May 21, 2012

An Introduction to Choke Points

By Will Rogers

I am pleased and excited to join the team at Consumer Energy Report. I have been an avid reader of the analysis here and I am looking forward to contributing to the important policy discussions that Andrew, Robert and others routinely engage in on energy, climate change and security policy.

I wanted to take the opportunity with this inaugural post to introduce myself and provide you — the reader — a brief sense of where I am coming from and what you can expect to see here on Choke Points.

First a little about myself. I am a national security and foreign policy analyst in Washington, working largely at the crossroads of science, technology and national security policy. My interests in technology and security policy has given me an opportunity to work on a broad range of issues — from cyber security to the impact of climate change on the U.S. Armed Forces. For the most part, though, my particular focus has been on natural resources and security (energy and climate change in particular), first at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and now at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), a non-partisan national security and defense policy think tank.

It is worth noting too that although I have applied this functional research area to analyze resource issues in a few regions around the world (Africa and the Middle East, for example), you’ll notice from my writings that my particular regional focus is the Asia Pacific. My fascination with this region has been influenced largely by the year I spent living in Auckland, New Zealand where I was on exchange as an undergraduate student at the University of Auckland. Although New Zealand seems remote from the rest of the Asia Pacific (and it is), culturally the country is well connected with the rest of Asia, countering what would otherwise be a real feeling of isolationism from being so deep in the South Pacific. Moreover, the international affairs program at the University of Auckland keeps a finger on the pulse of everything going on in the Asia Pacific.

Finally, in my spare time you can either find me at Georgetown University, where I am deep into my masters program at the Walsh School of Foreign Service, in the stands at Nationals Stadium or plying the Mount Vernon Trail on my road bike.

National Security Implications of Resource Consumption

I hope that Choke Points will be a bit of a departure from the other commentary you are used to reading on Consumer Energy Report, specifically through my discussion of natural resources broadly and their connection to national security and foreign policy.

A disclaimer: the commentary you’ll read from me will almost never focus on domestic policy. Andrew, Robert and others have a comparative advantage in understanding and explaining the nuances of domestic policy much better than I can. To the extent that I focus on domestic policy, it will be through suggested policy recommendations that Congress should enact to enhance our national security and foreign policy agenda.

For more than three years at CNAS I have worked on what we call “Natural Security,” exploring the broad range of natural resource trends and how these trends interact with U.S. national security and foreign policy interests. One of the things you’ll notice in my posts is an effort to connect resource trends with each other and their implications for U.S. national security and foreign policy. You’ll see many mentions of water, strategic minerals, and fisheries, and how these resources may be directly or indirectly linked with energy and climate change issues.

Take for example some previous work I have done on the South China Sea where I have explored how China’s thirst for water in the Mekong Delta has contributed to uneasiness over energy resources in the South China Sea region. China’s unilateral dam construction on the Mekong River has exacerbated concerns among downstream neighbors (particularly Vietnam) that China will exploit the region’s natural resources with little regard for others’ concerns. Consequently, when it comes to the potentially hydrocarbon rich South China Sea, Vietnam and others cannot credibly believe that China won’t exploit offshore oil and natural gas reserves in contested waters given that its past record rings of resource nationalism. As a result, diplomacy becomes more difficult to craft, tilting the balance of action away from cooperation. This is a challenge for U.S. policymakers charged with diffusing tensions in the region. (Read more in “Chapter 5: The Role of Natural Resources in the South China Sea” in Cooperation From Strength: The United States, China and the South China Sea.)

Why “Choke Points?”

Finally, a note about the blog title: Choke Points. Yes, it is in part a play on some of my interests on maritime issues, like strategic energy choke points such as the Straits of Hormuz and Malacca. But more than that, it is a commentary on the state of thinking about natural resource issues in national security and foreign policy making. In the several years I have been working in Washington I have come to find that resource issues are a strategic choke point in our national security policymaking. We have come a long way, to be sure, but the U.S. government has not yet fully thought about how resource issues affect our broader range of national interests. In fact, in my experience resource issues only arise in security conversations on an ad hoc basis. We can do better. Natural resource issues — energy and climate change in particular — need to be more routinely integrated into the broad range of national security planning documents — from the National Security Strategy to the Guidance on the Employment of Forces (used by U.S. Geographic Combatant Commanders), as well as security planning exercises, such as war games and foresight exercises.

Resource issues can no longer be a choke point in our national security and foreign policy planning. Unless the U.S. government continually examines natural resource issues through a security and foreign policy lens, questions will be asked and go unanswered, with dangerous consequences for the country. Could water shortages undermine stability in Iraq? Could a severe natural disaster reverse Myanmar’s political progress? Could India’s foray into the South China Sea for energy resources provoke confrontation with China? These are the types of questions we need to be exploring; and it’s these issues I seek to raise here on Choke Points.

I look forward to your feedback along the way and hope this will be an interactive exchange. I by no means have all the answers and expect you the readers to help me better understand these complex issues where you can.