mattering to security and foreign policy folks arguably started around 2006/07. But this was, again, reactive to actual problems like supply disruptions of defense-critical minerals and countries using supplier near-monopolies for political leverage. Of the pending minerals legislation produced this year, a few drafts take a highly proactive approach while others only address problems the United States is already experiencing. The report CNAS releases this week will point to some relatively simple policy adjustments to help make the American government more proactive and more resilient in the face of mineral challenges.
There is a lot at stake given that the geopolitical risks today far outsize the actual problems we face. It's time to become proactive on this issue. History doesn't have to repeat itself, you know.
Finally, in hopes that it helps future researchers, I’m going to make a blog post this week that is essentially a bibliography of minerals resources. It includes some wonderful reads, like the 1981 International Affairs piece "Security and the Resources Scramble: Will 1984 be like 1914?" and Geoffrey Kemp's classic Foreign Affairs piece "Scarcity and Strategy." This won't be a complete list of the zillion sources we’ve used in our research, but we’ll try to update it with important sources and tag them with the “bibliography” tag on the left of the screen for easy navigation.