We live here too!

August 11, 2009


Is climate change a threat to national security? First reflections from Asia on a debate elsewhere and an invitation to extend the debate.


Stephen Walt, National Security Heats Up, Foreign Policy Blog, August 10, 2009.
David Rothkopf, Actually, global warming is a major national security threat, Foreign Policy Blog, August 11, 2009.

A recent think-tank report provoked Stephen Walt to blog his view that climate change is really not a national security threat. He dismisses this view arguing—and who would contest this?—that crying ‘national security’ is simply a way to channel more money to your favourite cause. Military operations could be affected and this should be factored into planning. Climate change might tip the balance in “volatile” areas, but that’s not a US ‘national security’ concern. Most interestingly, he writes:
“It is entirely possible that climate change could provoke major refugee movements in certain areas (e.g., Bangladesh), and that such a development could have powerful effects on neighboring countries (e.g., India). But instead of immediately concluding that American interests are at stake, isn’t this first and foremost India’s problem? And if the United States starts devoting a lot of time and attention to figuring out how to mitigate such developments, won’t that reduce India’s incentive to reach a meaningful climate change agreement? “

David Rothkopf agrees that India and others should pay more attention to these issues, but points out threats closer to the US mainland and also reminds Walt (and their readers) that more conflict erupts around scarcity than anything else. He disputes Walt’s contention that these are not national security issues but humanitarian or philanthropic causes.

I wanted to flag this debate for several reasons—some observations and questions:

1. The fact that Bangladesh and India feature as examples of states that will be affected, should do more and whose burdens should not be assumed by the US. South Asians should reflect on why they continue to be the first examples that come to mind when people write about misery and miserable lives.
2. The debate is really about what national security means in this day and age, and it illustrates the many limitations of thinking solely or even primarily in “nation-state” terms.
3. The idea that concern over a global issue is tantamount either to instruction or assumption of responsibility. Could it not have to do with guilt?
4. The suggestion that resource scarcity, economic deprivation and hunger happen only in India, Bangladesh, the Middle East, the Caribbean, Mexico and Central America.

I am deliberately overstating threads in these two posts; I am sure these are very nice people with no condescension at all towards the rest of the world. Moreover, I am pretty sure that the same ‘tone of voice’ is to be found in writings by Indians, Chinese, Brazilian.. other scholars from large states. The problem, I would like to suggest, is in privileging a ‘national security’ mode of thinking. It forces a distinction that every human experience proves artificial, between human beings and societies on the basis of arbitrary national-state borders. The result is a thus-far and no-further view even of the crises that literally, engulf us all.

I think Walt and Rothkopf have started a debate that is both old and new. This is a debate for Asian scholars (and those elsewhere) to join and enrich. Perhaps the ASI blog could provide that larger platform? This might be the opportunity to move beyond apportioning blame, drawing tight lines around ourselves and thinking collectively; after all, as Walt points out, the ‘securitization’ of a problem gives it access to the best of resources.

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