Cato Institute
Militarizing environmental issues endangers national security

Expanding definition of security could push the United States into a military conflict

April 20, 2000

Categorizing environmental problems as national security threats is a dangerous practice and sets a bad precedent in national security policy, argues the author of a Cato Institute study released today.

Many environmental activists, policymakers and government officials argue that environmental problems around the world pose a serious threat to America's national security. In "Green Wars: Making Environmental Degradation a National Security Issue Puts Peace and Security at Risk," foreign policy analyst Paul Benjamin writes that defining environmental problems as a threat to national security could serve as a pretext for U.S. meddling in the affairs of other countries, perhaps leading to military intervention.

Benjamin argues that "pursuing the abstract goal of 'environmental security' risks militarizing environmental issues and trampling on civil liberties." Involving the U.S. military and intelligence agencies in both domestic and international environmental policy also allows the Environmental Protection Agency and other civilian bureaucracies to meddle in foreign policy and national security issues. American nuclear cleanup programs in Russia illustrate the inherent difficulties and potential perils-including growing resentment at intrusive American actions-associated with treating environmental issues as national security matters.

Benjamin proposes three actions to limit the negative effects of such a policy.

(1) Define "environmental security" in such a way that it does not distort the concept of "security" and lead to a situation in which every global ill is treated as a threat to U.S. national security.

(2) Set strict thresholds to prevent unwarranted intervention.

(3) Reassess the role of federal agencies, with their competing agendas and conflicting goals, to prevent overlapping with traditional security policy.

Benjamin concludes that "addressing environmental issues is one thing; treating them as a threat to national security is quite another. By failing to differentiate between the two concepts, we may well find ourselves with more wars, more wasted money, and less security for all."

Original article