Burma, also known as Myanmar, was ruled for decades by a military junta until reversion to nominal civilian control in 2011. President Thein Sein’s openness and reform agenda has led Europe, the United States and others to ease or suspend sanctions. Recent months have seen the election of Aung San Suu Kyi and members of her National League for Democracy (NLD) in April 2012 parliamentary by-elections as well as the nomination of Derek Mitchell in May to become the first U.S. ambassador to Burma since 1990. Our very own Dr. Patrick M. Cronin, Senior Advisor and Senior Director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at CNAS, had the opportunity to travel to the country recently. He offered his thoughts on a broad range of issues, including natural resources and the environment.
Daniel Katz (DK): Burma has been touted by some as the potential energy crossroads of Southeast Asia, with plans for pipelines and offshore oil and natural gas development that could contribute to strong economic growth over the next decade. What do you see as the most important political, social and environmental challenges to robust energy development in the near term?
Patrick Cronin (PC): Well, Burma or Myanmar, is rich with resources, not just hydrocarbons but obviously jade, gold, timber and other resources and it is certainly being eyed not just by China but by the entire world potentially to tap its oil and gas reserves. First, from China’s perspective, completing the oil pipeline by next year in 2013 is seen as critical for redrawing the map of Asia and providing China some relief from its so-called Malacca Dilemma, under which all of its trade and resources must go through a narrow choke point in the Strait of Malacca. This will allow major oil and gas to flow from the Persian Gulf and Africa as well as out of Myanmar itself to China. This is very important. Now, as for extractive industries being open to the international market as sanctions are lifted or suspended, there’s a great deal of interest in this, but unfortunately some of the early bids have been coming from countries that have companies that may not be the most high-standard, not exactly the gold standard of transparency. I know there was one deal just made with Thailand. Thailand may be better than most. I’m talking about some other countries where these companies will only contribute to the so-called “resource curse” that so many developing countries with resources have faced in the past, especially when they have a couple commodities that are extracted. It’s so easy for those resources to leave the country for good and for all of the profits to go into the hands of a very small group of people. Hitherto, this has been the military top leadership and they’re still sitting on treasure troves of money from their rich resources. So one of the big political challenges on development is to ensure that they build institutions in Myanmar going forward that have much more transparency over extractive industries overall, including oil and gas, and that outside companies that come in to develop it must try to build a much more transparent system for the good of Myanmar. I think they can. I think this will be a big boon to Myanmar’s development and to regional development. But we’ve seen so many horror stories in the developing world and they’re trying to do so much so quickly in Myanmar that this is a big challenge.
Christine recently spoke with Jennifer Sciubba, a professor at Rhodes College and author of The Future Faces of War: Population and National Security. Here’s what the two discussed:
Christine Parthemore (CP): In the book, you point out that countries such as Tunisia and Egypt had a 50/50 chance of becoming a liberal democracy before 2020, based on historical demographic and political correlations. If you were a betting scholar, what country or countries would be next in line?
Jennifer Sciubba (JS): The work by Richard Cincotta establishes a correlation between proportion of young adults in a population and chance of democracy, pointing out that once the population of young adults as a proportion of all adults reaches 40 percent or less, the country has about a 50/50 shot at becoming a democracy. But, the work still doesn’t tell us enough about the mechanisms through which these variables are linked. Based purely on age structure, we would look to the five former Soviet Republics in Central Asia to democratize next. But a few states across the recent arc of revolution have seen instability and calls for greater representation even though they are still years away from this benchmark. For example, Egypt’s age structure is still young—48% of the adult population is ages 15-29. One explanation that doesn’t undermine Cincotta’s thesis is that though these states are all experiencing instability, it is far too soon to term these democratic revolutions. It will be years before these states have consolidated liberal democracies, and perhaps that won’t happen until they reach the benchmark. But there is another explanation that interests me. I’m working on some research with a student here at Rhodes to look at the emergence of a political generation across the region—the youth are all experiencing similar exclusion in the political, social, and economic realms that are unique to their position in life and this may matter more than the age structure itself. It is notable, however, that the wave of revolution began in a country on the cusp of the “half-a-chance benchmark.”
This week I had the pleasure of doing a 5 Questions interview with great thinker Saleem Ali. If you don’t yet know his work, you will soon. Recently named a Young Global Leader for 2011 by the World Economic Forum, he is a Professor of Environmental Studies at the University of Vermont where he directs the Institute for Environmental Diplomacy and Security.
Following on yesterday’s review of his recent book, The Future History of the Arctic, let’s now turn to a chat with Charles Emmerson. Alex was great enough track him down for me, and he was gracious enough to spend some time speaking to us from London on a recent Friday afternoon. We explore issues such as differing views on climate change among Arctic countries, the surprises we’ve found in sea floor mapping and exploration, and whether the Gulf crisis or recession have changed how security types should view the Arctic. Enjoy his insights, read this book, and comment as you please! ~Christine
Christine Parthemore: Why the Arctic?
Charles Emmerson: There are two main reasons. The first reason is a long-standing interest in the Arctic – since childhood – which is a good place to start if you want to write a book. I grew up with a bedroom which had a huge map of the world on one wall – I suppose you could say it was a slightly megalomaniac bedroom in which to grow up – with Greenland right in the middle. In effect, I woke up every morning looking at the Arctic. If you do that for the formative ten years of your life, it’s not too surprising you’ll develop an interest in the place. And of course there were the name: Disko Bay, Thule and Godthåb – at that time, now the place is called Nuuk – and Murmansk. So that’s part of my childhood interest – in effect, maps. The other part of it is that, when I was probably about six or so, I read an article in National Geographic about Spitsbergen. I think it was actually in the August 1978 edition, though I must have read the article sometime in the early 1980s. I read the article and was really captivated it by it – so much so that recently I sent a copy of my book via National Geographic HQ to the author of that article, a man called Gordon Young, though I imagine he could be 85 by now.
The second reason for the Arctic is more recent, and in some ways it involves a reassessment of the romantic vision of the Arctic I might have had as a child. A lot of my work at the World Economic Forum was probably not terribly different from the work you do at CNAS, trying to understand the links between energy security and geopolitics, food security and geopolitics, climate and geopolitics – these interlocking issues. And while it’s fascinating sort of to try and look at them abstractly, you’re always looking for an example, an example where you can actually see quite directly how they interact. The Arctic is a perfect place to see how those issues work together, and against one another – with a limited number of players, but tremendous global importance in terms of the environment, energy and geopolitics.
I recently had the good fortune to drop by the British Embassy for a viewing of filmmaker Michael Nash’s most recent film Climate Refugees. After the event, I had a chance to catch up with Nash and it was clear that he was someone interesting that we at the Natural Security blog needed to talk to. Here’s what I asked and what he had to say:
Daniel Saraceno (DS): First, I’d like to thank you for taking the time to answer some questions for the Natural Security team and those following the Natural Security Blog. After the screening of Climate Refugees at the British Embassy you made some interesting comments on how you came to learn of the national security implications of climate change featured in the film. Would you speak to how the project’s focus had changed from an environmental and humanitarian film to one featuring climate change’s potential as a threat multiplier?
Michael Nash (MN): Originally, in any treatment or outline that I created for the documentary Climate Refugees, never did the two words “climate” and “war” ever go together. It was never part of the story. It wasn’t until I started interviewing scholars, politicians, military personnel and scientist that the national security implications of climate change really started to emerge. In the early part of 2007, after interviewing Senator John Kerry and Peter Schwartz, I quickly began to wrap my arms around the intersection that civilization was confronting. The collision of over population, over consumption, lack of resources and our changing climate. The effect: mass global migration of climate refugees. We have always migrated in search of food and water, but now, there is no more real estate; people are crossing borders for survival. This is something new. Something the world has never dealt with.
I interviewed several military personal, from Generals to consultants. This is really becoming a big issue that is now on their radar. In September of 2009, the New York Times did an article on the subject of climate change being a national security issue; it was the first report I had read that really endorsed what we had stated in the film. People crossing borders based on our changing climate and the responsibility of military humanitarian mission are going to be part of our future.
Recently, I had the chance to correspond with Kelly Sims Gallagher, an Associated Professor of Energy and Environment Policy at the Fletcher School, where she covers energy policy both in the United States and China. She is involved with the Center for International Environment and Resource Policy (CIERP), and its Energy, Climate, and Innovation (ECI) research program. Recently she directed the Energy Technology Innovation Policy program at Harvard University. Here were my 5 questions to her:
Yesterday I had a great phone conversation with Peter Maass. I reviewed his new book Crude World: The Violent Twilight of Oil for the blog last week, and he was kind enough to elaborate for us on some of the natural security-esque points his book raised. Here are my 5 questions with him:
CP: First, I was thinking that it might be interesting to hear about reactions to your book – probably one of the biggest books about oil in a while. Are there any interesting observations you have on how your readers and reviewers are responding? Are there differences among sectors or fields of study, or between those who work on the issue and just general readers?
Maass: The most surprising and welcome reaction I’ve gotten is from people in the oil industry. The book is not just about the oil industry, but the oil world, and how it affects the destinies of the countries that in particular have it. I’m pretty critical of what oil’s effects should be, and sometimes I’m critical of the role that is played by oil companies and oil negotiators. And I write about a number of these people in the book, so it’s just very interesting to hear from some people in the industry who say that “I think it’s a really good book,” and “you write about what it’s like in some of these places fairly, and it’s useful for people to really understand.” And I like that reaction, because I didn’t when I was writing about the oil industry and the oil companies write to condemn, because they basically have a really hard job. They work in extremely hard conditions, and provide a substance that is – whether we like it or not – is necessary for the world economy or the lifestyle that we have.
But I am critical of lots of the ways they operate and their shortcomings, but I try to be somewhat balanced and say that although these people cut corners and laws are shaved, there are reasons for this. These are difficult places to operate, and governments are more or less behind them encouraging them to operate this way. So I tried to provide some context to say, even if it an Apple salesman had to got to Baku in the 1990s to negotiate a deal for selling Ipods, he or she would probably be caught up in the same contracts, deals, and law shaving situations that oil executives find themselves in. So it was gratifying to hear oil executives say, “You did describe what it’s like and that’s useful.”
CP: In your conclusion, you write that “getting off oil would be better not only for the atmosphere but also, as I’ve seen, for the people who live in Nigeria, Iraq, Equatorial Guinea, Russia, Iran, and other resource-rich nations.” This runs counter to the point often argued that moving to other energy sources will dramatically destabilize some producing countries. Can you expand on your argument a bit, based on your experiences in these countries?
Maass: Sure. It’s a fascinating issue, because the countries that supply us with oil are addicted to it in ways that are not dissimilar to how we’re addicted it. We need the substance they sell; they need the money that it supplies to their regimes and puts into their economies – even at the price of distorting their regimes and distorting their economies and perhaps harming their environments. Even in the Niger Delta, which is the worst afflicted area in the world – there is a war going on there over oil. It’s a place where you’ve got these incredible reserves of oil and these incredible reserves of poverty as well as violence. Even in the Niger Delta, where there were these destitute villages that were right across from these oil facilities where the people were fighting the oil companies and the government. Even these people were not saying “We want this shut off tomorrow” or “We want the benefits from it. If we’re not seeing the benefits from it, we want it shut off because it’s not fair. It’s making our lives worse.”
Now, when I say the world in which we’re all getting off oil as better, I don’t see – and nobody sees – the possibility of an abrupt transition where all of a sudden one day we wake up one day we don’t need oil, and all these facilities are shut down and all these economies that sell oil all of a sudden have nothing at all. I think it’s a transition that we need to get into, and we’re already beginning it. And yes, transitional times are and can be destabilizing. And to say that immediately if we reduce our demand for oil and if prices go down and if we stop invading countries as much as we have in the past, that things are immediately going to be better – that’s not what I’m trying to suggest. I think that it could get worse in the short term. For some of these countries, with less oil money, fewer spoils to fight over, the fighting can become more intense. That is possible. You can’t rule that out. But to grasp on to the current situation, where in many countries is very dysfunctional, and say “It can only get worse?” That I don’t buy.
I do see that if we work in the right way, this transition can be one where, despite setbacks here and there, when we come out of it, Americans and humanity can be in a much better place. Oil, as wonderful as it is and as much as it’s done for us, can cause negative outcomes that are just increasingly obvious and that seem to be a greater part of what oil is today. We also today have a greater possibility to get other forms of energy and other lifestyles that make it less essential to our forms of existence.
CP: Focusing on Iraq, you focused a lot at the political-strategic level, specifically the Iraq Ministry of Defense and the U.S. decision to invade Iraq. You wrote on page 159 that “The question is not whether war is about oil but how it is about oil.” My question is: How is the level of stability in Iraq as American troops draw down also about oil?
Maass: I think there are at least 2 ways that oil plays into stability. One is this employment issue. Iraq, which has an industry that unfortunately has been kind of ground down over time by sanctions and war, does need and can benefit a lot from technology that other countries – particularly Western companies, which have the better technology, but that Chinese and even Russian companies can provide. The problem or the caveat is that indeed these companies will bring their own engineers in. And they might even bring the lower level, kind of mid-level workers that local Iraqis will think, “Wait a minute. We can do that job.”
I went to Equatorial Guinea, and visited a multimillion dollar natural gas facility that Marathon was building. And it was an amazing site. You of course had the managers who were from Texas and Oklahoma, but then virtually all of the workers – the guys who were pounding nails and doing the welding and whatever – were not from Equatorial Guinea, because that country has not a terribly skilled workforce. They were from India and the Philippines and flown in, and were living on the worksite and working 7 days a week. It was the most efficient way to operate to get this facility built. And it’s a great problem in the oil industry that a lot of the jobs – it’s not labor intensive. They get people from outside the country, and we’re already seeing that in Iraq, that Iraqis are not getting some of the jobs that the foreign companies are running contracts for.
But the greater kind of problem of political stability that oil can play – you know, sometimes oil can be a glue, because it does provide money and it makes people realize that if we fight too much we’ll ruin the goose that lays the golden egg. But it’s a great, great problem in these countries always of who controls it. Is it the local population? Or is it the regional government? Is it the federal government? This has been the problem in Nigeria, and now we’re seeing this – it’s just been kind of held off for the longest time with the oil fields in Kirkuk. That’s what kind of the whole – not in its entirety but to a great degree the standoff between the Kurds and the Iraqi government is about who controls Kirkuk? Who controls particularly the vast oil fields? That question hasn’t been solved, and because it hasn’t been solved it is one that could and may lead to violence. It already has sparked some.
The sharing of oil revenues and the ownership of the oil itself is a contentious issue in whatever country possesses the oil. And in some countries – Norway, Great Britain, the United States of course – managed that question incredibly well. For a country like Iraq, it’s a real devilish issue, and it really hasn’t been answered yet. The question of Kirkuk is essential to the stability of Iraq.
CP: I’ve heard a lot of people in Washington saying lately that “water is the new oil.” Any thoughts on that comparison, or are there any ways in which you’ve seen the two issues intersecting?
Maass: One of the strange ways it comes together is in extracting the tar sands in Canada and the heavy oil in Venezuela, as well as some of the Bakken oil shale in America. You need a lot of water. It requires a lot of energy to kind of burn the earth, as it were, but also a lot of water to wash out the oil. And so that brings water into the water equation in a very direct way in those places. But that’s not the main kind of connection.
In a sense, water was “the world’s oil” before oil became the world’s oil. People were fighting over water and water rights long before the first commercial oil well was struck in the United States in 1859. So there’s nothing new happening now in the sense of countries, regions, and people coming into conflict over water. That’s been going on for quite a long time. But particularly now as global warming changes the weather patterns and countries and regions enter droughts and there’s a greater need for water, and particularly as populations expand, there’s a lot more contentiousness about it and a lot more potential for violence. Fortunately we seem to have a lot more in the way of negotiating skills, and regions understand that fighting over water is a game that nobody ends up winning, so perhaps we can avoid the worst of it, but that doesn’t mean that tension will be avoided.
I should add one other thing, and this is fascinating. One of the reasons that oil has become such a problem is because it has such inherent value, monetary value. There is a price that oil can get in the international marketplace - $60-some-odd per barrel now. The commodification of oil – and I’m not saying that that was wrong – has certainly brought wealth to some countries, and was inevitable. But it also creates problems when you assign a price tag, whether it’s oil or it’s water. Then you also increase incentives for people to own it, to jockey for ownership of it. Increasingly, water is being commodified. There is a price put on it. It is not free; rights are not free, and they never have been. But increasingly rights are being put on it in some areas of the world, it is being commodified. And the more that happens, and it is a profit-making opportunity for the people and institutions involved, that’s good for them. But it is a good way to manage the world’s water resources? Is it a good way to avoid conflict? Perhaps not. We need to be very careful about how we treat water in terms of whether it is a public resource or a private resource that people can make money off of.
CP: You also describe getting a sense of hope for the future, if you will, from the sight of wind turbines operating in southern California, and note that learning more about oil made you more concerned about climate change. Any concluding thoughts on climate change legislation, Copenhagen, private sector activities, or anything else on climate change?
One of the things that has frustrated me about the climate change debate is that it’s one in which you have scientists virtually unanimously agreeing that we’re facing a real disaster unless we act. But then you have governments which mostly are dragging their feet, and populations that might be concerned about climate change but have more immediate concerns. So the result is that nothing much is happening at the level that it should be even given the gravity of what’s in front of us. So what’s frustrating to me is this disconnect from the threat and our reaction to it.
What I as a writer have tried to do is write a book about oil which makes people care. Elizabeth Kolbert has written a wonderful book about climate change called Field Notes from a Catastrophe, which I think has done a great job of – not breaking ground scientifically; she isn’t trying to do that – what she tries to do is just tell the story of climate change in a very human, compelling way, so that people who are phased into senselessness by the data are actually woken up by the personal telling of the story and the narrative craft.
And so I tried to do that with oil. We know oil is a problem, but we think of it mainly in terms of, perhaps sometimes we invade a country because of it, or greenhouse gas emissions, carbon emissions. But there’s also this kind of political, economic, and environmental side of oil for some of the countries, so I just try to tell the stories to make people care. What my job is as a writer is not to do science, not to even write the science. My job is to write human stories that bring the science alive, and that bring the stress alive – and that give us reason, maybe emotional investment in moving to the solutions we need to, whether it’s moving on climate change, or moving on oil, which is so inextricable linked. Oil is so obviously part of the climate change equation that it’s all kind of wrapped into one. But we’re all soldiers with different missions, and mine is to write as compellingly as possible about these threats so that they seem real.
And in that, Maass was successful. He’s touring around talking about Crude World through the fall, if you have your own questions for him.
Yemen is becoming one of the most closely watched countries in the Middle East; ranked 18th in Foreign Policy’s “Failed State Index.” And one of the issues that we have been curious about here in the Natural Security program is how Yemen’s water crisis is combining with existing trends in Yemen to undermine stability and contribute to violence. I recently spoke with Gregory Johnsen, a Ph.D. candidate in Near Eastern studies at Princeton University and a former Fulbright Fellow in Yemen, who spoke with me about his experiences and helped me better understand the interplay between Yemen’s water scarcity and the myriad security challenges there.
Johnsen has written for a variety of publications including Foreign Policy, The American Interest, the Christian Science Monitor, the Boston Globe and West Point's CTC Sentinel. He is also a co-contributor to Waq al-Waq, a blog that offers nuanced analyses of Yemen’s history and political affairs.
Rogers: As a Fulbright Fellow you spent your time in Yemen and were able to see firsthand how severe water scarcity engages existing issues, such as a weak central government and rising population growth, to contribute to instability and violence. Then you returned and co-authored this great piece in Foreign Policy back in February aptly titled “The Wells Run Dry.” I’m curious – how have you seen the situation in Yemen change since you published this article?
I had an opportunity to speak with David Axe, a military correspondent with Wired Magazine’s Danger Room and a regular contributor to warisboring.com, to discuss a variety of natural security issues and the evolving role of the U.S. military in responding to climate-related disasters and relief. Axe is a contributing editor at World Politics Review, Warships International Fleet Review and Eurasia Critic, and a regular contributor to The Washington Times and C-SPAN. He has traveled extensively throughout Africa, Asia and the Middle East, reporting from a number of war zones, including Afghanistan, Chad, East Timor, Gabon, Iraq, Kenya, Lebanon, Nicaragua and Somalia, where his experiences have informed his understanding of how violent conflicts are linked to poor environmental stewardship and natural resource scarcity.
I sat down with Robert Kaplan, senior fellow at CNAS, to discuss some of the pertinent issues related to natural security in his work. Kaplan has long been a prolific and influential writer, having written for numerous publications, including The Atlantic Monthly. Kaplan was one of the first scholars to link environmental degradation to problems related to traditional “hard security” when he published “The Coming Anarchy” in 1994, examining (among other things) the links between population growth, environmental degradation, and conflict in West Africa. In the May/June issue of Foreign Policy, Kaplan published “The Revenge of Geography,” examining the role of geography as a constraining and empowering factor in today’s international relations. In “The Revenge of Geography,” Kaplan addresses natural security issues such as climate change, water scarcity, and population growth as he maps out the importance of this discipline in examining the state of the world.
Myers: First I wanted just to start with a broad question