Academic journal article Parameters

The Environment, the US Military, and Southern Africa

Academic journal article Parameters

The Environment, the US Military, and Southern Africa

Article excerpt

Since the 1960s, the environment has become a consistent theme in international political discourse, no longer solely the concern of small groups of activists but a mainstream issue. As environmental concerns have gone increasingly global, countries like Norway and Finland have garnered international acclaim for their strong commitment to environmental causes. The government of the United States, in contrast, has been widely and vehemently criticized for its alleged disinterest. The bad press is ironic because the United States is engaged with other countries on a wide range of environmental issues. A significant amount of that involvement occurs in regions of the world where America's policymakers are hard pressed to find any vital interest. Perhaps more surprisingly, the US Department of Defense is an actor in these activities, a situation doubly ironic because America's military leaders have never engaged in serious, protracted debate to define environmentally-related military roles and responsibilities.

This article briefly examines US engagement on environmental issues with the countries of Botswana, Namibia, and South Africa, locating military involvement in the wider context of overall US environmental partnerships. It argues that all these efforts could achieve better results if they were more coherently focused and integrated. While not advocating a lead role for the military, it concludes that a more concerted engagement on environmental issues could make a contribution both to regional stability and to better military-to-military relations with regional partners.

The "Environmental Security" Debate

One interesting new direction that emerged in the late 20th century was the notion of "environmental security," part of a larger debate on the definition of security itself. The debate reflected a growing consensus that security should be defined broadly, and that threats to security include any conditions of life--even those emanating from the natural environment--that deprive individuals of generalized well-being. (1) The United Nations has been a key proponent of these broad new conceptualizations, reflecting ideas that have gained political traction in Europe and elsewhere. (2)

Environmentally-oriented definitions of security have resonated more outside the United States than within, but even in America they were given a visible public face in the debates stimulated by Thomas Homer-Dixon in the 1990s, when he called attention to the potential for conflict over environmental degradation and competition for scarce resources, ideas more dramatically popularized by the journalist Robert Kaplan. (3) The ideas remained controversial, and Kaplan was widely accused of sensationalism, but the controversy did focus attention on the politically destabilizing prospects of environmental problems.

Still, despite a growing international unease about environmental problems, there is little real consensus about their definition, dimensions, or solutions. Most environmental issues overlap other equally pressing domains and concerns. There is little consensus that the environment and security should be linked at all, or that environmental issues are worthy of the same priority as national sovereignty, economic growth, or the safety of a population from external attack. Nor are all scholars enthusiastic about a governmental embrace of environmental security agendas. Some are naturally suspicious of the new enthusiasms, worrying that "securitizing environmental issues risks state cooption, colonization, and emptying of the environmental agenda." (4) For that matter, there is little general agreement on the consistency either of environmental security or the threat to it. (5)

This lack of agreement points to an interesting ideological divide between the developed and the developing world. At issue is the centrality of man to the natural environment. …

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