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Formulating A New Grand Strategy for the U.S.: Can Addressing Climate Change Play a Part?

Dr. William Martel at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy recently penned the first in a planned series of two articles for The Diplomat in which he calls on the United States to not only start thinking about security differently, but to craft a grand strategy out of that thinking.  The article is one part of a promising trend in U.S. foreign policy thinking which is focused on the need for a grand strategy to pull us out of the ad hoc nature of U.S. foreign policy that characterized the immediate post-Cold War world, and the narrow emphasis on counter-terrorism that has characterized the last decade.

Dr. Martel begins by recommending that the U.S. first categorize the different “sources of disorder” that exist in the world, and then design a coherent strategy for addressing that disorder. Martel recognizes that the sources of disorder are more complex and varied than in the past, coming from rising states, small fragile states, non-state actors, and unexpected social and economic changes. He asserts that a new grand strategy needs to be sensitive to those complexities, but should also offer clear guidance, so as to avoid the impression of a ship of state floundering in a confusing sea of threats. Disappointingly, climate change is not mentioned as one of his “sources of disorder” (or even a prospective one), though that may simply be due to the theoretical nature of the piece and/or lack of space. While one shouldn’t be in the business of looking for threats, the very real security implications of climate change could offer an opportunity for the U.S. and its allies to craft a grand strategy that adequately prepares for, adapts to, and addresses the security implications of climate change, while simultaneously building its international strength.

A promising first step in starting this grand strategy conversation was delivered last year by a “Mr. Y” – a pseudonym for two senior officers in the Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff writing in their personal capacity (CAPT Wayne Porter, USN and Col Mark “Puck” Mykleby, USMC – the latter has since retired). Captain Porter and Colonel Mykleby laid out a very compelling vision for a new national strategy that rests on sustainable prosperity. The focus of their piece is on taking the enormously complex array of threats that nations face in the 21st century (our “strategic ecosystem,” as they call it), and using American ingenuity to turn them into opportunities for prosperity and national strength. They identify “the effects of global climate change” as one of many security challenges the U.S. can flip on its head with smart actions and investments:

Rather than focusing all our attention on specific threats, risks, nations, or organizations, as we have in the past, let us evaluate the trends that will shape tomorrow’s strategic ecology, and seek opportunities to credibly influence these to our advantage. Among the trends that are already shaping a “new normal” in our strategic environment are the decline of rural economies, joblessness, the dramatic increase in urbanization, an increasing demand for energy, migration of populations and shifting demographics, the rise of grey and black markets, the phenomenon of extremism and anti-modernism, the effects of global climate change, the spread of pandemics and lack of access to adequate health services, and an increasing dependency on cyber networks. At first glance, these trends are cause for concern. But for Americans with vision, guided by values, they represent opportunities to reestablish and leverage credible influence, converging interests, and interdependencies that can transform despair into hope. This focus on improving our strategic ecosystem, and favorably competing for our national interests, underscores the investment priorities cited earlier, and the imaginative application of diplomacy, development, and defense in our foreign policy.

In the spirit of Mr. Y, the U.S. should treat the security implications of climate change, a challenge which is shared by most nations on the planet, as a good opportunity to strengthen multilateral partnerships with old allies,  forge new ones, and make smart investments in greenhouse gas mitigation and climate adaptation at home and abroad (see our piece, A Marshall Plan to Combat Climate Change in the Asia-Pacific, for a few preliminary ideas on how to do this in a way that builds alliances in the Asia-Pacific, without overtly antagonizing China). Such actions would go a long way in ensuring domestic strength and resilience, lessening state vulnerabilities to climate-exacerbated natural disasters internationally, and building goodwill with a broader group of nations. These actions should be part of a coherent grand strategy that clearly articulates a set of principles for 21st century sustainable security – principles that the U.S. public can understand and support.

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