Fewer Swords, More Plowshares: A Marine Rethinks Defense

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22 & 23 January 2013

With a new foreign policy team about to join the Obama Administration and with the possibility of budget cuts for the Department of Defense, are changes ahead in how the United States approaches national security? That question is on the minds of thought leaders in the security and defense communities. In the discussion, a novel idea is emerging: that sustainable development at home is a critical dimension of America’s foreign policy and national security strategy. (For examples, see here and here.)
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One of the thought leaders is Marine Colonel Mark “Puck” Mykleby. Before retiring from the Marine Corps in 2011, he served as a special strategic assistant to the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen. While in that post, Mykleby and his colleague, Navy Captain Wayne Porter, proposed a new vision for a 21st Century American grand strategy in a paper entitled “A National Strategic Narrative.” They suggested that the U.S. needs to build security through sustainable development at home, creating the credibility and influence to lead the world down a more lasting peace and prosperity. That path, they suggested, is less expensive and more effective than investing solely in the traditional tools of foreign policy, which have been mostly dominated by military power.

I asked Col. Mykleby about these and other issues facing President Obama in his second term. The resulting interview is long but well worth reading. It offers a fresh approach to national security from someone who has served at the highest levels of the U.S. military.

Bill Becker: As Congress and the President hammer out an agreement to cut federal spending, what are your concerns about the impact on our military effectiveness and national security? Can we save money without sacrificing security?

Colonel Mark “Puck” Mykleby: To be honest, I’m not too concerned about our long-term military effectiveness. We have the finest, most professional, best-equipped, and most lethal military force the world has ever seen. I don’t think that is going to change anytime soon, with or without budget cuts. I say this simply because I believe the quality of our military is mostly tied to the quality of our people (and the quality of their training). I’m not saying budget cuts won’t be painful, but we need to have some historical perspective on this. Our national defense budget historically has been cyclical; it looks like a sine wave. We’ve survived budget cuts before; we’ll survive them again. During my career in the Marine Corps, we never seemed to have enough “stuff.” That’s why I always found it useful to remember the words of former Marine Corps Commandant General Al Gray, “Fight with what you’ve got; make what you need.”

In the face of potential budget cuts, however, I am concerned about how effective our NATION will be if we don’t start getting smarter about how we pursue our national interests, including how, when, and where our military is or is not employed. In the foreign policy context, this is a political issue that needs to be first and foremost in the minds of our civilian leadership. If you want to reduce the military budget, fine. But you can no longer look to the military to serve as the convenient near-term solution to all the vexing, unforeseen problems that we are currently facing, and will continue to face.

Doing more with less has its limits and it’s not fair to keep demanding more and more out of our men and women in uniform (as well as our diplomats and intelligence professionals, for that matter), particularly if you cut their resources. We need to strike the right balance across all our national resources and tools (public, private, and civil). This means we need to actually start thinking strategically, systemically, and, most importantly, wisely about how to best pursue our enduring interests of prosperity and security within our existing resource constraints. As Cicero points out in his On Duties, “Arms are of little value in the field unless there is wise counsel at home.” Given our current national condition, we need to start leveraging some wisdom at home if we’re going to make it in the 21st Century.

To do this, we need to get our brains around the fact that national security in the 21st Century does not just mean defense. Defense is part of our security, but only a part. The big national security challenges we face today are not all about the things that start at our shores and extend outward and they certainly are not exclusively about nefarious geopolitical actors that we can point to on a map. National security today has more to do with the integrated systems, both within our nation and around the world, that constitute our society today (food, water, climate, the natural and built environments, transportation, energy, public health, education, etc.). We can no longer afford to expend our national prosperity in pursuit of an illusory promise of security that is mostly defined in terms of defense that echo from our 20th Century past. We need to put more emphasis on the realities of our 21st Century future.

This may be a pipe dream, but the silver lining could be this: Perhaps budget cuts will give us reason to look at ourselves honestly and with a sense of purpose and initiate institutional changes across all organs of government in terms of roles and missions; organizational relationships and authorities; and our overall procurement and R&D processes. It’s probably time to dust off both the National Security Act of 1947 (NSA-47) and Goldwater-Nichols, frameworks we use today but that were developed within the context of the Cold War, and design a new construct for the 21st Century environment. Such a design needs to better integrate not only the functions of defense with those of diplomacy and development in a more purposeful manner, but also the domestic functions of education, research, energy, agriculture, infrastructure, transportation, industry, public health, etc. The world is far too complex and interconnected to limit our global engagement to the convenient bins and paradigmatic constructs that worked during the Cold War. This is probably a bit cliché to say these days, but that doesn’t make it any less true.

As to your question about saving money without sacrificing security, I’ll take it one step further. I think we can be both prosperous and secure…in fact, I don’t think you can have one without the other. Simply put, prosperity and security are inextricably linked together (at least if you want them to be enduring).

This was one of the basic points Wayne Porter and I were making in the National Strategic Narrative. And I’d like to point out this isn’t new stuff. If you’ll recall, recognizing and fostering the linkage between prosperity and security was the very same argument that was repeatedly made, and never abandoned, by the likes of General George Marshall, President Eisenhower, and George Kennan – some of the best strategic minds our nation has ever produced.

Today, given the fact that the United States constitutes roughly a quarter of the global economy, we still have the weight to alter large-scale market forces and shift the direction of the global economy in a more sustainable direction. There is huge economic opportunity emerging in the world if we just consider we have to fold approximately 3 billion people into the global middle class by mid-century (and along with their arrival comes a 300% increase in consumption rates). If we crack the nut right here at home on how to live healthy, productive lives in the presence of resource constraints, we can show the world a different path of sustainable development and profit from the resultant market recalibration. Not only will we create long-term security for ourselves and the global community, we will also ensure a bright and prosperous future for our kids and grandkids. I’d say that’s something worthy of our collective efforts as a nation and as individual citizens. It also makes great economic, and security, sense.

BB: The paper you and Capt. Porter wrote caused quite a splash in security circles. You called for a new “national strategic narrative” that moves from us from “containment” to “sustainment”. What did you mean by that? What are some examples of how “sustainment” would be applied?

MM: Actually, what we were saying is we need to move from “containment” to “sustainability.” Our basic premise was that containment was a strategy of control that leveraged force and power to pursue our enduring interests. In the post-World War Two environment, we could treat the world as if it was a closed system; a system where we could manipulate certain variables to achieve deterministic results. Particularly in the context of the Cold War, this made sense…and fortunately it worked. Unfortunately, the logic and instruments of containment are no longer valid in today’s more interconnected, interdependent world. Our sense is we need to approach the world more as an open system; as an ecology. We need to alter our approach because trying to apply the closed system, control logic of containment to today’s open system environment has done two things.

First, the Second Law of Thermodynamics (entropy) has kicked in at scale. The rate of change is exceeding our national capacity to leverage control and we have begun to fold in on ourselves in confusion and frustration as we try to impose a 20th Century logic on our 21st Century reality.

Second, this confusion and frustration has led us to a place where we seem more concerned with preserving the status quo both at home and abroad rather than adapting and thriving as the dynamics of the global “strategic ecology” shift and alter. And in any ecology, organisms that seek to preserve the status quo tend to become monocultures and monocultures invariably wither and die. Not exactly what we seek to accomplish.

It’s in this context that we applied the ecological concept of sustainability to grand strategy simply because the concept clearly maps to our enduring interests of prosperity and security (and is in keeping with our national values). Somewhere along the way, we came upon the following definition of sustainability: Sustainability is an organism’s ability to remain diverse and productive over time. Diversity means we need depth, redundancy, elasticity, and resilience in the systems that make up our society. In my Marine mind that means we need to have the capacity to take a gut punch and come back swinging, whether that punch comes from a physical attack, weather events spawned by climate change, a financial disaster, etc. This is what constitutes security in the 21st Century.

We also need to be productive, but we can no longer afford to define productivity in strictly quantitative terms. We simply don’t have enough resources to continue with our current industrial age mindset. We have to think of productivity in qualitative terms if we are going ensure the long-term vibrancy, health, and prosperity of future generations. The issue of quantity versus quality isn’t a philosophical argument; it’s an issue of math and science. It’s really that simple.

There’s one last thing I’d like to say about sustainability as a grand strategic concept. Sustainability fits nicely into a uniquely American style of grand strategy. When America has done grand strategy well, it has used its economy to do the strategic heavy lifting while aligning its governing institutions and foreign policy to take on the great global challenge of the era. In World War Two, we were the Arsenal of Democracy, arming and equipping our allies while at the same time building our own forces to take on the scourge of global fascism. In the Cold War, we took on global communism by effectively rebuilding the economies of Western Europe and Japan while reorganizing ourselves and our alliances to contain and outlast the Soviets. Today, the great global challenge of our era is global “unsustainability.” If we can first get our own house in order and set our nation on a more sustainable path, our example (and our strength) will give us the credibility and influence we need to lead the rest of the world in a more positive direction. This is what Wayne and I meant in the Narrative when we said we need to practice smart growth at home so we can lead with smart power abroad.

Figuring out how to actually do this is what I am now focused on, along with Patrick Doherty, at the New America Foundation. If you want to see how we think sustainability can be implemented as a grand strategic concept, I encourage you to read a piece Patrick wrote that was published by Foreign Policy: “A New U.S. Grand Strategy: Why walkable communities, sustainable economics, and multilateral diplomacy are the future of American power.” Patrick’s paper lays out in clear, functional terms how we can leverage large pent up pools of demand for walkable communities, regenerative agriculture, and a revolution in resource productivity to unlock the excess liquidity we have in our economy, get it working to fuel a new American grand strategy, and shift the direction of our nation in the 21st Century. It’s our attempt to provide the “so what” follow-on to the National Strategic Narrative.

BB: You’ve suggested that in the world as it is today, we need to replace the Cold War strategy of containment with a 21st Century strategy of sustainability. Is sustainable development a type of preventive medicine against future conflicts?

MM: In the foreign context, absolutely. This is something we looked at extensively while I was doing strategy at Special Operations Command. We took a hard look at demographic trends and their impact on the security environment. Currently, 200,000 people leave the rural environment for the urban environment every day, either to run away from a threat or run to some perceived opportunity. Most of this urbanization is occurring in the littoral regions of the world and approximately 95% of it is completely unplanned (not a great combination given the realities of climate change and sea level rise). This is incredibly destabilizing.

Moreover, in the midst of this massive global migration to the cities, criminal and extremist networks predatorily take advantage of the situation, profiting handsomely from the trafficking of drugs, weapons, and human beings. These “dark networks” are immensely corrosive and destabilizing. Moveover, they don’t subscribe to geopolitical boundaries to which most of our institutions are calibrated. That’s why we started looking at things like urban design, female health and education, and sustainable energy and agriculture as systemic leverage points to get out in front of and to reshape the security environment. These are not necessarily military missions, but they definitely necessitate military support and advocacy.

A great example of how effective such an approach can be is Bogota, Colombia. While Bogota hasn’t fixed every problem, its leadership has gone a long way toward countering the deleterious effect of criminal networks through the use of urban design and development.

BB: The Department of Defense plans to obtain 25% of its energy from renewable resources by 2025. Some members of Congress have attacked this goal and threatened to deny funding for it. They’ve claimed it has more to do with President Obama’s green agenda than with military effectiveness. As someone who has worked at the pinnacle of the defense establishment, what do you think?

MM: The DoD’s pursuit of renewable energy resources is an issue of operational effectiveness, force protection, and cost savings, period. Any energy we can produce from renewable resources results in less threat exposure to our supply lines and our troops (as well as our domestic bases), greater operational flexibility since we are not beholding to cumbersome and vulnerable logistics chains, less weight for troops to carry in the combat environment, and more money saved that can be put toward training and equipping our forces. Specifically from a Marine’s perspective, renewable energy is about being expeditionary and about being lethal. I can’t say it any plainer than that.

For those in Congress who don’t get this, I recommend they try getting behind the wheel of a fuel truck enroute to Afghanistan or humping the extra weight of batteries up a mountain. I think that experience would provide a healthy new perspective.

BB: Let’s turn from international security to domestic security. What is the role of sustainable development in making us more internally secure in the United States? Some advocates of renewable energy point out, for example, that distributed energy systems make us less vulnerable to power disruptions, whether they’re caused by poor maintenance or by terrorists. Others point out that energy efficiency is one way to stimulate the economy and make it more secure against volatile energy prices and supplies. And some of us believe that using sustainable designs and technologies strengthens the fabric of the nation, making it stronger and more secure. What do you think?

MM: First of all, it’s a mistake to talk about security in terms of “internal” and “external.” As I said earlier, in the 21st Century, there is no dividing line between home and abroad. The world is simply too interconnected and interdependent to categorize security in such a binary fashion.

A case in point: After the Fukushima Daiichi disaster, who would have thought that the shutdown of a local Japanese factory that produced a three-dollar gasket for American automakers could negatively impact U.S. auto production and play a significant contributing role in spiking the U.S. unemployment rate from 8.9% to 9.1%? Well, it did. Today, “over there” events have serious, almost immediate hometown effect.

Specifically to your question about distributed energy systems, Sandy clearly underscored the need for us to transition beyond the linear, brittle energy distribution systems we have developed over the years. It’s time to start becoming a bit more concerned about long-term effectiveness rather than near-term efficiency. And, with the proper investments, we can develop the needed technologies that will deliver both the long-term efficiency and effectiveness we need to be both secure and prosperous.

BB: One threat to security at home and abroad seems to be degradation of the natural environment. Current and former military officials acknowledge that the disruptive impacts of global climate change may destabilize some of the world’s most volatile regions. But the world community is approaching, and in some cases already has crossed, other critical environmental thresholds. Fresh water supplies, the health of the oceans, the rapid extinction of species, and the loss of soil fertility are examples where environmental issues are no longer just local concerns; we are threatening entire systems that support and enrich life on the planet. If you were asked to advise President Obama and Congress on the most important ways to invest the government’s limited financial resources for national security, what would you tell them, and why?

MM: Initially, I’d tell them to focus on the most basic, essential security requirement of our (or any) nation: the long-term capacity to produce food. This is one of our nation’s largest and most pressing strategic challenges.

The problem is that it is hard to get any meaningful strategic action on this issue, let alone any real public attention, simply because, if anything, it seems we have too much food. American households currently throw away approximately 40% of their food each year. At the same time, two-thirds of Americans are overweight (over a third are clinically obese). The Centers for Disease Control reports that, in 2009, over 70% of the approximately $2.5 trillion we spent on health care went to preventable diseases, many of which are linked to obesity. As a nation, we’ve let ourselves go so much that the average American stands a 1:2,681 chance of dying from an obesity related cause as compared to a 1:20 million chance of dying in a terrorist-related event (good thing we’re all on the lookout for Al Qaida while we sit in the McDonald’s drive through). We even put 40% of last year’s corn harvest into our gas tanks in the form of ethanol. Clearly we have plenty of food.

But how long can our gluttony continue? We would do well to heed the prescient warnings of the British botanist, Sir Albert Howard who, in his 1940 work, “An Agricultural Testament”, warned that the destiny of most civilizations (he specifically referenced Rome) was largely determined by the condition of its soils.

Today, our soils are hurting and we need to take notice. The sad thing is, this is a self-inflicted wound. According to the University of Michigan’s Global Change Program, 96% of North America’s soil erosion comes from food production (66% from agricultural activities; 30% from overgrazing). The majority of this erosion is occurring in the central portion of the United States, right where we produce the bulk of our food. Significant portions of this region have been designated as “Areas of Serious Concern” where up to 75% of the topsoil has been lost, mostly due to our current farming techniques.

We’re playing with fire. The collapse of the Atlantic cod fishery and its associated 500-year industry is a stark reminder of how Mother Nature reacts to man’s mindless mismanagement of resources. In terms of our soil, how much time do we have until we hit the ecological wall? No one really knows, but since it took tens of thousands of years to produce our current stock of soil (it takes up to 100 years to generate one millimeter of the stuff), we may want to jump on this problem with a bit of urgency.

The good news is this: We have an opportunities-based way out. According to the Rodale Institute’s recently released 30-year study, “The Farming Systems Trial”, organic farming techniques outperform our current conventional agriculture model that became institutionalized in 1972 by Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz. Organic farming produces equivalent yields per acre (30% greater yields in times of drought), all the while using 45% less energy, producing 40% less greenhouse gases, and, most importantly, regenerating the soil. Even better, organic farming can yield three times more profits per acre.

Given that world food prices are at an all time high, not to mention the global demand for regenerative food production will continue to grow for decades (the OECD reports world food production has to increase 60% by 2050 and 100% of that growth has to be regenerative due to ecosystem limitations), now is the time to make the transition to a new national food production model for the 21st Century. It took 40 years to create our current system, it will no doubt take 40 years to transition to a new, more sustainable system.

BB: Is there, or should there be, a role for our military forces in helping other nations engage in sustainable development? Some would oppose that role as nation building, or argue that it’s not an appropriate mission for the armed services.

MM: As I mentioned earlier, there’s a role for the military, but it should be a supporting role. I say this for two reasons. First, there is a real risk that the effectiveness of our military will be undermined, both as a deterrent and an employable tool, if it is viewed more as a national instrument for nation-building rather than as an instrument for delivering physical energy in support of national policy. Our military exists to fight and win wars. This has to remain its primary purpose and we cannot afford to have any potential adversary think that our military’s capacity in this regard is in any way diminished.

The real questions to ask are what will be the nature of future conflicts, how should the military integrate with other elements of national power, and how do we shape ourselves in terms of capabilities, capacities, and authorities to be most effective?

Second, as a nation, we need to be concerned about the face we are presenting to the rest of the world. If we use the military to lead sustainable development abroad, I don’t think our actions will necessarily deliver the message we want to send. For example, I happened to be in West Africa in 2007 around the time that the U.S. announced it was standing up Africa Command (AFRICOM). From an American perspective, we thought that we were sending a message that we were finally getting serious about helping Africa in terms of security and development. But when I asked some of my African colleagues what they thought about AFRICOM, the first question they asked me was “Who are you going to invade?” That question hit me like a ton of bricks. When did we become THAT guy? In my opinion, when it comes to development, we need to put our best and brightest civilians out front so that the face of America is one of an engaged citizenry and not just a deployed military.

Finally, I think an effective role the military can play in development abroad is to help build professional military and security forces that recognize the preeminence of civilian authority. Helping partner nations develop professional officers and non-commissioned officers is not only politically and socially stabilizing, it also creates the long-term professional and personal relationships needed to address today’s and tomorrow’s complex security challenges.

BB: In the assessment it released earlier this year of global trends out to 2030, the National Intelligence Council predicted the United States could become energy independent in as few as 10 years with new technologies for extracting domestic oil and natural gas. But the NIC also warned about the consequences of global climate change. It seemed to be a lapse in logic for the NIC to warn against climate change while being bullish on the fuels that are the principal cause of global warming. Meantime, the NIC’s analysis said virtually nothing about the role of energy efficiency and very little about renewable energy. It ignored several recent studies showing that the United States has great potential for dramatically increasing our use of renewable energy. What do you make of this apparent blind spot at the NIC?

MM: I’m not so sure it’s a blind spot. It is not the job of the intelligence community (IC) to offer courses of action or strategic plans. The IC’s role is to analyze trends and frame out the environment (in this case, the strategic environment). It is incumbent upon our national leaders to digest what the IC presents, reflect on how it relates to our national interests, and decide on a strategic course.

I think a better question to ask is what should our national leaders do with the information in the NIC report? The short-term, easy approach is to go for energy independence in the form of domestic fossil fuels. In my mind this would be an incredibly linear and myopic path. While energy independence in the next 10 years may provide some relief to our current geopolitical and economic situation, it would exacerbate large-scale, systemic problems that we’ll have to live with over the long haul. Climate change is the biggest, most obvious issue. Wayne Porter wrote a great piece for the Fall 2012 issue of the Hotspring Quarterly entitled “The Last Pack of Cigarettes” where he questions the long-term logic of energy independence, comparing it to a situation where we are racing the rest of the world for the last pack of cigarettes, oblivious to the long-term health consequences winning such a race would have. I have to believe we’re smarter than this.

Climate change aside, the idea that we can achieve energy independence in a decade or so and have enough fossil energy to meet our needs for decades to come is not only incredibly short sighted, it is incredibly selfish. What are we supposed to do after those decades pass? More accurately, what are our kids and grandkids supposed to do? We had better mobilize our nation around a real, long-term energy plan that addresses the realities of climate change, the limits of available resources, and the needs of future generations. That means a wholesale national commitment to renewables, higher levels of efficiency, and, God forbid, a modification to our daily behavior.

So again, figuring out this plan isn’t the job of the IC. It’s the job of our national leaders, both in the private and public sectors. More importantly, it’s the job of our citizenry. As citizens, we are all beholding to the Constitution, in particular the Preamble of the Constitution. It is our obligation (remember the “We the People” part?) to “…secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.” We need to start taking that obligation seriously and put some skin in the game, particularly on the energy front.

 

William Becker is executive director of the Presidential Climate Action Project. He began writing about the relationship between sustainable development and national security in 1983 with the publication of his essay, “The Indefensible Society“.

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