Actually, global warming is a major national security threat

Yesterday Steve Walt offered a post on this site called "National Security Heats Up" in which he took on a recent CNA Corporation study that suggested that climate change was an important new national security issue for the United States, Walt argues that this study overstates the threat for the United States. 

His basic thesis is that because some of the biggest potential problems cited are far away they are not U.S. problems. Migratory pressures in Bangladesh that might be caused by rising sea levels are offered as one example. Walt makes the point that this is really a problem for India to handle, that we should beware the trap of inserting ourselves into every problem (which he associates with a Madeleine Albright "indispensable nation" worldview), and that most DoD studies inflate risks anyway ('cause that's the self-serving thing to do.)

While I can't argue with any of these points -- India should take these threats more seriously than they have to date, we shouldn't insert ourselves into every problem, and DoD funded risk assessments tend to have a "sky is falling" tone to them. But the central thrust of Walt's piece -- that global warming is not a major national security threat to the United States, is just wrong.

First, there are the immediate consequences associated with potential sea level changes in our neighborhood. As one Bahamanian minister once said to me, "For you, a shift of a foot or two or three is something you can adjust to. For us, it is a matter of life and death. If some of the estimates are to be believed, we won't exist as a country." Well, don't take the most dramatic estimates. A modest shift in sea-level will have new waves of immigrants pounding at our doors too ... from the Caribbean, from Mexico, from Central America.

Next, we will have our own issues in states like Florida where much of the population lives very close to sea-level. Permanently inundating coastal regions aside, spotting every incoming hurricane a foot or two of sea-level is going to have big costs whether it is in retaining walls, levies or post-disaster relief.

Third, global warming will produce major consequences for agriculture as climatic conditions change, droughts increase, etc. Food shortages and increases in the cost of food are another likely consequence that we will feel here at home, in our neighborhood and in volatile regions where we have vital interests.

Similarly, if glaciers melt, much of the power capacity of regions like Latin America dwindles. If warming produces reductions in the availability of water, an already critical situation, -- perhaps two-thirds of the world's people are already predicted to live in water-stressed environments in the next several decades -- will get worse. Competition for water is already an issue in parts of the Middle East that don't need any more fuel doused on their flames ... and this is going to be an issue in critical regions first.

The list goes on. Food shortages. Economic setbacks. Water competition. Refugee movements. Resulting tensions between states. High costs of mitigation. Walt is right to approach the report and even the motivations for it with some skepticism. And he is right to suggest the United States cannot and should not assume burdens that are rightfully those of other countries. 

But he goes too far when he when he suggests that the primary consequences will be humanitarian and thus this is not really a security issue but a "philanthropic" one. If there were some other threat that was likely to increase tension in the Middle East or South Asia, likely to cause massive immigration in coastal regions worldwide, likely to have a major impact on the vulnerability of the world's poorest (thus creating unrest and opportunities for populists to exploit instability), and to do so while stressing our own resources and testing our own borders, it would definitely be considered a significant national security threat.

I think there is a bit of a bias among "serious" national security scholars against "soft" issues like global warming. But count the wars that have started over food shortages, resource competition, migration, and related issues and you will see there is nothing soft about threats of this nature and there have been very few threats of this scope. For these reasons, it is in my view dangerously short-sighted to dismiss the concerns the CNA Corporation report rightfully highlights.


David Rothkopf

Heeeeere's Barack!: On sidekicks, new stars, and Tony Blair in a plaid sports coat...

Last night, Conan O'Brien offered a tribute to Ed McMahon, longtime sidekick to his predecessor Johnny Carson. McMahon died yesterday and was eulogized in today's New York Times as the "top second banana." O'Brien commented on how, as a great number two guy, Ed always knew just when to step in and when to step back and leave the spotlight to the headliner. He was completely in tune with Carson and together they formed a seamless whole. Naturally, mulling this, my thoughts turned to England and the current situation in Iran.

Sidekicks have, of course, long played a central role in the history of international affairs. Adolf had Benito. Nikita had Fidel. Cheney had Bush. Today, Hugo has Evo.

Such sidekicks are employed in multiple ways. Sometimes they simply stand by the star for support, sending the message that the views the big guy expresses are more than the ideas of one nation, that they drive a movement, an alliance or an axis. Sometimes they play bad cop to the good cop. Sometimes they are the fall guys when the star can't afford to take the hit. Sometimes, they offer comic relief. Sometimes, they handle the secondary chores, like invading British Somaliland when you just don't have the time to do it yourself. And on certain occasions, sidekicks even offer benefits to one's enemies or rivals, giving them a secondary target at which to direct everything from invective to troops, depending on the circumstances.

Of course, in the international affairs business, there have been few modern stars that have shined quite so brightly for so long as the United States. As a consequence, we have over the years been joined on stage by a panoply of Ed McMahons. Sometimes they played with us only on regional stages, like Vietnam or Israel. Some have played the role well in countless circumstances, like Canada. 

But there have been no sidekicks as enduring or as useful in modern international affairs as the U.K. has been to the United States. You can almost see British prime ministers sitting on the couch laughing while their respective U.S. presidents cracked wise behind the big desk. Put a plaid sports coat on Tony Blair and it's clear: He was the Ed McMahon of the Iraq War.

The trick is that as the headliner changes, so too does the role of the sidekick. Affable Ronald Reagan needed edgy Margaret Thatcher, the Joan Rivers of British politics. Bland George H.W. Bush required even blander John Major. Blair managed to adjust his role as the submissive sophisticate to suit the two bubbas with whom he worked.

The most recent twist in this enduring relationship has been playing out in Iran these past few weeks. There, with Barack Obama's United States no longer quite so hate-able as Bush's (or Carter's for that matter), and with Obama inclined to pursue a more aloof strategy, the U.K. has started playing a different part. On the one hand, it has been more out in front in its criticism of the Iranians. And on the other, the British have assumed the role of preferred Western target for the Tehran leadership. They are the substitute villain, the Rather Good Satan standing in while the Great One tries a different approach for a change.

Of course, for sidekicks as for the rest of the world, the transition from Bush to Obama has been seismic and deeply challenging. The host has somehow gone from being a somewhat less sophisticated version of Jeff Foxworthy ("you know your president is a redneck when he can be compared to a Blue Collar Comedy tour star") to being the love child of Charlie Rose and Tavis Smiley. 

Britain has ably stepped up, perhaps recognizing that it is in their interest and the planet's to have a headliner of the western world who neither delivers nor takes all the punch lines. So too, at least in terms of their stance on the Iran issue, have Germany and France. In fact, throughout the Obama term, the roles played by Angela Merkel (acerbic, more independent, critical of the United States on financial markets reform) and Nicolas Sarkozy (pushing for greater market reform too, but also both more visible and more visibly supportive of the U.S. than any recent French leader), have also evolved into something new. This is clearly due in large part to who they are...but it is also due to a changed dynamic on the international stage thanks to the very different nature of the role sought and played by Obama and the United States.

This effect extends further, of course. Enemies and those with competing offerings find they have to play a different role as well thanks to the arrival of Obama on the scene. Those whose shtick has been anti-American bluster find it doesn't play as well as it did back when George Bush made anti-Americanism easy. The case in point here may well be Ahmadinejad...although Hugo Chavez and others ought to pay close attention here. As in late night comedy...as in everything that happens on any stage...the play is about the relationships between the players. Change one and you fundamentally change the chemistry among all of them.    

In fact, this chemistry factor may be the single greatest foreign policy change of the first half year of the Obama era. (After all, many of his policies are actually not that different from what Bush would have or did employ.) Later, of course, the president will be judged by how he manages the complex processes of global policy. But for now, for allies and enemies alike, having a new star with a very different vibe has changed the roles of all the supporting players, second bananas and rivals alike, all of whom must to some extent play off of the new guy and who have thus been changed by his arrival whether they like it or realize it or not.

It's sad to see a trusty old sideman like Ed McMahon go. But as for having a new guy with top billing on the world stage, the early results seem to suggest that may play very well indeed.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images