Hal Brands
Hal Brands is the Henry A. Kissinger Distinguished Professor at the Henry A. Kissinger Center for Global Affairs at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies and a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. His latest book is "American Grand Strategy in the Age of Trump."

Food May Be the Ultimate Weapon in the 21st Century

President Joe Biden’s administration is reportedly rewriting its National Security Strategy, which the White House is required to send to Congress annually, to account for the lessons of the war in Ukraine. One issue that this document will have to grapple with outside its traditional focus on statecraft and diplomacy: food.

The conflict in Ukraine has put the geopolitics of food in the headlines, because Russian President Vladimir Putin has used hunger as a weapon against Kyiv and much of the world. Putin is giving an object lesson in how geopolitical insecurity can cause food insecurity — which can then make a whole raft of problems worse across the globe.

A recent report by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization makes for grim reading. The number of undernourished people in the world rose by perhaps 150 million between 2019 and 2021, due principally to the Covid-19 pandemic. In 2020, moderate or severe food insecurity increased by roughly as much as in the previous five years combined. Nearly 3.1 billion people were unable to afford a healthy diet; by some estimates, the number of people on the verge of starvation has multiplied tenfold since 2019.

“This year’s report should dispel any lingering doubts that the world is moving backwards” in the fight against hunger, the FAO concluded. Now the war in Ukraine has compounded the problem.

A Russian blockade has trapped Ukrainian grain that typically feeds millions of people around the world, hitting developing regions such as the Middle East and Africa particularly hard. Western sanctions have made it harder for global customers to buy Russian fertilizer. Higher costs for energy and shipping are also pushing up food prices.

The World Food Program estimates that in 2022 an additional 47 million people may fall into acute food insecurity — meaning that they can’t get enough food to live a healthy, productive life. In Somalia, Yemen, Sudan and other countries, deaths due to hunger are rising as scarce aid dollars are redirected to Ukraine. Don’t count on the pain passing quickly: It could become more severe if a long conflict disrupts progressive Ukrainian harvests.

Famine, the economist Amartya Sen argued, is a product of political pathologies. Make no mistake: Putin is using hunger to serve his political ends.

Russia aims to isolate Ukraine from its international supporters by generating waves of global turmoil that will eventually make Kyiv’s backers tire of the fight. Russian diplomats may be pretending to participate constructively in negotiations to reopen Black Sea commerce. Yet Putin has no interest in seeing those talks succeed, because that would deprive him of one of his most potent forms of leverage.

Don’t underestimate the global fallout. Intense hunger in the Middle East and North Africa could generate refugee flows that would further upset Europe’s politics and exacerbate its internal divisions. Food shortages can cause a rush into overburdened cities, create misery that extremist groups exploit, and otherwise precipitate violence and instability.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken, for example, has blamed Russian policy for exacerbating the food shortages that caused the fall of Sri Lanka’s government.

Putin’s strategy could eventually succeed, causing Kyiv’s less-committed supporters to call for Ukrainian concessions. It could also fail catastrophically, provoking Washington and other Western countries to break Putin’s Black Sea blockade by force. Or it could simply produce more political and strategic turbulence in a world that was hardly steady before.

It certainly wouldn’t be the first time food and geopolitics have interacted in explosive ways. The Russian revolution of 1917 occurred when World War I had overburdened an inadequate railway system and made it impossible to feed an angry population. That revolution, in turn, knocked Russia out of the war; it also unleashed an ideology, communism, that helped make the 20th century history’s bloodiest.

A decade into the next century, the Arab Spring occurred in part due to rising food prices that set off mass unrest. The military and political upheaval in the Middle East has yet to fully subside, with civil wars in Syria and Libya among other effects. Food insecurity and international insecurity go together. Or, as my Johns Hopkins colleague Jessica Fanzo has written, “No food security, no world order.”

There are things that governments and international bodies can to do alleviate the problem: increasing agricultural yields, prioritizing production of foods that are essential to a healthy diet, strengthening emergency support for the poor and directing greater international aid to affected populations. The US is trying to increase Ukrainian grain exports by using land and river routes to ship it through neighboring countries and then abroad. Yet this will probably free only a fraction of the Ukrainian grain being held hostage.

The root of the problem in Ukraine is not technocratic but geopolitical: A ruthless tyrant is squeezing the world’s food supplies in hopes of isolating and then conquering his neighbor. The US and other leading democracies haven’t figured out how to solve that problem — which may be a preview of the way that food and conflict will increasingly interact in a fragmenting world.