What are the rightful obligations and prerogatives of a superpower? During the 18th and 19th centuries, the British navy assumed responsibility for keeping the sea lanes open for global commerce. It was both an entitlement and a burden, aggrandising for London effective control of international trade even as it allowed upstart rivals such as the US to enrich itself, cost free, under its former master's security umbrella.
Fast forward to the present. For the past four decades, the US navy has assiduously enforced the Carter Doctrine, which militates the emergence of any foreign power that might rival the US for control of Gulf oil. It now seems the Carter Doctrine - named after its architect, the former US president Jimmy Carter - has worked too well. According to the Pentagon, the consequences of burning all that cheap fossil fuel may require a new doctrine and a new round of US military commitments, this time against refugee crises, disease, food shortages and civil war.
Last month, The New York Times reported that Washington's defence and intelligence agencies had identified climate change as a threat to national security. Violent storms, drought, food shortages and flooding, according to the Times, quoting a Pentagon paper, could "topple governments, feed terrorist movements and destabilise entire regions". If so, the study argues, the US military must be prepared to intervene to restore law and order.
At the top of the Earth, meanwhile, is the promise of abundance and its associated tensions. Greenhouse gases are melting the Arctic ice cap, and the prospect of new shipping lanes and access to new sources of minerals and oil for exploitation has resurrected the Cold War gestalt. In April, Moscow identified a continental shelf in the Arctic as its proprietary "resource base" and deployed an air wing of bombers over the area, menacingly close to Canadian airspace, for good measure. In response, Canada declared it would train and equip new military units for operations in the High North. The rest of the Arctic community - Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden - are joining the diplomatic fray with veiled threats of military confrontation. Here, Washington is keeping a decidedly low profile.
If the US is prepared to conduct stability operations in, say, South East Asia in response to the ravages of global warming, why will it not employ its diplomatic influence, backed by an unchallenged military force, to negotiate an equitable parcelling of the Arctic's soon-to-be plundered riches? Similarly, why is the US navy under-represented in the Gulf of Aden, where pirates continue to disrupt seaborne commerce? (Despite its daring rescue of American crew members in April, the US navy's role in patrolling that vital sea lane remains well below its capacity.)
At the same time, the US is showing an active interest in resource-rich Africa, which China, in wooing regional leaders with new roads, ports and military aide, is turning into a buffet for its energy and mineral needs. In a presentation delivered last year to the National Defence University in Washington, Vice Admiral Robert Moeller of the US navy stressed Africa's geostrategic importance for the US, signalling a significant extension of the Carter Doctrine's writ. China will figure prominently, if obliquely, in the Pentagon's quadrennial defence review, scheduled for release later this year, as a key security challenge.
Admiral Moeller is the deputy commander of the Pentagon's Africa Command, the latest in the US's cluster of combatant commands established largely, it is said, to keep China in check in a world of dwindling natural resources. Africom, as it is known, follows by some 30 years the creation of Central Command, or Centcom, which was established largely to enforce the Carter Doctrine. Africom faces a major obstacle, however. Unlike the Gulf states and many Asian nations, which have been happy to accommodate US sea and air bases, no African government is prepared to welcome US forces on its soil. America's vast military might, usable currency in some parts of the world, finds no purchase with others.
As the world's sole superpower, the US, like its imperial predecessors, has a duty to police the globe's seaways. Yet it has also assumed the burden, in what appears to be a scattershot approach, of the legacy of global warming. This is a fool's errand. A more responsible policy would be to focus comprehensively and exhaustively on the causes of climate change and not its fallout. As Adil Najam, the director of the Centre for the Study of the Longer-Range Future at Boston University, told The Boston Globe last week: "The solution to those problems [of resource depletion] is not in the Pentagon. It is moms and pops driving SUVs."
Barack Obama, the US president, has wisely identified environmental affairs as a top priority of his administration. He needs to get a move on, however, as the militarisation of worldwide environmental policy threatens to make the age of resource wars a self-fulfilling prophecy. email@example.com