01/23/2013 02:29 pm ET Updated Mar 25, 2013

Fewer Swords, More Plowshares: A Marine Rethinks Defense (Part 2)

This is the second in a two-part interview with Marine Col. Puck Mykleby about how America can reinvent its foreign and national security policies to be more relevant and effective in the 21st Century - an important issue as President Obama brings on a new foreign policy team and Congress contemplates cuts in the defense budget.

Q. 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?

A. 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.

Q. 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?

A. 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.

Q. 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?

A. 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.

Q. 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?

A. 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.

Q. 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.

A. 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.

Q: 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?

A. 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 " 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".