Environmental problems are a major concern of U.S. policymakers, and the attention given to these problems is sure to grow. The primary response to environmental problems will come from civilian agencies rather than from the military. The principal security impact of environmental problems will be the instability and conflicts to which the problems contribute. There seems to be relatively little prospect that the U.S. military will become directly involved in responding to environmental problems as such through, for instance, enforcement of environmental agreements.

Background and Trends

Concern about international environmental issues has been growing in the U.S. Furthermore, many analysts suggest that environmental problems affect traditional security concerns, primarily by making conflicts more likely.

Environmental Scarcities Can Contribute to Instability

The linkages between environment and national security have been analyzed and debated over the past several years, first in the academic community and now in the U.S. policymaking community. There is broad consensus about the importance of environmental issues; the differences are about the implications of the issues for the military. Scarcity of renewable resources such as cropland, forests, water and fish stocks results from degradation and depletion of resources (supply-induced scarcity), overconsumption and overuse of resources (demand-induced scarcity), and inequitable distribution of resources. Often these causes of scarcity work together to exacerbate the scarcity's impact.

Environmental scarcities can interact with political, economic, social, and cultural/intellectual factors to cause instability. Particularly in poorer developing countries, scarcities can limit economic options and therefore force those already impoverished to seek their livelihood in ecologically endangered areas, including urban slums.

At the same time, elite groups, often ethnically, racially, or religiously-based, may use the opportunity afforded by scarcities to capture valuable environmental resources, thus reinforcing their dominance. The multiple effects of environmental scarcity, including large population movements, economic decline, and resource capture by vested interests, can weaken the state's capacity to address demands, thus further aggravating individual groups' grievances. If the state's legitimacy and potential for coercive force are undermined, the conditions are ripe for instability. If the state's legitimacy and coercive force remain intact or are bolstered, the regime may turn more authoritarian and may threaten the U.S. national interest in encouraging the spread of democracy and free markets around the world.

During the twentieth century, environmental scarcity has rarely contributed to interstate conflict (one exception being the 1967 Israeli-Arab war, which resulted from a cycle of escalating tensions after a 1965­1966 dispute over water). Unlike with non-renewable resources such as fossil fuels and certain minerals, states cannot convert key renewable resources into strategic assets quickly or easily, and thus cannot exploit these resources readily. Also, states with the most extensive scarcities tend to be poor, thus less likely to succeed as an aggressor. (If the country obtains weapons of mass destruction to carry out its aggression, obviously its likelihood of success--and its security interest to the United States--would soar.) At the same time, environmental scarcities are of significant importance in a typology of threats to international security. Environmentally-linked instability is increasingly likely to spill over to other states in a key strategic region, or to result in a complex humanitarian emergency stemming from large-scale population movements.

Land scarcity can result from land degradation, unequal distribution of resources, overpopulation, or some combination of all of these factors. In several countries suffering persistent civil insurgencies, the environmental considerations are notably similar: lack of access to productive agricultural land coupled with excessive population growth, forcing migration to steep hillsides to farm. These hillsides prove to be especially vulnerable to soil erosion, eventually failing to produce enough to sustain the migrant farmers. Deepened poverty makes those eking out a marginal living particularly susceptible to the claims and promises of insurgency movements. Countries that have experienced similar scenarios include the Philippines and Peru.

Deforestation is widespread throughout the world and its pace is accelerating. Deforestation accelerates soil erosion, alters hydrological cycles and precipitation patterns, and limits the land's ability to retain water during rainy periods. Resulting floods clog rivers and reservoirs with silt while destroying irrigation systems. Farmers and fishermen are both negatively impacted by siltification, which may force fishermen to abandon their work and seek a living through agriculture, thus increasing the competition for already scarce land.

Siltification may also have serious economic consequences in the Panama Canal Zone. With reversion of the Canal to Panamanian control imminent, residents from nearby areas have encroached on this land, clear-cutting the trees and reducing the soil's ability to retain water. The resulting siltification may severely constrain the operability of the canals' locks, thus threatening this critical economic artery.

Countries With Significant Populations Vulnerable to Major Natural Disasters

Source: U.S. Government.

Water scarcity may lead to conflict as many water sources are transboundary and water itself is critical to agricultural productivity. Almost fifty countries have more than three-quarters of their land in international river basins, while 214 river basins are considered to be international in character. Most disputes over water access and quality have been resolved diplomatically, including those between Hungary and the Slovak Republic; Cameroon and Nigeria; Burkina Faso and Mali; and Sudan, Egypt, and Ethiopia. Whether peaceful means will be sufficient to address water scarcity disputes in the future is questionable. Per capita water availability will decrease significantly over the next thirty years in several areas that may be especially vulnerable to instability and conflict.

Scarcity of fish stocks threatens the health and economic livelihood of many around the world. Fish remain the most important source of animal protein in many developing countries. All of the world's seventeen major fishing areas are close to reaching, or have actually exceeded, their natural limits. Overcapacity in the fishing industry is the primary culprit; too many boats are chasing too few fish in just about every part of the ocean. According to the World Resources Institute, the global fishing fleet is now estimated to be at least 30 percent (and perhaps as much as 100 percent) larger than is required to fully and efficiently harvest available ocean fishery resources.

Disputes over fish stocks are often the province of wealthier countries; note the ongoing disagreements between the U.S. and Canada, Canada and the European Union, Iceland and Norway, Japan and Russia, and the Philippines and China. To date, diplomacy has been successful in heading off any violent confrontations, although issues of fishing rights, enforcement and bycatch (the inadvertent capture of unsought species) will remain sources of irritation in a number of bilateral relationships.

Some Significant Environmental Issues are Global in Scale

Many environmental issues are local, such as the pollution from a waste dump. Others affect entire regions, such as pollution of a large river. Increasingly, the most pressing environmental issues are on a global scale.

Global climate change is considered by many environmental experts as the leading environmental concern facing the world today. In 1996, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, an international group of scientists, economists, and decision theorists convened by the United Nations, completed its second assessment of the current state of knowledge regarding human-induced changes in the earth's climate and the possible consequences of these changes. By including the cooling effect of aerosols and stratospheric ozone depletion in its models, the Panel reported that a significant climate change has begun and that it is "unlikely to be entirely natural in origin," suggesting a "discernible human influence on global climate." A rise in sea levels, changes in agricultural productivity, changes in the patterns of the spread of diseases, and changes in the frequency or severity of droughts and floods may result from climate change.

Because of the long time span over which the global warming trend is occurring, the socioeconomic consequences are not clear. Working with limited data on some variables, the Panel estimates aggregate damage in advanced industrial countries at 1 to 1.5 percent of GDP and in developing countries at 2 to 9 percent of GDP. In some countries, such as small island states susceptible to coastal flooding. the aggregate damage could be much higher. Although much uncertainty remains over the scale and nature of climate change, its consequences, and the costs of response, many in the U.S. policy making community are seeking action to mitigate the potential risk.

Disappearing Forests

Source: UN Environment Program, Environmental Data Report 1993­94.

Potential Flashpoints

Instability Exacerbated by Land Scarcity, Soil Erosion, and Deforestation

Environmental problems relating to agricultural land could exacerbate domestic tensions in countries of particular concern to the U.S. The cases most likely to concern the U.S. are in countries next to its borders, namely, Mexico and Haiti.

Southern Mexico

As discussed in the chapter on North America, the Chiapas region of Mexico has been suffering significant political turmoil since January 1994, when masked rebels seized control of Chiapas' capital of San Cristobal and announced the formation of a revolutionary government.

Soil erosion affects 20 to 50 percent of the highlands of Chiapas. With torrential rainfalls a common occurrence, and given that it possesses much terrain with slopes greater than 5 percent, Chiapas is at a high risk for even further erosion. Over time, population growth and accelerated land degradation force more and more people onto marginal parcels of land. Farmers are unwittingly accelerating the loss of the soil's minerals and nutrients. The environmental concerns are closely linked with uneven distribution of resources. Much of Chiapas' population lives in poverty, and most of those in poverty are engaged in agriculture. Chiapas suffers from the added dimension of racial tension, with the native American population finding its occupational choices deliberately limited by economically-dominant elites.


Deforestation is Haiti's most severe environmental concern, one that world relief agencies have explicitly tied to the country's refugee crisis which ultimately posed a challenge to U.S. national security. Satellite photos of Haiti and its island neighbor, the Dominican Republic, show vast, forested areas on the Dominican side; on the Haiti side of the island, the land has been stripped bare by rampant clear-cutting. Currently less than two percent of Haiti remains forested, and remaining forested areas are being rapidly depleted, primarily by those in search of wood for cooking. The cut areas, often steeply-sloped land, are particularly vulnerable to accelerated soil erosion. The United Nations estimates that at least 50 percent of the country is affected by topsoil loss, leaving the land unreclaimable. The disappearance of Haiti's forests and its consequent soil erosion are so extreme that rivers flood, carrying heavy loads of sediment. The resulting damage to coral reefs has resulted in devastating reductions in fish stock.

The resulting economic deprivation continues to drive people from their land, forcing many to flee to the cities, particularly Port-au-Prince, the capital, where they face limited economic opportunities and social decay. This, in turn, creates pressures to migrate to the U.S.

Conflict in the Middle East over Water Scarcity

Water scarcity in the Middle East could contribute to conflict among states. The most prominent problem of recent decades was the Israeli-Arab dispute over the Jordan River, a problem which appears to be subsiding. Other conflicts remain, especially over the Tigris and the Euphrates.

The major rivers of this area of Southwest Asia, the Tigris and the Euphrates, rise in Turkey and flow through or along Syrian territory before entering Iraq. Iraq is the most heavily dependent on water from these two rivers, with most Iraqis relying upon the Tigris and the Euphrates as their sole source of water for all of their needs. Syria also relies extensively on the water provided by the Euphrates to meet its needs.

Turkey is currently constructing a $21 billion water project on the Euphrates in southeastern Anatolia, known as the Greater Anatolian Project (GAP). The GAP will eventually consist of 21 dams to be used for hydroelectric power production and the irrigation of over a million hectares of agricultural land. The project is scheduled to be completed early next decade. The Ataturk dam, the major dam scheduled to be constructed under the project and the ninth largest in the world, was completed in 1990.

The GAP is of major concern to both Syria and Iraq. Estimates indicate that when complete, the dam system could cause Syria to lose up to 40 percent and Iraq up to 90 percent of their water from the Euphrates. Turkey has already shown a willingness to manipulate water flows using the project. In order to begin filling the reservoir behind the Ataturk dam, Turkish authorities actually stopped the flow of the Euphrates entirely for one month (mid-January to mid-February 1990).

The three riparian nations have had some success in addressing their differences over the project and other water issues peacefully. Bilateral agreements exist between Turkey and Iraq and between Syria and Iraq on certain issues in their water relations. However, the GAP poses a significant environmental threat to Turkey's downstream neighbors in the next decade, a threat exacerbated by political and underlying demographic trends.

Indeed, Syria's anger over the GAP project was a major factor in its decision in the mid 1990s to provide support to the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) in Turkey. Fed by discontent over the status of Kurds in Turkey, the PKK then grew into a major terrorist threat to the Turkish state. (For more about the PKK, see the chapter on Middle East radicalism.)

Per Capita Water Availability in 1990 and in 2025, Selected Countries

Source: Adopted from Water in Crisis: A Guide to the World's Fresh Water Resources, ed. by Peter H. Gleick. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993, p. 106.

Environmental Problems on the High Seas

The high seas are the prototype of common property resources which lack any owner or government with jurisdiction to enforce sound environmental practices. As a result, environmental problems on the high seas are a particular challenge for the international community. Bringing to task those who damage the high seas environment has not been an easy matter.

The United States has enacted several laws which require the government to monitor the behavior of foreign fishermen in international waters. These laws are designed to protect Pacific salmon, dolphins caught in nets along with tuna, and turtles caught by shrimpers. These unilateral U.S. initiatives are not always appreciated by fishermen from other countries, though they have strong economic incentives to cooperate. To date, the United States has relied for enforcement primarily on monitoring from a distance backed up by domestic law enforcement action against those who land salmon, tuna, and shrimp caught by methods that violate U.S. regulations. Neither the U.S. law enforcement community nor the U.S. Coast Guard is positioned to monitor such agreements on the high seas in areas far removed from U.S. borders. Although in theory the U.S. Navy could be asked to contribute to this function, it is extremely unlikely that the Navy will be assigned this task, since the addition to law enforcement would be minor. Also, even though the U.S. Navy is not subject to the Posse Comitatus law against military involvement in law enforcement (a law which in any case applies only on U.S. territory), the tradition against such involvement is strong. There is little sentiment for relaxing long-standing prohibitions (embodied in a Secretary of the Navy directive applying to the Navy the same restrictions as in the Posse Comitatus law) to enhance enforcement of environmental agreements.

Disputes over access to fishing grounds have long been a sore point for maritime nations. For instance, Britain was involved in the 1960s in what became known as the cod wars, although in fact the dispute was resolved diplomatically after only a few episodes in which minor force was used. In the 1990s, fishing disputes have become more acute, drawing in the navies of several U.S. allies. For example, in 1995 a sizeable part of Canada's navy was deployed against European fishermen, with some rather tense scenes between vessels of the Canadian and Spanish navies. So far, fishing disputes involving the U.S., including those on the high seas, have been handled by the U.S. Coast Guard, even where the dispute escalated into a dispute between governments. Such disputes seem likely to become more common, given the ability of modern fishermen equipped with ultralong nets (known as purse seine nets) to deplete the entire stock of fish in a rich fishing area. The United States is likely to be particularly insistent about foreign fishermen observing international agreements, such as those on net length, because U.S. fishermen are often small-scale operators who lack the sophisticated equipment and large fish-handling capacity of fishermen from countries such as Spain, Japan, Russia, South Korea, and Taiwan. Despite the prospect for escalating disputes on the high seas--which may well draw in naval forces from competing countries--there is little prospect that the U.S. Navy will become involved in such matters.

U.S. Interests and Approach

Net Assessment

U.S. concern about global environmental issues will increase over the foreseeable future. More attention will be paid to limiting pollution emissions and to protecting vulnerable species and their habitat. This focus on domestic environmental problems should spill over to concerns about issues such as deforestation and climate change. As environmental scarcities can be linked to conflict and complex humanitarian emergencies, any future U.S. involvement in peacekeeping or relief operations may raise the profile of the environment's potential role in instability. At the same time, the U.S. military's direct role in resolving environmental conflict is likely to be strictly limited to exceptional circumstances, such as resolution of disputes on the high seas.

U.S. Interests

Secretary of State Christopher, in a major policy speech at Stanford University in April 1996, spelled out the two principal U.S. interests in international environmental issues.

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.

These interests are long-term and the impact of challenges to them are often not immediately obvious. However, as the 1996 National Security Strategy observed,

The decisions we make today regarding military force structures typically influence our ability to respond to threats in the future. Similarly, our current decisions regarding the environment and natural resources will affect the magnitude of their security risks over at least a comparable period of time....Even when making the most generous allowance for advances in science and technology, one cannot help but conclude that population growth and environmental pressures will feed into immense social unrest and make the world substantially more vulnerable to serious international friction.

U.S. Approach

The main U.S. approach to the protection of the environment is through international agreements and conventions. The 1990s have seen greater concern in the world community about the environment, as evidenced at the 1992 United Nations Conference on the Environment and Development, known as the Earth Summit, in Rio de Janeiro. Since Rio, there has been a significant increase in both multilateral and bilateral diplomatic efforts on environmental issues. Agreements in the 1980s and 1990s have included:

The principal environmental role of the U.S. military is responsibility for safeguarding the environment through its own sound environmental practices. The military is devoting substantial resources to pollution prevention, cleanup and restoration at military bases, proper management/disposal of hazardous materials, range management, and enforcement of maritime regulations.

The environment is an important part of what Secretary of Defense William Perry called in May 1996 "preventive defense," i.e., a strategic vision of preventing the causes of conflict and creating the conditions for peace. Measures underway include:

Force Structure

The analysis of flashpoints has demonstrated the conflict environment that the U.S. is likely to face in the next decade. In this section, we summarize what that means as far as threats facing the U.S. Based on our analysis of what types of conflicts the U.S. may face, we derive the military missions that will be needed to shape the international environment, deter war, and prevail if conflict breaks out. We also ask what constitutes an acceptable degree of risk that various missions can be fulfilled simultaneously. We then analyze some options for force structures to address those missions, within the resource envelopes expected.

Assessing expected risks is only one element of force structure planning. Many military professionals feel more comfortable basing force structure and force size decisions on judgments about what capabilities the military should have. While that may be a more satisfying approach to some, it is not possible to plan what capabilities are needed unless one has a general sense of what missions will be assigned. Furthermore, it can be hard to sell the American people on why certain capabilities are needed; they may want to know against what threat they are being defended when deciding how much to allocate for the defense budget.

Force structure and size decisions are inevitably based in part on the legacy of the past. The military cannot be changed overnight. Like any large institution, it must evolve. It takes years to shut down bases and to retrain personnel from one mission to another. It will take at least a decade to adjust to the profound changes with the end of the Cold War, which means that the adjustment will still be going on until the end of the 1990s.

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