The 2008 National Defense Strategy
(NDS), released by the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) earlier this summer, delivers the expected, but also throws in a few surprises. The NDS reflects traditional concerns over terrorism, rogue states, and the rise of China, but also gives a more prominent role to the connections among people, their environment, and national security. Both natural disasters and growing competition for resources are listed alongside terrorism as some of the main challenges facing the United States.
This NDS is groundbreaking in that it recognizes the security risks posed by both population growth and deficit—due to aging, shrinking, or disease—the role of climate pressures, and the connections between population and the environment. In the wake of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports on climate change and the CNA study on climate change and security, Congress mandated that the NDS include language on climate change. The document is required to include guidance for military planners to assess the risks of projected climate change on the armed forces (see Section 931 of the FY08 National Defense Authorization Act). The document also recognizes the need to address the “root causes of turmoil”—which could be interpreted as underlying population-environment connections, although the authors provide no specifics. One missed opportunity in the NDS is the chance to explicitly connect ungoverned areas in failed or weak states with population-environment issues.
What really stands out about this NDS is how the authors characterize the future security environment: “Over the next twenty years physical pressures—population, resource, energy, climatic and environmental—could combine with rapid social, cultural, technological and geopolitical change to create greater uncertainty,” they write. The challenge, according to DoD, is the uncertainty of how these trends and the interactions among them will play out. DoD is concerned with environmental security issues insofar as they shift the power of states and pose risks, but it is unclear from the NDS what precisely those risks are, as the authors never explicitly identify them. Instead, they emphasize flexibility in preparing to meet a range of possible challenges.
The environmental security language in this NDS grew out of several years of work within the Department, primarily in the Office of Policy Planning under the Office of the Under Secretary for Defense. The “Shocks and Trends” project carried out by Policy Planning involved several years of study on individual trends, such as population, energy, and environment, as well as a series of workshops and exercises outlining possible “shocks.” The impact of this work on the NDS is clear. For example, the NDS says “we must take account of the implications of demographic trends, particularly population growth in much of the developing world and the population deficit in much of the developed world.”
Finally, although the NDS mentions the goal of reducing fuel demand and the need to “assist wider U.S. Government energy security and environmental objectives,” its main energy concern seems to be securing access to energy resources, perhaps with military involvement. Is this another missed opportunity to bring in environmental concerns, or is it more appropriate for DoD to stick to straight energy security? The NDS seems to have taken a politically safe route: recognizing energy security as a problem and suggesting both the need for the Department to actively protect energy resources (especially petroleum) while also being open to broader ways to achieve energy independence.
According to the NDS, DoD should continue studying how the trends outlined above affect national security and should use trend considerations in decisions about equipment and capabilities; alliances and partnerships; and relationships with other nations. As the foundational document from which almost all other DoD guidance documents and programs are derived, the NDS is highly significant. If the new administration continues to build off of the current NDS instead of starting anew, we can expect environmental security to play a more central role in national defense planning. If not, environmental security could again take a back seat to other national defense issues, as it has done so often in the past.
Jennifer Dabbs Sciubba is the Mellon Environmental Fellow in the Department of International Studies at Rhodes College. She worked in the Office of Policy Planning as a demography consultant during the preparations for the 2008 NDS and continues to be affiliated with the office. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. government.
For more information, see Sciubba’s article “Population in Defense Policy Planning” in ECSP Report 13.