An awareness of how a range of global developments is threatening the livelihoods of many millions of the world's citizens in the early 21st century is sharpening. The realities of climate change and environmental destruction, widening socio-economic inequality, wars and conflicts, and unsustainable transport and business models are among these developments. A striking aspect of the response to them at some senior levels is the combination of genuine engagement and - just when the argument might be getting somewhere - mental blockage. If the latter could be overcome, the results in public discussion and policy decision could be momentous.
The previous article in this series pointed to an analysis of threats to United States security in the light of the experience of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (see "America's new-old military thinking", 23 July 2009) . The author, Frank G Hoffman, outlined the tendency to distinguish between two views held within the US military about what its core priorities should be (see "America's new-old military thinking", 23 July 2009).
The first emphasises counterinsurgency and recommends a focus on responding to various forms of irregular warfare; the second believes that the main requirement is to remain the world's only superpower, deploying all the military technologies necessary to face down threats from other states.
Hoffman sees this as a simplification. He highlights the rise of what are termed "hybrid threats", where potential opponents use a combination of conventional and irregular warfare (such as Hizbollah did against the Israelis in 2006). He argues the need to lean towards "agile, rigorously multipurpose forces capable of being adaptive in approach to the unique conditions each conflict poses" (see Frank G Hoffman, "Hybrid Threats: Reconceptualizing the Evolving Character of Modern Conflict", Strategic Forum, April 2009 [Institute for National Strategic Studies, Washington]).
This analysis is typical of the sharp and sometimes visionary thinking that can be found in some US military circles - even if the primary emphasis is on maintaining the status quo, rather than going much deeper into the underlying causes of conflict and how they might be avoided.
A climate shift
A further example of a far-sighted approach that shares this same flaw is a major study on climate change, undertaken by the Center for Naval Analyses (CNA) in 2007, towards the end of the George W Bush administration. It is worth recalling now for two reasons: as a measure of the change of attitudes between then and the Barack Obama administration, and for what it says about the military approach at that time and the question this poses about a possible change in the new political environment.
This, it is worth remembering, is the result of a study conducted under an administration that was essentially in denial about climate change; and that this naval task-group was nonetheless unequivocal in its representation of the threats (see "Military Panel: Climate Change Threatens U.S. National Security", Environment News Service, 16 April 2007). It is fair to say that many of the recommendations were narrowly military, and included responses to rising sea-levels affecting naval bases and shipyards, and higher temperatures influencing the ability to fight. It also looked at the direct effects of climate change on the continental United States.
Beyond this, however, the report recognised that climate change will have massive effects across the world, especially on those regions least able to cope because of weak economies. Thus:
"Climate change acts as a threat multiplier for instability in some of the most volatile regions of the world. Projected climate change will seriously exacerbate already marginal living standards in many Asian, African and Middle Eastern nations, causing widespread political instability and the likelihood of failed states."
From a US security perspective this has the potential to threaten security since:
"Weakened and failing governments, with an already thin margin for survival, foster the conditions for internal conflicts, extremism, and movement towards increased authoritarianism and radical ideologies."
The CNA, on the basis of this analysis, advocates the development of forces that can ensure national security in such a volatile world. The institution is explicit that climate change is a security issue on a par with the cold-war-era confrontation between Nato and the Warsaw Pact states. In some ways it is even more dangerous, because if there is no response then instability becomes both endemic and unpredictable.
In such circumstances, it might be expect that the document would argue that lowering carbon emissions was essential in order greatly to limit the impact of climate change. Indeed, the report goes part of the way by recommending that the United States should be more involved in national and international efforts to stabilise climate change at acceptable levels; but it makes no attempt to set any kind of target for this, and makes virtually no mention of the need to move to a low-carbon economy.
To some extent it is only fair to remember two aspects of the context of this study. First, it was after all done under the shadow of an administration of climate-change deniers and would have been sunk without trace if it had emphasised carbon-emission controls. Second, many of the analyses emerging from military think-tanks inevitably relate to the need for new weapons and technologies. The immense lobbying power of the defence industries, and their often lucrative support for think-tanks, mean that any advocacy of what amounts to conflict-prevention rather than conflict-control is hardly a profitable endeavour (to be compared, for example, with an order for a multi-billion-dollar warship).
A security blinker
Does this mean that military thinking is frozen, unable to undertake the kind of critical analysis that climate change requires? No one doubts that some degree of climate change is going to happen, indeed is already happening. It will not be reversed and there will be serious human impacts. But the central problem with the great majority of military scenarios is that they are predicated on a narrow view of the security of the state.
Military-analysis research institutes may well have great expertise on vital contemporary global issues - for example, climate change, socio-economic divisions and energy security. But they see their role as one of protecting the state or alliance of which they form part. If climate change is going to be hugely destabilising, then (goes the argument) we must have the forces necessary to protect ourselves from the consequences.
It is for this reason that the Australian navy, for example, is investing in a fleet of long-range patrol-craft to secure the waters between its northern territories and southeast Asia; and that southern European countries are almost as much concerned with "threats" from north Africa as they once were with the Soviet Union.
To move from conflict-control to conflict-prevention on an issue such as climate change is a huge step to contemplate. But there are at least are two trends which give some small measure of assurance that it can happen.
The first is that most of the well-resourced climate sceptics in the United States have migrated from the seats of power in Washington back to the rightwing think-tanks; and there is now in Washington an administration that would positively welcome some forward thinking from the military that is predicated on prevention.
The second is that military analysts really do have the capacity to think long-term and imaginatively ("outside the box", in management jargon). Some of their analysis of world trends could appear almost word-for-word in a Greenpeace or Friends of the Earth tract; the problem is that they are rarely able to escape from a narrow perspective on national security which sees it almost entirely in terms of the defence of their realm, rather than the common security of the wider world. If even a few of these analysts could rise above that and take a larger - and more truly realistic - view, the service they could do to the wider community could be hugely significant.