May 10, 2011

Minerals Report Release Week

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.

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.

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.

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.