July 06, 2009

Reading Old Magazines: Scarcity and Strategy

This week’s installment of “Reading Old Magazines” takes us to January 1978, with a Foreign Affairs piece called “Scarcity and Strategy” by Geoffrey Kemp.

First, imagine a time when the Middle East was not of great strategic importance to the United States. From the author’s 1978 vantage point, it was easy to remember a time when the nation had not yet experienced oil crises.

But from 1978, it was also easy for the author to see that more countries following the development path of the United States meant increasing competition for the same oil supplies. At that time, the author notes, U.S. strategists were highly concerned that the Soviet Union would become “embroiled in a conflict whereby it gained control over or destroyed the Saudi Arabian oil fields.” The real wisdom in this article, however, is not whether he correctly identified threats on the horizon – as his example shows, some threats manifest and others don’t – but rather that he understood the true nature of security concerns regarding scarcity. As Kemp wrote, “What matters is a particular nation’s sense of scarcity,” not just scarcity in an absolute sense. His evidence that energy reserve estimates are but one piece of the puzzle serves as a good reminder that we are looking at a broad and complicated picture in working on natural security issues.

Beyond just energy, minerals are another example of how scarcity or a concern thereof drives how governments behave and shapes the world in which we operate. Looking to our chief adversary in 1978, Kemp reflected on the possibility that though some minerals were of marginal economic or military importance to the United States, their importance to the Soviet economy and military had the potential to weaken or strengthen its hand. Minerals critical to the economies of the United States, China, Japan, and other developed countries are also often concentrated in unstable or war-torn countries.

Identifying and stockpiling minerals with the greatest confluence of importance and vulnerability to supply disruption can help mitigate risk. Yet as Kemp pointed out, to stockpile or not to stockpile is a less cut-and-dry choice in wartime versus peacetime: “Marginal changes in mineral costs or short-run disruptions in supply may have a serious effect upon a peacetime ‘boom’ economy but less effect in wartime.” Asking the public to sacrifice lower prices or economic growth for the sake of national security may be difficult when the stakes are not immediately clear. There are costs, therefore, of planning for long-term scarcities even in the absence of a current one.

Some minerals also tie into access to adequate food and freshwater supplies (which are also closely linked, as Kemp observed), resources known to have been important factors in past conflicts. The author correctly predicted that the United States would eventually become a net importer of phosphorus, for example, a fertilizer component critical to modern food production for which supplies could become increasingly tight as more countries mimic U.S. agricultural methods.

“Scarcity and Strategy” could leave readers with the observation that natural resources will always be a component – and some may believe only a minor one – of the strategic environment, and of military decisions and conflicts which do occur. While Kemp does not focus on the peak oil concept, his writing brings to mind comments so often heard today regarding oil scarcity: we always think we’re running out, and then new technologies allow us to continually find and retrieve ever more resources. The country has always seen resource supply issues, but it has continued to prosper.

This is historically true, but it does not mean that it will always be true. As Kemp’s article described well, the effect of natural resources on the strategic environment should not be underestimated.

Resources determine how governments draw borders and set economic zones, decide with whom to form relationships, and influence where they project military presence. And there are political and economic costs to the military’s resource use: in Kemp’s 1978 example, “imagine the United States having to fight another war of the same intensity and duration as that in Vietnam but at today’s oil prices.” Conversely, he also begs the reader to imagine a future in which non-petroleum fuel energy not vulnerable to the kinds of supply lines that govern oil use allows the military to completely alter how and where it conducts missions. Today, it is even easier to understand just what these scenarios mean. Luckily, DOD has given both much thought in recent years.

One major lesson of Kemp’s 1978 writing is that we can’t afford to assume that technological or political change will alleviate some of the risk inherent to natural resource reliance. He projects that new energy sources could be developed by the end of the century, including in the Soviet Union, that could diminish some of the strategic threat of oil dependence. As it turned out, such development has provided today’s Russia with one of its strongest tools for pressuring its neighbors.

In looking beyond today’s world from back in the ‘70s, Kemp, now at the Nixon Center, identified two potential game-changers for resources impacting geostrategic conditions. One is deep-sea exploitation of energy and mineral sources. The second is resource extraction from outer space. As we can already see just how complicated the former can be, it is worth noting the author’s warning to be prepared for the later.

Based on Geoffrey Kemp, “Scarcity and Strategy,” Foreign Affairs Vol. 56 No. 2 (January 1978), available at foreignaffairs.com.