In a passage of the “Seven Pillars of Wisdom”, T.E. Lawrence, a.k.a. “Lawrence of Arabia”, recalls that, as he waged a guerrilla war in the Arabian Desert, he was looking for a way to besiege an Ottoman garrison. He then had a kind of military epiphany, understanding that he did not need to do that, because the garrison was already besieged … by the desert. All he had to do was to stay mobile.
However, a siege can be a very strong position for the defendant, which, often, can be defeated only from inside, as a long military history shows since the Trojan War.
One can wonder if, nowadays, the U.S. national defence and security apparatus is not in the same dire situation as Lawrence’s Turkish garrison, while all cities would be betrayed by an insider. In effect, the U.S. national security institutions are implacably and unendingly besieged by climate change and its transformative effects on the global strategic landscape, on the one hand, and, on the other, the American society, which is meant to be protected, is hammered by global climate change, thus weakening the National Security Institutions. What would then be needed to face such a situation?
Nowadays, the U.S national defence and security is a global endeavour (Chalmers Johnson, The Sorrows of Empire, 2004), reaching orbital space and cyberspace. This singular global scale immerses the U.S security system in the global effects of climate change, even more than any other affected country on the planet, and in the consequences of the worldwide competition for declining natural resources.
For example, through its worldwide network of bases, the U.S Department of Defence is deeply involved in regions and countries that are under growing climate and environmental strain, which have a very stressful effect on their social, economic and political vulnerabilities. This new reality is particularly strong in the region including the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden and ranging from the Middle East to the North-east of Iran (Sowers and Weinthal, Climate change adaptation in Middle-East and North Africa, September 2010).
The U.S. military and various intelligence services are involved in these countries and throughout the region, through a dense network of bases with pre-positioned troops, special operations, naval and air and space capabilities (Chalmers Johnson, Nemesis, 2007). This strong political, strategic, operational and tactical presence is defined by the diversity of enmeshed US interests. Saudi Arabia is a focal point for these interests, because it sells an average 1,500 million barrels of oil a day to the US (US Energy Information Administration), which roughly equals to 18% of the average seven million barrels a day of the U.S oil consumption.
Furthermore, the whole maritime area around the Arabian Peninsula, which integrates the Mediterranean Sea, the Red Sea, the Detroit of Aden, the Persian and Oman Gulfs and the Arabian Sea up to the India Ocean, constitutes a vital area of maritime lanes, at the heart of the world oil and gas production and of global trade (OPEC: Saudi Arabia). The U.S economy and thus the American way of life and U.S. social cohesion, depend heavily on the level of international and regional security in this area (Michael Klare, Blood and Oil, 2004).
However, the countries that compose the “area of responsibility” of the U.S Central Command are all particularly sensitive to climate change and social-environmental stress (Werrell and Femia, The Arab Spring and Climate Change, 2013), which has consequences on the U.S national security.
For example, the Gulf of Aden, one the most important maritime passageway in the world (U.S Energy Information Administration: World oil Transit Chokepoint), because it connects the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea to the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean, is rife with low intensity warfare and civil war (Valantin, Somali Piracy, 2013), on land and at sea (Peter Woodward, Crisis in the Horn of Africa, 2013).
The causes of the conflicts are political, social and economic, with, for example, the collapse of the Somali state, the war waged by the US Department of Defence and the CIA in Yemen, the emergence of Somali piracy, and the development of the Shaabab Islamist militant movement, which is present in Somalia, Kenya and Yemen (Jay Bahadur, The Pirates of Somalia, 2011).
Moreover, climate change has very stressing and radicalizing effects on these situations, throughout the Horn of Africa and the Middle East. It aggravates water conflicts, food tensions, and leads young populations to radicalization (John Gray, Black Mass, Apocalyptic religion and the death of utopia, 2007).
Then, in water stressed and arid countries such as Yemen, Saudi Arabia or Jordan, climate change stress forces the authorities to invest in desalination plants, which is an energy intensive activity (e.g. Valantin, Climate of Change on the Red Sea).
For example, in the Middle East, a rapidly developing country like Saudi Arabia, a growing part of oil production is devoted to water production, which heightens the discrepancy between domestic and foreign oil prices (Abeed Al Suhaimy, Saudi Arabia: the desalination nation, Tue.2, July, 2013). The climate/water/food stress is also growing in Iraq and Iran, which creates new political tensions (Martin Chulov, Is Iraq next crisis ecological? 2009).
These are easily merging against the U.S presence and influence in the region, in unexpected ways (Jason Burke, 9/11 Wars, 2011). For example, the legitimacy of current regimes and national and local authorities in places as different as Saudi Arabia in the Middle East, or, in another climate change struck region such as South Asia, Pakistan are put to the test by their ability or inability to protect their population. One must remember that the legitimacy of state authority rests upon this ability, the capacity to ensure the security of the citizens (Norbert Elias, State formation and civilization, 1982). Thus a state can see the American influence as a powerful threat factor if American actions question this very capability or emphasize the inability to protect citizens (Michael Scheuer, Marching Toward Hell, 2008).
For example, when Pakistan experienced giant floods in 2010 and 2011 (Huffington Post, Pakistan Floods 2011: hundreds killed, 200.0000 homeless, Ashraf Khan, 9/13/11), the government was largely unable to help its own citizens, while a few US Navy helicopters were joining the effort to help Pakistani people in flooded zones.
Meanwhile, the “drone war” waged by the Central Command in the Pakistani tribal zone against the Taliban and Al Qaeda, in order to “complement” the war in Afghanistan (Mark Mazzetti, The Way of the Knife, 2013), was basically creating new enemies at each strike, while destabilizing the Pakistani government and military authority in this crucial area.
Thus, both actions, one prompted by climate change, were weakening the political authority of an essential ally of the USA in South Asia.
The US Navy’s help only furthered the impression of a powerless Pakistani government. So, millions of Pakistani people along the flooding Indus river denounced their government, while, in the same time, those in the Tribal area were doing the same, for a very different set of reasons, which was dangerously endangering the legitimacy of a fragile and destabilized Pakistani government (Anatol Lieven, Pakistan, a Hard Country, 2011).
As a result, the “war and help” waged by the US military in the Pakistan/Afghanistan region deepened the tensions about the alliance with the US in the Pakistani political debate (Ahmed Rashid, Pakistan on the Brink, 2012).
However, if Pakistan is a reluctant ally, it is an essential one in South Asia. Washington needs the help of the Pakistani government, but the political weakening of the Pakistani government, stemming from extreme weather events and from the domestic contestation of the alliance with the US, corresponds to a weakening of the US influence in the region.
In other words, the US intervention against the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Pakistan turns the international dimension of the US National Defence and Security policy into an attractor for the Pakistani collective anger, fueled by the singular meeting of inflamed nationalism and climate disaster (Michael Parenti, Tropics of Chaos, 2011).
These few examples among many others show the “hybridization” of climate change environmental, social, economic and political situations with other political situations, which creates strange and violent mix. The latter are eroding the US influence in regions that are important to American strategic interests.
The enemy within
Faced with these new challenges, coupled with rising energy prices, the US national defense and security apparatus tries to adapt. This process is defined by the integration of a new culture of strategic analysis of the consequences of climate change by the US military and by the intelligence community (Valantin, Guerre et Nature, 2013).
Meanwhile, climate change is felt on the American territory through the multiplication and intensification of extreme weather events, which hit its people, its infrastructures and its economy. Events like the Hurricane “Katrina”, which devastated New Orleans and Louisiana in 2005, or “Hurricane Sandy”, which hammered New-York and New Jersey in October 2012, as well as the drought episodes in 2011, 2012, and nowadays, affecting the whole Midwest and California (United States Drought Monitor), are part of an emerging social-environmental pattern.
Climate change is not only hurting US interests and positions abroad, but is putting the Continental US, the very American territory, under pressure, which interacts with the built-in vulnerabilities of the US society, such as the aging of certain infrastructures, or the agricultural need for water in a time of long drought in the Midwest and California.
This has stressing effects on crops, and on world cereal prices, as well as on energy prices given that almost 40% of corn crop are devoted to biofuels (United States Department for Agriculture: economic research service), in an energy world landscape already defined by high prices. Furthermore, higher cereal prices, triggered by extreme weather events such as the major droughts of 2011 and 2012 (CNN Money, Aaron Smith, U.S drought drives up food prices worldwide, august 9, 2012), have had an impact on US food prices, at a time of very profound economic crisis (Joseph Stiglitz, The Price of inequality, 2012). Tragically, this means that climate change is turning the very geo-climatic situation of the United States against its inhabitants.
The other aspect of the American climate situation is the new set of what we call here “environmental insecurity”, among them a longer tornado season and huge wildfires, like the phenomenal “Rim Fire” in California in August 2013, the third largest in California’s history. Huge quantity of ashes affected water supplies and the fire destroyed some of the power infrastructure in San Francisco area.
This goes with an accelerating rate of sea level rise, which raises concern among the US Navy authorities, because of the potential impact of this process on the security of the harbours and littoral infrastructures for example in North Carolina (Scientific America, Leigh Phillips, North Carolina Seal level rises despite U.S Senators, june 27, 2012). As we saw previously, climate change can be considered as the “natural” equivalent of a never-ending geo economic offensive on the USA, coming from both the outside and the inside.
A “National security overstretch”?
Climate change has become a foreign and domestic national security challenge for the U.S., the inner and outer dimensions being linked and reinforcing each other. In order to understand the full spectrum of the “climate insecurity condition” of the U.S., this spatial assessment of the consequences of climate change must be combined with a temporal perspective.
The time for a renewal of the political concept of “Grand Strategy” has come.
What makes the US defence and security apparatus so powerful are its budgets, its logistics, its millions of personnel and capabilities and its political legitimacy. So, the most fundamental question for these institutions nowadays, is to know if they are going to be able to resist the attrition brought about by climate change.
This attrition is going to keep on impacting an always-growing range of U.S. strategic interest abroad and of infrastructure and people at home. National cohesion becomes threatened from the outside and the inside by climate change and will be so for the decades and centuries to come, starting from a time of economic crisis and budget challenge.
In other words, National Defense and Security strategies alone will not be enough to protect the American Nation. The time for a renewal of the political concept of “Grand Strategy” aiming at climate change has come.
Featured image: President Barack Obama meets with Secretary of State John Kerry, National Security Advisor Susan E. Rice, Phil Gordon, White House Coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa, and the Gulf Region, and Ben Rhodes, Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications, in his office aboard Air Force One during the flight from Rome, Italy, to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, March 28, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza) – Public Domain.