Redefining Security

Joe Biden finally endorsed yesterday what the imperialists in DC have long been backing: an open-ended presence in Afghanistan.

“It is not our intention to govern or to nation-build,” Mr Biden said. “As President Karzai often points out, this is the responsibility of the Afghan people, and they are fully capable of it.”

But he stressed that the United States would continue to assist the Afghan government.

“If the Afghan people want it, we won’t leave in 2014,” Mr Biden said.

Meanwhile, Lester Brown uses the last paragraph of a piece on the coming food riots to point out how out-dated our empire–the decision-making that will lead us to stay in Afghanistan until we go broke–is.

As the new year begins, the price of wheat is setting an all-time high in the United Kingdom. Food riots are spreading across Algeria. Russia is importing grain to sustain its cattle herds until spring grazing begins. India is wrestling with an 18-percent annual food inflation rate, sparking protests. China is looking abroad for potentially massive quantities of wheat and corn. The Mexican government is buying corn futures to avoid unmanageable tortilla price rises. And on January 5, the U.N. Food and Agricultural organization announced that its food price index for December hit an all-time high.

But whereas in years past, it’s been weather that has caused a spike in commodities prices, now it’s trends on both sides of the food supply/demand equation that are driving up prices. On the demand side, the culprits are population growth, rising affluence, and the use of grain to fuel cars. On the supply side: soil erosion, aquifer depletion, the loss of cropland to nonfarm uses, the diversion of irrigation water to cities, the plateauing of crop yields in agriculturally advanced countries, and — due to climate change — crop-withering heat waves and melting mountain glaciers and ice sheets. These climate-related trends seem destined to take a far greater toll in the future.


The unrest of these past few weeks is just the beginning. It is no longer conflict between heavily armed superpowers, but rather spreading food shortages and rising food prices — and the political turmoil this would lead to — that threatens our global future. Unless governments quickly redefine security and shift expenditures from military uses to investing in climate change mitigation, water efficiency, soil conservation, and population stabilization, the world will in all likelihood be facing a future with both more climate instability and food price volatility. If business as usual continues, food prices will only trend upward.

Note, I think Brown misses one cause of the food shortages: the treatment of food and commodities used in its production as one more thing our banksters can bet on at their casino.

But his point stands: probably the two biggest threats to our country are–first–climate change and–second–the refusal to fix the global economy the banksters broke. Yet we’re continuing to pour our dollars into Afghanistan, and to pour it into efforts that may well just exacerbate the violence.

A McClatchy story written by Medill graduate students shows how badly our own “security” establishment responds to such non-military threats.

Yet the U.S. government is ill-prepared to act on climate changes that are coming faster than anticipated and threaten to bring instability to places of U.S. national interest, interviews with several dozen current and former officials and outside experts and a review of two decades’ worth of government reports indicate.

Climate projections lack crucial detail, they say, and information about how people react to changes — for instance, by migrating — is sparse. Military officials say they don’t yet have the intelligence they need in order to prepare for what might come.

Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, a 23-year veteran of the CIA who led the Department of Energy’s intelligence unit from 2005 to 2008, said the intelligence community simply wasn’t set up to deal with a problem such as climate change that wasn’t about stealing secrets.


In 2007, Department of Energy intelligence chief Mowatt-Larssen built an experimental program called Global Energy & Environment Strategic Ecosystem, or Global EESE. He tapped Carol Dumaine, a CIA foresight strategist known around the agency as a creative visionary, to lead the program.

Our modern intelligence evolved for a different type of threat: monolithic, top-down, incrementally changing,” Dumaine, who has since returned to the CIA, said in a recent interview. She, on the other hand, was “trying to grow a garden of intelligence genius.”

The program brought together more than 200 of the brightest minds from around the world to explore the impact of issues such as abrupt climate change, energy infrastructure and environmental stresses in Afghanistan.

But after only two years, the program was shuttered. Former members say it was brought down by bureaucratic infighting, political pressure from Congress and the Bush White House, and concerns about including foreign nationals in the intelligence arena.

“The most important thing we lost is data. We lost the data that accompanies new ways of conducting intelligence and for getting it right with environmental problems,” Mowatt-Larssen said. [my emphasis]

We can’t prepare for issues that involve science that has been attacked by a well-funded lobby; we can’t prepare for issues that require open sharing with foreign nationals; we can’t prepare for events that don’t involve stealing secrets; we can’t protect national security programs that don’t fit Republicans’ narrowly defined understanding of it; we can’t prepare for problems not caused by nation-states.

And one thing this article doesn’t say is that if can’t prepare to deal with the changes climate change will bring, we sure as hell can’t prevent or mitigate its effects.

The US empire is in decline on many levels. Its time of economic hegemony is passing; its too-big military is not designed to fight the threats against our country; its government has been rendered dysfunctional by corporate money.

But one of the biggest problems with the US empire is that it chose not to–or was unable to–use its twilight period to prepare for the challenges ahead.

  1. bobschacht says:

    EW, Thanks for this extremely important analysis. You are exactly right on target. You can add to your mix (and I’m surprised that you didn’t) the huge international agribusiness companies that not only buy produce, but also sell seed, conduct genetic modification experiments, etc. If our government is asleep at the wheel about this security crisis, you can bet that agribusiness is paying close attention, and doing whatever it can to control the agribusiness markets. I’m thinking in particular of Monsanto, Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), and Cargill. I would not be surprised to see them engage in price manipulation, and wherever Congresscritters gather to discuss biofuels, you can bet these guys are at the table.

    Bob in AZ

    • bobschacht says:

      My comment about agribusiness was not meant to distract from EW’s point about thinking of this in terms of our national security interests, which is an excellent point. We’re not used to thinking that way. But discussing food riots, spreading food shortages and rising food prices– Dr. Malthus has entered the room, methinks. Those who might say, “Who could have thought that…?” are banished to the realm of the ignorati. This is one of the most predictable crises one might imagine.

      This context highlights the utter foolishness of pouring billions of dollars into Afghanistan for illusory security interests when a bigger problem deserves our attention before we are bankrupt.

      Bob in AZ

      • tjbs says:

        And the oil. The military accounts for 1/2 the total US consumption.

        Some day, in the not to distant future, we will regret the gluttony of the military of our society and their crusades for nothing but vain glory.

  2. barne says:

    Rural/City conflict on the way? With urban manufacturing jobs gone to the third world, what will city folk have to trade for food? “We have a right to sell our grain to the highest bidder. If lazy city folk don’t have the cash to bid high, that’s not my problem.”

    Are any of the super rich power centers buying farm land like crazy?

  3. JTMinIA says:

    Food shortages could also lead to a sudden, catastrophic drop in food production, via the following scenario (which some have argued has already started). (1) Desperate attempts to increase food production lead to reduced oversight on the methods employed, including reduced testing of the consequences of gene modification. (2) A mistake of some sort is made which triggers a near-total collapse of all food production. For example, the sudden death of most honeybees cuts US food production to 20% of the current level.

    • earlofhuntingdon says:

      Climate-change induced dramatic swings in local climates – eg, prolonged rainfall at grain harvest time – can ruin crops, too, and lead to disastrous local or national food shortages such as those in Russia now. When such things happen in several countries at the same time, there’s little global surplus to redirect toward those in dire need.

      We may not plan for such things, or how to avoid them, but I bet our military and its ubiquitous private contractors are planning how to deploy and/or profit from them, as are the largest agribusinesses.

    • earlofhuntingdon says:

      I would add that the honeybee-death controversy has heated up recently on news that certain pesticides from top producers were approved notwithstanding that their active ingredients were particularly harmful to those bees.

      • reader says:

        Indeed. While all of us (and many scientists in the bee community) were tearing our hair out trying to figure out what was going wrong for the bees. Stunning.

      • JTMinIA says:

        “Seed wars” are intense. The goal is to produce a seed/pesticide combination that goes beyond protecting your own plants (where “your own plants” = the plants of the farmers buying your products). You want to kill everything else, including, for example, the crops of all neighboring farms that aren’t using your seed/pesticide combo. In fact, you want to create a pesticide that is pretty much lethal to all life other than the plants grown from the seeds paired with (by gene mod) the pesticide.

        Wouldn’t it be funny if they ended up making a new version of Citizen Kane to mark the end of life as we know it. Of course, the mysterious last words of the protagonist won’t be “rosebud” again, but it won’t be too different either. This time the last word will be “round-up.”

        • bobschacht says:

          You make a great point. The purpose of Agrobusiness is not to produce food, but to make its customers utterly dependent on them. Seed, tools, equipment are all a means to that end.

          Bob in AZ

  4. Mary says:

    Even without redefinition, In Afghanistan, as an example, the fact is that we are occupying and bombing a country that is in such bad shape that we can’t easily get supplies to the troops means that in order to provide “security” in the form of military presence, we are paying bribes to the Taliban to let the supplies get through – – – so that we can fight the Taliban.

    Militarily, you can control a stockpile, but a supply line is always a very different thing.

    • emptywheel says:

      I’m listening to Ahmed Rashid’s Taliban right now. I was not aware of the degree which the raise of the Taliban was tied to placating the transportation mafia in the country. You’d think that’s the kind of detail some of the experts would know–and would be able to see the obvious implications of.

  5. Arbusto says:

    The US policy since the demise of the USSR seems to have moved from placation of foreign populations through the Peace Corp and USAID programs, supported by propaganda, to more military intervention (to support military/corporate needs) and propaganda and less aid. Diminishing water supply (and corporatization of water resources and utilities) are exacerbated by increasing populations fighting for non-renewable resources and don’t bode well for the earths inhabitants. Why isn’t ZPG discussed anymore?

  6. b2020 says:

    “The military accounts for 1/2 the total US [oil] consumption.”

    Do you have a reference for this? That seems impossibly high.

    Excellent post, EW.

    In my mind, there are three steps of analysis to follow.

    One, our collective inability to address long-term, transnational threats to our survival – such as climate change – is to a large extent the result of a structural flaw in democratic systems. The National Security State (also known as “Military Industrial Complex”, see
    for some interesting new insights on Eisenhower’s Farewell address) is the dominant venue for the privatization of tax revenue. The various competing markets for personal – safety, health, retirement, financial – “security” show the same basic structure: A “product” that is politically undisputed – [military, domestic, economic] security, or the promise of it – is leveraged in election contests financed by campaign donations; donations are a taken out of vastly larger [defense, law enforcement, banking] revenue streams resulting from government spending justified in service of the “product” [military, intelligence, credit]; the [defense contract, bailout, prison spending] return on [campaign donation] investment is two or more orders of magnitude; the opportunity cost diverts more and more corporate and national efforts into this most profitable revenue loop, and the sheer amount of profit is soon sufficient to distort the domestic information flow, national discourse, political organization, and election primaries. At that point, elections have ceased to matter. Too Big Too Regulate+Fail+Fix is Too Big to be compatible with a sustainable democracy – an open society that can be manipulated into facilitating the engineering of such [defense, health, financial industry] revenue loops is inherently flawed.

    Two, if you accept the premises that Republic 1.0 is structurally flawed, and that as a result our collective inability to allocate resources and plan beyond corporate quarters and election years is threatening the survival of not just the inherently unstable democratic structures, but quite possibly the survival of the “host” society, how do we fix it? Too Big For Democracy raises the question whether (pace E.O. Wilson’s “evolutionary stable strategies”) we can define and implement inherently democratically stable structures – call it Republic 2.0 – for a robust open society in which a – guaranteed to be informed and educated – People who can be trusted to have and use the checks and balances that cut off self-reinforcing revenue loops before they grow beyond our collective ability to reform ourselves and our republic.

    Three, assuming that such solutions exist – e.g. based on public campaign financing, instant runoff voting, abolishment of electoral college, replacement of the Senate, guaranteed access to broadcasting and digital media, a fourth branch of government responsible for investigation, archiving and public information separate from the traditional three [a “public option” competing with dysfunctional commercial media] – assuming that such solutions exist, is there a roadmap to successful reform? In the words of the Irish joke, “how do we get there if we really shouldn’t start from here?” Not only has Republic 1.0 proven to be inherently unstable, and unsustainable, it might well be inherently beyond reform. In human history, substantial reform – defining substantial changes, and hence winners and losers – to the detriment of entrenched oligarchies and inbred wealth have, more often then not, been the result of “nothing left to lose” endgames turning into violence and revolution. The toll was staggering at any time in the past; scaled to the size and impact of a nation the size of the USA, India or China, such toll might well be the end of the game.

    We cannot destroy the republic to save it – is it Too Far Gone Too Reform?