The Greening of U.S. Foreign Policy
Practical ways can be found to integrate environmental concerns into national security policy decisions.
For many individuals concerned with the ecological health of the planet, the end of the Cold War presented an unexpected opportunity to harness U.S. foreign policy to a grand strategy of environmental rescue. The 1992 “Earth Summit” in Rio de Janeiro underscored the urgency of the diverse environmental problems confronting humankind; the peace dividend provided the resources that would be necessary; and presidential candidate Bill Clinton expressed his commitment to taking on the challenge.
The lackluster performance of the Clinton administration–its energies focused on taming a scrappy Congress and appeasing a restless public–deflated the environmental movement, which responded with a flood of pessimistic scenarios of the conflict and violence that soon would characterize an environmentally degraded world. Robert Kaplan’s February 1994 article in The Atlantic Monthly, “The Coming Anarchy,” popularized this position through a chilling account of how demographic changes, urbanization, environmental degradation, and easy access to arms can converge to trigger widespread violence, state failure, and migration in West Africa. Kaplan concluded that these destabilizing forces are evident worldwide; West Africa, he argued, is a case study of the planet’s future.
Someone in the White House must have been listening to these dire predictions, because the administration has dusted off its pre-election promises. In a speech given at Stanford University on April 9, 1996, Secretary of State Warren Christopher expressed the administration’s determination “to put environmental issues where they belong: in the mainstream of American foreign policy.”
Christopher’s speech was a shot in the arm for those who have spent years pushing for a more aggressive environmental policy agenda, but it has not restored the enthusiasm of 1992. Concerns have been raised about the administration’s level of commitment, its capacity to manage the political obstacles it would face even if committed, and the extent to which Christopher’s proposals provide clear guidelines for effective policies.
One thing is certain: Environmental issues do belong “in the mainstream of American foreign policy.” Scientists have amply demonstrated that environmental change is transnational, related to human activities, and threatening to human welfare. Regardless of the motives, Christopher is correct in stating that: “The environment has a profound impact on our national interests in two ways: First, environmental forces transcend borders and oceans to threaten directly the health, prosperity and jobs of American citizens. Second, addressing natural resource issues is frequently critical to achieving political and economic stability, and to pursuing our strategic goals around the world.”
The environment is one of the pillars upon which 21st century America should be built. Our lives, prosperity, and freedom depend upon clean air and water, adequate food and fuel, and robust and healthy ecological systems. These are ends that need to be integrated into our values, beliefs, practices, and institutions in a balanced and realistic manner. Although the problems we face are complex and pervasive, we know a great deal about what should be done; what we lack are leadership, vision, and will. Can we expect it from the current administration?
Assessments of the Clinton administration vary enormously. Some analysts point to a string of failures. Clinton jogged to the White House fueled by promises to save the environment; invest in human capital, infrastructure, and R&D; reform health care; and restore equity to a society whose upper class was making unprecedented gains, whose middle class was listing, and whose lower class was spiraling downwards. Assessments of his achievements in these areas have ranged from modest to abysmal. Meanwhile, a discontented public has become certain–in spite of much contrary evidence–that crime is escalating, immigrants are plundering the economy, civility is declining, the nuclear family is on the ropes, the nation’s capital is corrupt beyond salvation, and racism is alive and well. To win public approval, Clinton often has allowed initiatives to fall to the vagaries of public opinion.
Administration critics point to broken promises and positions that seem to rest on sand. Supporters note that during a period of tremendous change and uncertainty, progress has been made on many fronts, there have been no major losses, and the momentum for real gains has been achieved. Most important, as Clinton is no doubt aware, the transition to the next millennium offers an unusual opportunity for a second-term leader with vision to find a place in the annals of history. We might therefore be optimistic about Christopher’s speech; it signals that the administration has found its feet on the environment and a focus for the next four years.
If this is true, however, the political obstacles remain a source of concern. The first hurdle is the election, but the bar to the White House is probably too high for the aging legs of the Dole campaign; a Clinton victory is a good bet. Then what? In general, democracies do not favor long-term planning with distant payoffs. Numerous domestic constituencies do not place a high value on environmental policy, and the Republican majority in Congress, despite some recent, election-oriented moderation, has been largely anti-environmentalist.
To further complicate matters, environmental issues lack the muscle that appeals to many members of the security, intelligence, and diplomatic communities. Environmental problems tend to emerge gradually through the complex interaction of economic, political, demographic, and technological variables. Unlike the staples of foreign policy–war and trade–they cannot usually be resolved through superior force or the signing of a treaty, and they rarely offer a quick or tangible payoff to policymakers. Thus, a commitment to environmental issues requires a mind-set guided by an unfamiliar incentive structure, one that accepts hard work today for the sake of long-term benefits.
Moreover, the foreign counterparts of U.S. officials often are uncomfortable with U.S. leadership, even when little can be accomplished without it. Especially in the Third World, aggressive environmental initiatives tend to be perceived as attempts to fix the status quo by burdening the development process with constraints and shifting the costs of the North’s “mistakes” onto the South. China, Indonesia, Brazil, and many other states are wary of proposals that seek to modify the strategies through which they are pursuing economic growth. And although the United States is the only superpower, it is no longer able to control the global agenda as it did after World War II. It now has to persuade other countries that environmental policies are in their interest.
Even if the administration were sincere in its commitment and able to manage the turbulent political landscape it faces at home and abroad, it is not evident that it has a clear sense of what to do. Vice President Gore is virtually alone insofar as vision and expertise are concerned. Much of Christopher’s speech suggests the zeal of a recent convert.
Christopher talks of “the growing demand for finite resources,” perhaps forgetting that environmentalists long ago shifted their attention to the pressures on renewable resources. Although he notes the negative impact of “dangerous chemicals” such as PCBs and DDT, that are banned in the United States but still used elsewhere, he fails to mention that many of the suppliers are U.S. companies. He speaks of his commitment “to reconcile the complex tensions between promoting trade and protecting the environment–and to ensure that neither comes at the expense of the other.” An admirable goal, but the interesting cases are those that do conflict. What happens then? How do we deal with a China committed to burning low-grade coal to maintain economic growth; an Israel, Turkey, or Egypt seeking to monopolize scarce fresh water; a Brazil or Indonesia that builds foreign reserves by cutting down rain forests; or a Spain or Japan willing to harvest fish to the point of extinction? Economic growth and environmental rescue may be compatible in theory, but to get there we have to make some tough decisions.
Many of the problems Christopher tags are well known and have been explored in great detail. We are all aware of water scarcity, deforestation, the erosion of arable land, the loss of biodiversity, and climate change. What we need are solutions, not further confirmation that the problems exist. Christopher’s speech lends itself to the perennial critique–all talk, no action. “We will press Congress to provide the necessary resources to get the job done,” he says, but he provides no indication of how this pressure will be applied. It would be easy to dismiss Christopher’s speech as promising nothing more than another round of studies, negotiating frameworks, and discussion groups.
And yet the speech provides some grounds for optimism. Elements of Christopher’s agenda could be refined into a viable grand strategy for environmental rescue. The preservation and promotion of U.S. interests do depend on a healthy planet, and this could be secured in part through a foreign policy that is realistic and forward-looking.
Fundamentals of a green policy
Nature is like the market: Through some fuzzy logic, a huge number of small, random, self-interested actions combine to produce a robust and efficient totality. Like the market, nature can succeed in the face of a fair amount of intervention. But when the level of intervention crosses critical thresholds, nature–like the market–begins to fail. The goal of any environmental policy should be to correct “market” failure and ensure that future interventions do not reach this point. In other words, insofar as the nature-civilization relationship is concerned, things tend to work themselves out, but some guidelines are nonetheless imperative to manage the human penchant for excess and relieve the pressure points generated by a variety of social and natural forces.
In short, guidelines are needed to promote an equilibrium between the demands social systems place on ecological systems and the capacity of the latter to supply the former. Because so many ecological systems are being exploited beyond their natural capacity, recovering an equilibrium will require managing adjustment costs, taking preemptive actions, and responding to problems that are well-advanced and likely to trigger conflict.
Such a program must integrate two forms of expertise. First, little can be achieved without an adequate understanding of the scientific explanations of environmental change and the functioning of ecological systems. In many cases, adequate knowledge exists, but policymakers (and Americans generally) tend to be weak in the area of natural science. The consequences of this ignorance are enormous. For example, the perception that scientists disagree on everything from the reality of climate change to the rate of species extinction is widespread and provides a rationale for demanding further study of any given problem. In fact, scientific consensus is remarkably high on most issues, and the significance of disagreements often has been misconstrued and overstated. Policymakers need to understand when disagreements warrant a “wait and see” stance or confront the policy community with difficult choices between different standards and objectives, and when they do not.
Equally important, many problems can be attacked at different points. For example, it is scientifically possible to attack the problem of malaria by focusing on eliminating the parasite, the mosquitos that carry it, the breeding grounds of the mosquitos, the vulnerability of people to the parasite or the mosquitos, or the adverse effects of the parasite on its human host. In many cases, the chain of interactions through which environmental change eventually threatens socioeconomic welfare is long and complex. Choosing one or more points of attack generally requires a reasonable comprehension of the relevant science.
A firmer grounding in science, however, will not by itself produce effective policies. Social systems vary enormously in their impact on the environment, their vulnerability to different forms of environmental change, and their capacity to respond to environmental scarcity and degradation. Effective policies have to be extremely sensitive to social variables. In the case of malaria, economic reliance on agriculture and forestry, the state of health and education services, waste management practices, and technological capacity all affect policy choices. Developing effective models of the complex interactions within and between diverse social and ecological systems clarifies policy options, but the task can be a social scientist’s nightmare.
Consider one illustrative case. Tensions over access to the fresh water of the Jordan River system have increased steadily since 1948. The 1967 Arab-Israeli War, in which Israel took control of the Jordan’s headwaters, has been described as a water war. Science provides an accurate estimate of the amount of renewable fresh water that is available. It also offers technologies to maximize the utility of this good. But Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Israel differ in their capacity to obtain and use efficient technologies. The economic and security goals of each state further complicate matters, as does the longstanding hostility among the countries. Under these conditions, where can scarce policy resources be applied to the greatest advantage? Clearly, a satisfactory solution must address both social and ecological variables. In this case, the problems may be too far advanced to bring peace to the region, but in many other situations they are potentially solvable and should be addressed before they become crises. What, then, should guide U.S. foreign policy?
Low-cost, high-impact tools
According to Christopher, “Environmental initiatives can be important, low-cost, high-impact tools in promoting our national security interests.” This may be true, but what exactly does it mean? Christopher describes a patchwork of policy initiatives, many of which are promising. The proposed Annual Report on Global Environmental Challenges promises to assess global environmental trends and identify U.S. priorities, beginning in 1997. Christopher’s “Environmental Opportunity Hubs” promise to involve U.S. embassies in assessing and addressing environmental issues worldwide. The International Conference on Treaty Compliance and Enforcement, to be hosted by the United States within two years, promises to give teeth to existing environmental treaties, many of which suffer from egregious monitoring and compliance problems. His multitiered approach of forging partnerships with business and promoting bilateral, regional, and global initiatives promises to channel environmental problems into social settings in which the resources and willpower necessary to solve them are available. But none of this really makes clear the relationship between low-cost, high-impact environmental policies and national security.
National security involves three things: identifying the core values to be protected and advanced; assessing foreign threats and U.S. vulnerabilities; and formulating appropriate policies–packages of goals, resources, and strategies. On this basis, the promise of low-cost, high-impact tools is somewhat misleading. In the security world there are a number of low-cost threats to U.S. core values, but few–if any–low-cost responses. Anyone linking environmental change and security is signaling that the problems are fairly big. But is this linkage accurate?
The relationship between environment and security has received considerable attention in recent years. In the 1970s and early 1980s, writers such as Lester Brown of the Worldwatch Institute, Arthur Westing of Westing Associates in Environment, Security, and Education, and Richard Ullman of Princeton University argued that forms of environmental change posed a new type of threat to U.S. national security by undermining socioeconomic welfare. These claims became the basis of a lively debate. The basic controversy in this debate concerns the meaning of the term “environmental security.” On one side are those I call the environmental security “maximalists,” such as Norman Myers. They seek to harness the rhetorically powerful language of security, and the vast resources available in this arena, to the promotion of an ecological world view that focuses on the well-being and security of the individual. As admirable as it may be to strive for a fundamental restructuring of existing practices and beliefs, this approach involves a rethinking of security that is too extreme for most of those involved in its provision. Environmentalism is ill-suited to the task of radically redefining security, if only because we continue to face a wide array of traditional security threats such as nuclear proliferation. In a contest between maximalists and conventional thinkers to control the discourse, the latter have a decisive edge.
In response to the maximalists, “rejectionist” thinkers such as Daniel Deudney, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, have argued against linking environmental issues to security issues. According to Deudney, environmental change is an unconventional threat that rarely leads to interstate war, military tools are not of much value in addressing environmental issues, and the military penchant for secrecy and “we versus they” thinking is antithetical to the interdependent nature of most environmental problems, which require information sharing and cooperation to be resolved. The environmental problems we face are real and urgent, but they are not, according to Deudney, national security problems.
Between these extreme positions lie a large number of writers who seek to integrate specific environmental concerns into security thinking. This middle ground, a logical site for U.S. security policy, emphasizes several things, none of which are picked up by Christopher. First, many of the research, training, testing, and combat activities related to national security cause environmental degradation. For example, nuclear weapons tests contaminate air, water, and soil; land mines cripple agriculture; Iraq’s torching of oil wells and diversion of oil into the ocean resulted in enormous environmental damage. A satisfactory security policy needs to involve greening the military.
In this regard, the past five years have been promising. According to Kent Butts, a professor at the U.S. Army War College’s Center for Strategic Leadership, the Department of Defense (DOD) has, for example, reduced toxic and hazardous waste disposal by half, cooperated with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Department of Energy (DOE) to develop cleanup technologies, supported efforts to find alternatives to ozone depleting substances, and worked with Norway and Russia to manage radioactive contamination in the Arctic. Further concrete goals need to be set by the administration to ensure that this process does not stall.
Second, defense and intelligence agencies possess vast resources that might be used for environmental ends without compromising combat readiness or other security missions. For example, Butts has argued that the U.S. military can help train foreign militaries in environmentally sensitive practices through its Military-to-Military Contact and Security Assistance Programs. These programs enable the military to transfer environmental assessment technologies and help restore or improve foreign military sites. Further, the U.S. military manages millions of acres of land at home and abroad and could be compelled to comply more fully with environmental regulations than has been the case in the past. In this regard, its restoration and preservation activities in the Chesapeake Bay area may become a model for future military land use.
Similarly, the intelligence community has state-of-the-art data collection and analysis assets that might be harnessed to environmental ends. The shroud of secrecy under which it operates poses certain problems, but at the very least it can contribute to tracking global environmental trends and providing some of this information to organizations that can use it. In 1993, the National Intelligence Officer for Global and Multilateral Affairs (NIOGMA) was established and has begun to determine how the intelligence community can support environmental policy. Richard Smith, the Deputy NIOGMA, has identified ongoing analysis, negotiations support, treaty monitoring and compliance, support for military operations, and support for scientific enterprise as principal areas of concern. The key problem that needs to be addressed today is that of establishing effective and appropriate principles for classifying intelligence. The intelligence community’s penchant for secrecy is unlikely to be relaxed unless the administration acts forcefully.
Third, environmental degradation, especially scarcity, functions as an underlying as well as triggering cause of conflict in certain regions of the world. The work of Thomas Homer-Dixon, a professor at the University of Toronto who has directed three major projects on environmental change and conflict, has been useful in clarifying these connections. A satisfactory security policy needs to respond to this work.
Homer-Dixon has developed useful models showing how environmental factors interact with social, political, and economic variables to create, trigger, or intensify instability and violence in developing countries. These situations can have important implications for U.S. national interests. For example, with its vast quantity of oil, the Middle East remains vital to U.S. national security. It is almost inevitable that scarcity-related conflict will occur in this region in the near future. Nine countries depend on water from the Nile, but weak downstream states such as Sudan and Ethiopia have had their access to water limited by threats from a far more powerful Egypt. A similar situation exists on the Euphrates, where upstream Turkey uses its might to limit the water available to Syria and Iraq. In all of these cases, natural limits have more or less been reached, but the demand for water is rising steadily.
Conflicts have erupted elsewhere in the world over the exploitation of fisheries (Canada versus Spain) and because of pressures such as migration associated with the decline of arable land (Honduras versus El Salvador). The potential for further conflict is high. With this in mind, U.S. security policy needs to spell out what will be done in those areas deemed vital to our interests in which scarcity-related tensions are evident and likely to worsen.
A logical first step is to try to reduce the pressure in these regions by promoting cooperative resource management schemes. Often this will require a process of education and negotiation to establish shared interests and temper existing hostilities, economic and technical support to assist in policy development and implementation, and military assistance to offset lingering security concerns or provide temporary stability so that other initiatives have a reasonable chance to take root.
Managing resources in regions plagued by scarcity and other forms of degradation will rarely be an easy task because the priorities, needs, fears, and capabilities of states often vary enormously. Where it is not possible, a policy of damage control should be in place. For example, the United States can reduce vulnerability to the adverse spillover effects of regional instability through domestic policies, such as promoting energy efficiency and alternative energy forms, and multilateral policies, such as strengthening international guidelines for treating environmentally displaced people or restricting light arms sales.
Finally, after the impact of environmental change has generated a security crisis that has required the threat or use of force, “low-cost, high-impact tools” may become useful. In these cases, emphasis needs to be placed on integrating environmental issues into conflict resolution processes. Negotiating teams need the expertise and foresight to do this. For example, negotiators may well discover that long sessions spent partitioning the former Yugoslavia along ethnic lines will achieve little if the various parties are not also ensured fair and reliable access to essential environmental goods. Strengthening the environmental component of our conflict resolution teams should be a fourth element of an environmental security policy.
In short, we need to foster a military that is green as well as lean; to tap into security assets without compromising their traditional roles; to develop a strategy for tracking and responding to those areas where scarcity is likely to trigger conflict; and to incorporate environmental expertise into conflict resolution capabilities. These are modest–although not really inexpensive–ambitions that draw upon existing knowledge and skills; however, they have the potential for making real gains.
Security, however, is only one dimension of foreign policy, and although much could be achieved by integrating environmental concerns into the security community, much more could be achieved through the careful deployment of other assets. To this end, Christopher’s speech lays out a viable framework of partnerships with nonstate actors and bilateral, regional, and global initiatives. Such an approach might be termed “concentric multilateralism,” which is based on two premises.
First, the nature and impact of environmental changes vary significantly, and this fact needs to be reflected in foreign policy thinking. During the Cold War, foreign policy was generally assessed in terms of a single objective–containing Soviet influence. Today no such baseline exists; in many ways environmental change is the very antithesis to the Soviet threat in that it has not one, but many centers. Consequently, it is essential that these centers be identified, so that different problems can be addressed in the domestic, bilateral, regional, or global settings that are likely to yield the greatest returns.
Second, in addressing environmental problems governments have to form partnerships with nonstate actors. Modern technologies have empowered elements of the private sector, enabling them to roam the globe evading state regulation, but also making them important sources of expertise and capability. This can be tremendously frustrating for a government trying to thwart drug trafficking, terrorism, money laundering, or computer espionage. The perpetrators of these threats to U.S. national interests can often use technology to escape detection or repression. At the same time, the fact that private actors cooperate freely across borders, are not as constrained by diplomatic protocols, and are often at the cutting edge of R&D can be directed towards beneficial ends. For example, scientists worldwide played a key role in shaping the global response to ozone depletion; environmental groups such as World Wildlife Federation and Nature Conservancy have successfully introduced sustainable economic practices into countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America; the Cousteau Society has developed technologies to monitor and restore the health of the world’s oceans; and multinational corporations have forged profitable associations with governments to protect rain forest. These are small acts that together produce large results. The U.S. government should act to encourage, facilitate, and, where appropriate, coordinate activity in the nonstate sector.
Christopher’s “concentric multilateralism” demonstrates a fine grasp of what will be required to restore equilibrium between social and ecological systems. The former have evolved through the steady centralization of power. Historically, this was the key to providing the high level of order necessary for economic, social, and political progress. In nature, however, power is diffuse, and this natural democracy unrelentingly evades strategies of domination. We have witnessed growing tensions between civilization’s compulsion for hierarchy and nature’s indomitable anarchy. Christopher’s approach is an important step towards reconciling these two interactive modes of power.
But a viable framework for problem-solving is of little use until it is filled in with goals and resources. Here the Christopher speech is somewhat less inspiring. The ultimate objective of U.S. foreign policy is to protect and promote the health, prosperity, security, and freedom of Americans. The status of these things depends on the ways in which patterns of production, consumption, waste management, and population growth here and abroad affect ecological systems, and on the ways in which the environmental changes we have caused or enabled feed back into our social systems in such forms as water, food, and fuel shortages, flooding, or disease and other health problems. The feedback may affect us directly, as in the increase in the incidence of skin cancer, or indirectly, by placing stresses on other countries that result in reduced access to environmental goods, immigration pressures, or conflict.
With this in mind, environmental diplomacy should be guided by four interrelated objectives: (1) reducing our vulnerability to environmental scarcity by, for example, advocating domestic measures to increase energy efficiency and reduce emissions that contribute to climate change; (2) strengthening weak states so that they become competent to manage environmental problems by, primarily, promoting the regulation of the light arms trade, fostering economic openness, cautiously supporting democracy, and funding international health programs; (3) cooperating with other states and nonstate actors to manage the key environmental problems likely to generate conflict–water, food and fuel scarcity, rapid urbanization, and population growth; and (4) supporting efforts to manage environmental crises plaguing the former Soviet Union and those on the horizon in China, which is experiencing a growing food deficit and an expanding population.
This is a big agenda, but environmental problems are pervasive and escalating–they require a big agenda. It can, however, be made manageable in three ways. First, a substantial investment in education is essential. There is no silver bullet that will restore the balance between civilization and nature. Instead, we have to build the foundations for a better relationship by investing in the future through education here and abroad. At home this means strengthening the science component of public education, supporting environmental research, and fostering an ecological sensibility–an awareness of how ecological systems function and sustain us, how we affect them, and how we can modify our behavior to ensure their health and our well-being. Internationally, the quality of environmental data and education vary enormously. The United States should target pivotal states such as Russia and China and assist in the development of their environmental awareness. Cooperative solutions to transnational problems are more likely when the parties involved see shared interests at stake.
Second, just as we once measured every foreign policy decision against the grand strategy of containment, we should now ensure that every foreign policy decision takes heed of the environment. But instead of thinking in grandiose terms, as policymakers looking for big wins are prone to do, we should commit ourselves to a program of incremental gains. Incorporating reasonable environmental standards into trade agreements, as was done in the North American Free Trade Agreement, greening aid packages, and pressuring the International Monetary Fund to follow the World Bank by developing serious environmental impact assessment procedures are examples of policies that will lay the groundwork for long-term success. They do not attract television cameras today, but they will attract historians tomorrow.
Finally, we have to encourage and support environmental initiatives undertaken by other states and nonstate actors. To this end, the United States should continue to support UN programs, facilitate the commercialization and transfer of green technologies, and ensure that environmental experts are included in international negotiations.
All of this, however, takes a back seat to the real problem that threatens us. The wealthiest portion of humankind is, on most issues, able to insulate itself from the adverse effects of many forms of environmental change and thus feels little incentive to modify its behavior. The poorest portion of humankind, its numbers swelling daily, is being ravaged by urban squalor, unsanitary water, malnutrition, and disease–it can do little but struggle to survive, even though this places tremendous stress on many ecological systems. In the big picture, environmentalists are probably correct in saying that everything is connected, but it may be decades before countries like the United States experience the full force of environmental change. And there is always the hope that before then human ingenuity will lead to the discovery of low-cost, high-impact solutions.
Framing our choice in the context of the world our grandchildren will inherit might provide some basis for acting today, but this type of long-term thinking rarely influences the policy world. Attacking the global equity problem fueling many environmental problems through some major redistribution of wealth is politically unfeasible. The bottom line is that environmental rescue can only be a long, slow, incremental process–it will rarely win Nobel Peace prizes. Committing U.S. foreign policy to such a grinding process requires vision, leadership, and an enlightened understanding of what our long-term national interests are. Christopher’s speech represents a tentative step in this direction, but it is far too early to say that the baby is walking.