As the Cold War came to an end in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the U.S. and Soviet (then Russian) militaries conducted joint scientific assessment of radioactive threats in the highly militarized waters off Russia’s Northwest. The Norwegians started the dialogue with Gorbachev’s USSR a few years earlier and helped bring in the Americans as relations began to thaw. Environmental threats were an honest concern: Norwegians worried for example about irradiating their lucrative salmon industry and the Russian habit of decommissioning their nuclear submarines by just scuttling them with reactors intact worried everyone.
But scientific assessment and environmental management also served as a means to an end. It was a less controversial avenue for dialogue, one that allowed civilians and uniformed military on both sides of the superpower confrontation to meet, build trust, and begin cooperating. NATO went on to make such exchanges a fundamental element of its Partnership for Peace programs for engaging the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.
Such exchanges are now possible (again) between the United States and China. In the late years of the second Clinton Administration, the US Department of Defense and the People’s Liberation Army started dialogue on natural disaster preparedness and response, a non-warfighting mission both militaries were commonly asked to execute on home soil. The April 2001 Hainan incident and Secretary Donald Rumsfield’s absolutist reaction (severing all ties with China and ratcheting up the China as strategic military threat perspective) put an end to such plans for military to military environmental engagement. The attacks of 9-11 came four months later and this opportunity for engagement has languished since then.
Now Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has reopened the prospect for such environmental engagement. On his current Asian tour, Gates said there was an opportunity to “build trust over time” and even cited the U.S.-Soviet dialogue at the end of the Cold War as a model. DOD should re-energize its use of bilateral environmental agreements to regularize such an avenue to trust-building exchanges. Such exchanges should utilize environmental dialogue as both a means to bring deeper understanding and greater stability to the bilateral relationship while taking steps to redress real environmental challenges in both countries. In this way the environment should be an integral part of an engagement strategy that provides a new interpretation on the saying do well while doing good.