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  • Environment and Security: Core Ideas and US Government Initiatives
  • Geoffrey D. Dabelko (bio) and P. J. Simmons (bio)

In April 1996, former Secretary of State Warren Christopher announced an unprecedented initiative to put environmental issues near the top of the foreign policy agenda. 1 According to Christopher, “As we move to the 21st century, the nexus between security and the environment will become even more apparent.” Coming from a veteran foreign policymaker with little environmental background, Christopher’s initiative raised hopes among many environmentalists that American foreign policymakers were finally embracing a principle long espoused by environmental and population experts, namely that the unprecedented pace and scale of population growth, resource depletion, and global environmental change demand a redefinition of security. On the other hand, many foreign policy experts, inside and outside the State Department, felt that raising [End Page 127] the profile of international environmental issues at a time of diminishing budgets and declining public and congressional interest in foreign affairs was a dangerous distraction. Furthermore, characterizing environmental issues as security issues struck others as inappropriate and analytically muddled.

The number of US government and scholarly endeavors exploring the issues of environment and security, or “environmental security,” is proliferating—in large part because of the intellectual substance underlying the ideas, but also because this alluring, catch-all concept engages the concerns and interests of a wide array of actors and institutions. 2 Many senior figures in the Clinton Administration have embraced environment and security ideas. While these ideas have not produced a common policy agenda or focus, numerous rhetorical statements and government initiatives addressing the environment in the context of US security interests have appeared since 1993. 3

Concepts of environment and security differ on what is being secured, what is being secured against, who is trying to provide security, and what methods are being employed to provide security. Key differences arise among the goals sought by various institutions and policies. To address the root causes of environmental problems and enhance human, economic, and international security, some efforts are fundamentally geared towards broad goals of sustainable development. Others focus on preventing or containing specific threats or symptoms of environmental problems, in order to protect more traditional national security interests. Similarly, observers disagree over the appropriate institutions, tools, and means actors should use to construct solutions. In some cases, policy responses include methods and goals that are at odds with one another—if not mutually exclusive.

Yet, despite its perceived shortcomings, the environment and security framework offers a new explanatory and analytical tool to help decisionmakers, scholars, and the public conceptualize problems, set priorities, and organize responses [End Page 128] to a range of environmental and demographic changes that require attention. The following is an overview of the major scholarly arguments and US government activities to date concerning environment and security ideas. 4 Given this wide scope, no single academic argument or policy manifestation is treated with the attention it deserves. Instead, this article is intended to serve as a baseline for further discussion. We divide the debates into three main categories: (1) debates on the environment and new definitions of security; (2) debates on the environment and traditional definitions of security; and (3) debates on how security institutions affect the environment. Within each of these categories, we detail arguments from what we loosely refer to as the proponents and critics of the various conceptions. It should be emphasized that considerable diversity in opinion persists both within and among these three categories regarding the degree of “threats” and the prioritization of issues.

Debates on the Environment and New Definitions of Security

Proponents linking environmental problems to non-traditional security concerns tend to reject the state-centric and militarized definitions of security that dominated security studies during the Cold War. They support more holistic or “redefined” conceptions of security that extend beyond protecting the state from external aggression and argue that global, regional, and local environmental problems seriously threaten the health and well-being of individuals or the economic security of countries. 5 According to this view, it is in the common interest of all actors, not just states, to guard against environmental degradation for the same reason they guard against...

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pp. 127-146
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