Cover: Where Environmental Concerns and Security Strategies Meet

Where Environmental Concerns and Security Strategies Meet

Green Conflict in Asia and the Middle East

Published 1994

by James A. Winnefeld, Mary E. Morris


Download eBook for Free

FormatFile SizeNotes
PDF file 4.3 MB

Use Adobe Acrobat Reader version 10 or higher for the best experience.


Purchase Print Copy

 Format Price
Add to Cart Paperback131 pages $15.00

This report explores the intersection between environmental issues and national security strategies. Our interest is in how "green" issues may lead to international conflict, either as underlying causes or as catalysts. To narrow this inquiry, we undertake two broad-brush regional case studies in an effort to demonstrate the linkage between environmental issues and armed conflict. The regions chosen are the Middle East and the Pacific Rim.

There has been a continuing failure in communications between the national security and environmental interest communities. Our intent is to identify areas of common interest and outline implications for future policy agendas. We believe that one of the principal reasons for the divergence between the two communities is the bifurcation of the time horizons of interest. The national security analyst focuses more on the mid and short term, and, looking around, sees few conflicts in today's world that are the result of environmental damage. The environmental analyst takes a longer view and asserts that today's environmental damage nearly guarantees future conflict. The two communities are starting to come closer together because the accelerated pace of environmental damage has moved the security fallout from that damage from the long term to the mid and short term.

We use two analytic devices to facilitate linking security issues and environmental problems. We start with a matrix with axes that list projected security issues (e.g., a renewal of the Korean War, conflict over water supplies in the Middle East) and the sources of environmental degradation (e.g., deforestation, degradation of agricultural land). We then examine each cell in a summary fashion to suggest the likelihood of the environmental phenomenon being assessed, the possibility of environmental antecedents to acute conflict, and so on. To assist in this assessment, we use a modification of a conflict causality model developed by Thomas Homer-Dixon. The analysis of Middle East environmental sources of conflict is based on a regionwide appraisal that suggests common features of the problems. The analysis of the Pacific Rim uses two particularly important case studies suggested by illustrative values in the environment-security matrix. The latter analysis takes a closer look at the future possibility of environmentally based conflict in China and Indonesia.

There is a linkage between environmental degradation and armed conflict that, while always faint, is now becoming more apparent and "actionable." That linkage is based on the relationship among the environment, economic productivity, and population growth and their combined effects on domestic political stability and its spillover into the international arena. Our analysis suggests the following implications for U.S. policy and strategy.

Of longer-term concern is the situation in Southeast Asia. These states—Indonesia stands out as the most worrisome—are systematically harvesting their resources without adequate replacement and attempting to modernize their economies, while failing to rein in population growth. With Japan and the Asian "Tigers" already in position to exploit markets for finished goods, one wonders how these would-be tigers will manage to gain market share for their fledgling industries without prompting or engaging in destabilizing economic warfare (or worse) with their neighbors.

Implications For U.S. Policy And Strategy

The implications flow from the intervention points suggested in the modified Homer-Dixon model described in Chapter Two:

1. Managing Population Growth and Economic Activity

  • Population control in environmentally fragile areas is a security concern, not just a human rights, economic well-being, or altruistic concern. The failure of China, Egypt, and Indonesia (among others) to control population growth is a security threat to the world community because of the economic, social, and political problems that failure engenders.
  • Lasting peace in the Middle East depends as much on developing and implementing a sound regional water management policy as it does on "solving" the Palestinian problem and neutralizing the threat of radical political fundamentalism.
  • The success of China and Indonesia (among others in their regions) in transforming their economies so as to rely less on agriculture and raw materials extraction and more on industry and processing of raw materials is the key to future regional stability. The ability to rely more on industry and raw material processing is directly tied to free trade in the world's markets.
  • The key contribution of free economies to environmental preservation is in the fostering of informed publics and sensible pricing mechanisms.

2. Managing the Environment

  • The environment in conflict-prone regions needs as much (we would argue more) attention as human rights. The two are joined, but environmental degradation can be irreversible. If such degradation is stopped, economic prosperity and a gradual improvement in human rights performance are achievable. Environmental preservation needs to be seen as a security issue in policy and strategy formulation.
  • Since the scarcity of water is a Middle East regional problem, UN involvement is needed to sponsor regional water management consortiums in the Middle East, with the concerted action and commitment of individual states. The first step is the development of water management plans that (in the first iteration) are drawn without reference to national boundaries. These plans should be the basis for international negotiations that could lead to development projects funded by the oil-producing states of the region. Although this plan is hostage to changes in the current Iraqi leadership and some further progress in the Arab-Israeli peace negotiation process, confidence-building measures can be emphasized, as can support for existing joint endeavors to rationalize water use.

3. Reducing Social Problems Flowing from Environmental Problems

  • Population migration
    • Although a coherent and comprehensive U.S. policy on population migration issues is needed, it is probably impossible to achieve politically. The distinction between economic and political refugees lies mainly in the eyes of the beholder (and there are many of the latter). Probably the best the United States can hope for is some rough consensus in the international community on the urgency of the problem and the need for coordinated regional actions.[1]
  • Improving agricultural production
    • The case of Indonesia (and others) suggests that there is still immense latitude in improving agricultural production by increasing resource (irrigation, fertilizers, machinery) inputs. The issue is whether such improvements mortgage the longer term by further degrading the environment. To improve agricultural production while ignoring population growth is a recipe for postponed disaster. This suggests that the World Bank, the Export-Import Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and other aid-granting authorities and institutions need to look beyond short-term malnutrition and famine to long-term population policies in granting loans and other assistance.
  • Economic performance
    • Improving the efficiency of power generation is a high-leverage environmental protection option in the less-developed world, particularly in China. Since nuclear and hydroelectric power are the two most promising alternatives to hydrocarbon-fired power plants, it behooves the United States to assist China in its energy conversion program. Unfortunately, the global environmentalist constituency views these two sources as environmentally unfriendly.
    • Progressive deterioration of the environment forces the United States and others to confront the issue of whether it is in the best interest of the developed countries to support the modernization of raw material producing or primitive economies, or to risk the acute conflicts that would surely follow failure to modernize. This issue is posed most acutely by the case of China: If China is successful in modernizing its economy, it could become the dominant power in Asia. If it does not, it could become unstable and foster acute conflict in the region.
    • Food self-sufficiency in the Middle East has assumed both political and economic cachet. However, the attainment of this goal in the face of increasing water constraints will call for increasingly sophisticated—and expensive— technologies. On the other hand, food security can be achieved through trade, rather than through expensive and ultimately futile attempts to alter the region's geography. Restructuring economies away from agriculture and emphasizing industrial exports offers the best promise of food security for the Middle East. Such restructuring, however, will be extremely difficult in the current political environment of the Middle East, involving risks that many are unlikely to take. In addition, in the absence of either economic or political stability, investors will continue to look elsewhere to avoid the expropriation of savings by either state decree or through rampant inflation and overvalued exchange rates. Genuine political reform ensuring both private property rights and an independent judicial system to guarantee these rights is needed to secure the long-term capital investment required to produce goods to sell abroad, to buy food, and to create jobs for expanding populations.[2]
  • Social and political institutions
    • One of the best, but most difficult, ways of dealing with poor environmental practices is the full use by an educated public of democratic political institutions. The strength of environmental movements can be tracked closely with the strength of public education and democratic institutions. Unfortunately, there appears to be a path of no return that is reached when poverty reaches such levels that there is no alternative to "cutting down the last tree."

4. Mitigating the Environmental Effects of Conflict

Chapter Three makes a strong case for the further development of international law to deal with the increasing role of the environment as both a cause and a victim of acute conflict. The principal gap is between international and civil conflict when international law does not apply and domestic law is ignored by the participants. The best chance for improving the body of international law that applies to the environment is through regional agreements that address specific and urgent problems in peacetime, but with some wartime applicability. There has been some movement toward such regimes in the Persian Gulf, among the North Pacific states, and within the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN). But the Gulf War experience suggests that there is still much to be done in specifying what conduct is acceptable and then fixing responsibility for violations.

Download the Full Report ⤴


  • [1] Settling and resettling the boat people of Southeast Asia has greatly taxed international comity and institutions. Yet, some rough balance has been achieved through international discussions and agreements that have portioned out informal allocations for accepting refugees. Similarly, the refugee flows resulting from the disintegration of the iron curtain in Europe have fostered a rough balance in distributing the pain among states on that continent. This is not to say that the situation is satisfactory, but rather that a balance has been achieved between the pain level individual states can accept and humanitarian concerns.
  • [2] See Alan Richards, Economic Imperatives and Political Systems in the Middle East and North Africa, RAND, P-7815, April 1993, pp. 13–15.

This research in the public interest was supported by RAND, using discretionary funds made possible by the generosity of RAND's donors and the fees earned on client-funded research.

This report is part of the RAND monograph report series. The monograph/report was a product of RAND from 1993 to 2003. RAND monograph/reports presented major research findings that addressed the challenges facing the public and private sectors. They included executive summaries, technical documentation, and synthesis pieces.

This document and trademark(s) contained herein are protected by law. This representation of RAND intellectual property is provided for noncommercial use only. Unauthorized posting of this publication online is prohibited; linking directly to this product page is encouraged. Permission is required from RAND to reproduce, or reuse in another form, any of its research documents for commercial purposes. For information on reprint and reuse permissions, please visit

RAND is a nonprofit institution that helps improve policy and decisionmaking through research and analysis. RAND's publications do not necessarily reflect the opinions of its research clients and sponsors.