The role of the military in
Saleem H. Ali and Rebecca Pincus
Introduction: the greening of security
Discourse on how adverse environmental changes and climate-induced resource scarcity may
give rise to armed conflicts between and within states has been increasing remarkably; and it
is having a considerable impact on how environmental change is being securitized in public
policy (Floyd and Matthew 2012). Yet frequently overlooked in environmental security debates
are how adverse environmental and ecological conditions can actually create conditions for the
resolution of conflicts and peaceful interactions between parties to ongoing or potential conflicts.
The role of existing militaries in this context deserves particular attention from an instrumental
perspective of peacekeeping, as well as from a strategic goal of repurposing the military–industrial
complex. Past scholarship in human geography has particularly focused on the ways the military
shapes environmental processes through entrenched power structures and infrastructure impacts
(Woodward 2004; Davis 2015). No doubt the negative impact of militaries cannot be underes-
timated or diminished. However, the opportunities to consider a positive transformative role for
the military nevertheless deserves greater attention, given the enormous resource base of military
establishments and continuing public investment in militaries worldwide.
An emerging body of literature suggests that environmental conditions may be important
in how conflict processes are mediated and resolved (Ali 2007) and that shared environmental
stressors have the potential to encourage cooperative interactions between parties on either
side of a conflict (Barquet 2015), or greater understanding, trust, and potential reconciliation
of underlying conflicts (Harari and Roseman 2008). Therefore, conceptualizing scarcity-driven
interactions as existing on a spectrum between cooperation and conflict enables a shift away
from discretely considering environmental scarcity as a driver of conflict and allows it to be seen
as playing a role in peacebuilding initiatives. Of particular policy interest is how environmental
issues play a role in mediation and diplomatic processes that occur during conflict resolution and
peacebuilding activities. Moreover, underlying assumptions about the precise role that environ-
mental issues play in relation to how peacebuilding initiatives are framed in discussions among
mediators are either understood implicitly or remain poorly conceived or unexamined. As such,
research on this topic has largely been confined to anecdotal expository accounts of individual
case studies without detailed analyses of diplomatic processes across cases that may contribute to
The military in environmental peacebuilding
mediating disputes and building theoretical foundations in the field, and several weaknesses are
evident in the scarce literature that exists (Ide and Scheffran 2014). Environmental issues thus
remain confined to low politics, being framed as a peace dividend rather than as instrumental to
Consequently, current questions about global environmental concerns and the relative
failure of many environmental governance systems such as the climate change convention
make such a research approach highly salient. Rather than focusing on the threat of conflict
from resource scarcity to gain security traction, such an approach posits a more positive
connection to peacebuilding itself as a motivating force for ecological linkages in security
Following on from environmental security literatures that gained prominence toward
the end of the cold war, environmentalists have often sought to highlight linkages between
resource scarcity, ecological degradation, and conflict (for example see Homer-Dixon 1991,
1994; Barnett and Adger 2007). Solutions presented in this vein have tended to focus on how
to improve environmental conditions as a means of addressing conflicts. While certainly a
laudable goal where environmental factors are part of the conflict, improving environmental
conditions often remains an acute policy challenge. Moreover, critics often infer that environ-
mental factors play only a subsidiary role in conflict dynamics to political, economic, ethnic,
or demographic factors.
Yet as Ali (2007) clearly lays out, environmental security may be driven by processes of both
scarcity and abundance, and lead to various cooperative or conflictual outcomes. Therefore,
instead of trying to tease out environmental causality in conflicts and thereby accentuate the
importance of conservation, environmental issues can also be viewed as playing a constituent
role in cooperation – regardless of whether they are part of the original conflict. The key premise
of environmental peacemaking narrative therefore suggests that key attributes of environmental
concerns would lead acrimonious parties to consider them as a means to address common envi-
ronmental threats; and that mutual knowledge of resource depletion and a positive aversion to
such depletion leads to cooperation (for example, see United Nations “Natural Resources and
Conflict” 2015). Supported by the International Union of Conservation of Nature (IUCN)
and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), pioneering approaches by Conca
and Dabelko (2002) presented logics where environmental issues could play instrumental roles
even in cases where conflicts do not involve environmental issues. They argued this was further
possible as the old model of the Westphalian State was being transformed by non-state actors.
Moreover, as water resource theorists have frequently observed, this pathway often occurs
despite perceived disputes of ownership or rights to water that may occur locally (Lowi 1995;
also see Scholz and Stiftel 2005). Even adversaries who are aware of the dire impact of deple-
tion are forced to be cooperative on water and avert any “water wars” (Islam and Susskind
2012). Despite this growth in interest around environmental cooperation, tangible institutional
structures such as peace parks have only been largely studied from a conservation management
perspective. There is thus a need to connect the “low politics” of micro-level border coopera-
tion around environmental management to the “high politics” of war and peace.
Militaries as instruments of conservation and peacebuilding
The following section will review military involvement in environmental conservation, from
the micro level of wildlife conservation on individual military bases to the macro-level contribu-
tions military strategists are making to climate change adaptation and mitigation through linking
Saleem H. Ali and Rebecca Pincus
national security to climate. At levels ranging from local to global, militaries play an important
role in shaping the natural environment and government mediation in human–environment
relationships. While the military is frequently an agent of environmental destruction, also from
local to global scales, we argue that it is important to consider both positive and negative impacts
flowing from military–environment encounters in order to advance comprehension and support
more effective policy approaches for maximizing social goods.
Military and conservation
One of the most enduring and simplest ways in which militaries have contributed to instrumen-
tal environmental conservation is through the establishment and enforcement of buffer zones.
The US Department of Defense’s Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms defines “buffer
zone” in the following terms:
1 A defined area controlled by a peace operations force from which disputing or belligerent
forces have been excluded.
2 A designated area used for safety in military operations.
More extended scholarly analysis of buffer zones has provided a complex understanding of the
role of these areas in military strategy and operations (see Beehner and Meibauer 2016); how-
ever, less attention has been paid to their impacts on the natural environment.
One of the most widely cited examples of instrumental conservation flowing from military
buffer zones is in the Korean DMZ, or demilitarized zone, a permanent buffer established
between North and South Korea. Kim (1997) argued that the preservation of the DMZ offered
a “monumental opportunity” for North and South Korea to “preserve the last of Korea’s natural
landscapes and native biodiversity.” In fact, recent decades have seen the emergence of dialogue
on morphing the DMZ into a peace park or similar space (Ali 2007).
Buffer zones have historically been primarily terrestrial, but it is also possible to understand
contemporary no-fly zones, as well as areas within a naval blockade, as quasi-buffer zones, in
that the enforced halt to typical traffic in these areas of military interdiction creates unintended
positive ecological effects. No-fly zones decrease air pollution and noise pollution; naval block-
ades also reduce underwater noise pollution and temporarily halt fishing pressure. For example,
Rolland etal. (2012) used fecal sampling to demonstrate that the temporary drop in undersea
noise pollution linked to a drop in marine traffic following the September 11, 2001 attacks led
to significant reductions in stress hormones in the coast-hugging North Atlantic right whale.
In addition to wartime buffer zones, whether land, sea, or air, the military sets aside or
protects land on an ongoing basis during peacetime, generally around military installations and
particularly sensitive defense-related infrastructure. For example, the Hanford defense nuclear
weapons production site in the Columbia River basin has surrounding lands and waterways
which are fairly well conserved due to development restrictions in the area. There have been
suggestions made by ecologists and military geographers to use such buffer areas around military
sites such as Hanford as wildlife refuges (Gray and Rickard 1989; Havlick 2011).
Of course, the unintentional positive impacts of buffer zones, whether temporary or more
permanent, cannot be disassociated from, and are dwarfed in comparison with, the harmful
environmental impacts of war and military complexes. Nevertheless, these occasional benefits
demonstrate that instrumental benefits to conservation do occur in a militarized context, and
consideration of these benefits may inform discussions of policy and planning.
The military in environmental peacebuilding
Military and peacebuilding
Starting from an analysis of organizations such as the US Army Corps of Engineers, this section
will analyze how the military can help with technical mechanisms in environmental peacebuild-
ing. Specific analysis of various Pentagon units that have linkages to environmental factors will
be presented as an example.
The United States Department of Defense (DoD) recognized the importance of envi-
ronmental issues to relationship-building and the identification of common ground. This
movement grew out of a dark period during the Vietnam conflict, when the US military
directly attacked the natural environment of Vietnam and Laos. Confronted with a grow-
ing stockpile of chemical weapons and munitions, the US Army created the US Army
Environmental Command (US-AEC) in 1972, originally under the title Demilitarization of
Chemical Material. Over the course of the 1970s, the AEC gradually expanded its portfolio
until its responsibilities included installation restoration, research and testing, and pollution
control technology. The command achieved its modern form in 2005, when it received
the formal name of Army Environmental Command. The AEC is currently housed in
the Installation Management Command, a major subcomponent of the Department of the
Army. It is based out of Fort Sam Houston, Texas. The USAEC mission states that it is
“committed to delivering environmental solutions in support of U.S. Army readiness and
In the international context, the US military also recognizes the importance of eco-
logical integrity to stabilization and nation-building efforts. In Afghanistan, the use of
Agribusiness Development Teams (ADTs) and similar tools has been lauded. The US
Army describes ADTs as a unit composed of National Guard soldiers with backgrounds in
agriculture and related fields, which “provide training and advice” to community institu-
tions, local governments, and individual community members in targeted areas (US Army
2008). The Army has sent ADTs to Central America for almost thirty years, and began
deploying ADTs to parts of Afghanistan in 2008. According to the Army, the first ADT
deployed to Afghanistan was “very well received,” and provided a helpful mix of agri-
cultural knowledge, military security, and “hard work” (US Army 2008). One of the first
ADTs deployed to Afghanistan was a unit of the Kansas National Guard, which conducted
an effort in 2012 to purchase 2,400 fruit and nut tree saplings for distribution to village
elders in Alingar District (Goble 2012). These trees, which will provide ecosystem ben-
efits, will also improve community food security, and improve US–Afghan community
relations. A unit of the Iowa National Guard worked with local Amish farmers before
deploying to Afghanistan, in order to prepare for the largely non-mechanized agricultural
techniques in Afghanistan (Shinn 2010).
The work of the ADTs can clearly be seen as part of a multi-pronged approach to
achieving US military and security objectives, an approach which includes the “winning
hearts and minds” concept – and including sustainable agricultural practices that have
carry-on ecological benefits, like planting local fruit tree species, is a wise strategic move.
The US Army handbook that guides ADT preparation states, “[r]evitalizing Afghanistan’s
agricultural sector is critical to building the government’s capacity and to stabilizing the
country” (US Army 2009:1) It goes on to note the environmental benefits of enhancing
agricultural health: “ADTs will continue to serve US and Afghan interests by helping
farmers return the fertile Afghan countryside to the green and productive environment it
was” (US Army 2009:2).
Saleem H. Ali and Rebecca Pincus
Military role in environmental response
As an institution, the military’s functionality is often perceived by the public as an insurance
policy to address security challenges through defensive or offensive mechanisms. There can
thus often be some level of excess capacity within military establishments during periods of
relative peace. To remain relevant to its public mandate, particularly in these periods, the
military can provide important services in other non-combat crises. Historically, countries
with large militaries have used such excess capacity by volunteering troops for peacekeep-
ing through the United Nations system. Countries such as Bangladesh and Pakistan, which
have very large militaries, have often been key providers of military human capital for
peacekeeping missions with the United Nations, that are often labeled “blue helmet” mis-
sions. In a similar vein, there can also be an important role for militaries in international
environmental conservation, remediation, and enforcement missions. The mechanisms by
which “green helmets” could be mobilized by the United Nations Security Council has
been discussed in detail by Malone (1996), but since then there have also been specific
initiatives to develop regional “green armies” against imminent threats such as wildlife
poaching (Wasley 2008).
Domestically, governments often deploy military forces to respond to natural disasters. In
the United States, this often takes the form of the National Guard, which has been described as
“critical in the maintenance of civil order,” as well as “the provision of logistical support, and
the coordination of rescue and relief effort” (Bowman, Kapp, and Belasco 2005). For example,
following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, both National Guard and active-duty Army troops were
mobilized to assist response efforts in New Orleans. A Forward Command Post was estab-
lished, and units of signal battalions, airborne, and field artillery troops were deployed to assist
with a variety of missions, including communications, airport functionality, and rescue missions
In addition, the US government also is quick to respond to natural disasters that occur in
foreign countries. Forward-deployed forces and/or assets may be the quickest to respond; these
might generally include US Navy or Coast Guard ships that happen to be in the area. For exam-
ple, following the 2011 tsunami in Japan, the DoD launched Operation Tomodachi (“friend” in
the Japanese language), a multipart relief effort that used the USS Ronald Reagan, as well as the
Misawa airbase, as forward operating bases from which relief supplies could be dispatched and
rescue helicopters refuel (Feickert and Chanlett-Avery 2011). The Ronald Reagan was accom-
panied by its carrier strike group, which had been conducting military exercises around Korea,
and was therefore proximate to the tsunami zone.
The US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) is one component of the Department of
Defense that plays a critical role in environmental emergencies. In recent years, USACE teams
have responded to the Haiti earthquake and the 2004 Indonesian tsunami. Under its statutory
authority, USACE may engage in disaster preparedness, including advance measures; emer-
gency operations; rehabilitation to flood management projects like levees and restoration of
storm management projects; drought assistance; and emergency water assistance due to con-
tamination. In responding to environmental emergencies, USACE works as part of the DoD
enterprise, but may also respond directly to Department of State (USACE n.d.).
As climate change brings increasingly frequent and extreme weather events, the emergency
response agencies of many nations – including the United States – are increasingly overstressed.
Given growing strain on response agencies, which are generally quite small in comparison with
militaries, it is no surprise that governments are increasingly turning to militaries for emergency
environmental response. Militaries have the resources, skilled personnel, and grit required to
The military in environmental peacebuilding
manage dangerous and complex environmental emergencies, including hurricanes/typhoons,
tsunamis, earthquakes, flooding, or similar.
Environmental emergency response is often characterized as humanitarian, and vice versa.
This lack of clarity in the literature is partially due to the causes of humanitarian emergencies:
according to one Congressional report, “the majority of humanitarian emergencies worldwide
stem from natural disasters or from conflicts” (Margesson 2015). There is clearly overlap between
the military’s role in humanitarian response and environmental response. While attention to envi-
ronmental issues may appear recent, due to heightened awareness of climate change, it should
be remembered that military units have long been involved in humanitarian emergencies that
often have had environmental components. A 2006 report by the Humanitarian Policy Group
(HPG) outlined as much, noting the long history of humanitarian efforts by military actors – with
the 1948 Berlin Airlift an early and notable example – while also underscoring the modern rise
in “complex emergencies” that draw in military, peacekeeping, and humanitarian actors (HPG
2006, Abstract). More specifically, the HPG report identifies three major recent changes in mili-
tary involvement in humanitarian response: first, increasing engagement by militaries in “activities
and policy areas of humanitarian interest”; second, “structural and organizational changes” within
militaries, initiated “in an attempt to combine civilian and military interests and assets in crisis
response”; and third, an increased reliance on UN and regional missions for crisis response (HPG
2006:1). Perhaps it is more useful to refer to ‘human–natural disasters,’ which may serve to tie
together the often conflated or artificially separated terms that are generally in use.
The role of the military in environmental enforcement mechanisms
There have been proposals to create a strong international-treaty-enforcement entity – or what
might be called the “green police.” Indeed, in recent years there have been calls to “green” the
blue helmets – that is, to have the blue-helmeted peacekeeping forces of the United Nations
take on expanded post-conflict roles including temporary control of natural resource man-
agement efforts (UNEP 2012). However, if we need an international police force to ensure
compliance with global environmental treaties, we have probably failed to formulate agreements
properly. Although countries insist that no one outside their borders ought to be empowered
to second-guess them, the sovereignty argument does not apply to people and organizations
within their own borders.
Thus, one way around the sovereignty problem is to create groups within each country to
take responsibility for monitoring compliance. These groups, especially when they join forces
on a worldwide basis, may be able to shame noncomplying nations into changing their behav-
ior. By working together, highly motivated local activists can achieve the competence and
credibility they need to bring the full weight of international opinion to bear on noncompliers.
We have seen this model before; it is the approach that Amnesty International uses in pursuing
noncompliance with United Nations human rights provisions. To build a parallel monitoring
and enforcement system in the environmental field, all UN member states would have to sign
a protocol equivalent to the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and
Political Rights. Countries that signed this agreement would be permitting their citizens to
pursue individual complaints against violators of global environmental treaties. A UN environ-
mental violations committee (perhaps with the same number of members, eighteen, as the UN
Human Rights Committee) would adjudicate all complaints. A working group on noncompli-
ance would receive information from what might be called the “Green Amnesty International”
(GAI) as well as other nongovernmental organizations.
Saleem H. Ali and Rebecca Pincus
The GAI would not be a police force. Rather, it would offer a credible complaint system.
There are parts of the world, though, particularly in Latin America, where the military is eager
to take on additional environmental enforcement responsibilities (for example, patrolling the
rain forest to prevent unauthorized burning of land), but UN peacekeeping forces are not look-
ing for such an assignment. Moreover, it is unlikely that a “green police” force of sufficient size
could be pieced together on a volunteer basis. It is also unlikely that the Security Council would
authorize the use of UN forces to pursue compliance with environmental treaties.
Thus, if the threat of force is the only effective deterrent, and only deterrence or other
direct measures are sufficiently powerful to produce compliance, then environmental treaty
making is probably doomed. But, if indirect measures can encourage countries to define their
self-interest in ways that produce compliance – without the threat of force – then the chances
of successfully implementing these treaties are much greater. To the extent that compliance
generates financial benefits, countries will make more of an effort to ensure that their citizens
take these treaty requirements seriously. And, if a complaint system (along the lines of our
Green Amnesty idea) can be put in place, citizens who care about sustainable development
and environmental protection will be able to press their governments to comply with global
Extensive monitoring of each signatory’s compliance with the terms of all global envi-
ronmental treaties is important, not just to ensure that no one gains an advantage through
nonperformance but also because monitoring is the key to understanding the threats that
motivated collective action in the first place and to successfully recalibrating the standards and
timetables contained in each treaty. Continued improvement in treaty making depends on
learning as much as possible about the ability of the parties to meet their obligations, and about
the relative effectiveness of different strategies for managing or reducing environmental risks.
Although it seems to be true that most countries comply most of the time with most of the
treaties they sign, this leaves lots of room for halfhearted compliance or inadvertent noncompli-
ance. We need to track compliance with environmental treaties so that treaty effectiveness can
be enhanced. In a 2011 opinion piece in the Huffington Post, German ambassador Peter Wittig
took a skeptical approach to the concept of a green-helmeted UN force, writing, “repainting
blue helmets into green might be a strong signal – but would dealing with the consequences of
climate change – say in precarious regions – be really different from the tasks the blue helmets
already perform today?” (Wittig 2011). Without effective monitoring to gauge compliance,
such a green-helmet force would be neither needed nor effective.
The role of the modern military continues to evolve, as the nature of the threats confronting states
in the international system also becomes more fragmented. The increasingly devastating impacts
of climate change will draw militaries further into environmental security operations. The 2014
CNA report, “National Security and the Accelerating Risks of Climate Change,” provides a
thorough introduction to the security implications of climate change for militaries in both devel-
oped and developing states. By underscoring the important connections between environmental
health and political stability (or lack thereof), the CNA report, which received widespread media
attention, and other similar work has helped bring environmental integrity into security planning.
Environmental issues also open useful pathways to cooperation and relationship-building,
as the involvement of military actors in environmental crisis response demonstrates. When
The military in environmental peacebuilding
a nation dispatches military units to assist another country stricken by disaster, the goodwill
engendered by a positive contribution to disaster relief may strengthen the bonds between
those countries, and pave the way for broader and more lasting cooperation. Therefore, the
instrumental use of military structures to achieve environmental goals – relating to human–
natural disasters – can have positive spillover effects on broader foreign policy strategic
Moreover, the increasing ties between climate change-driven natural disasters and humani-
tarian emergencies, which are often mediated by government competencies, offer a growing
vector for increased military involvement in peacekeeping. While increased intervention and
support to foreign countries struggling with emergency situations may offer broader opportuni-
ties to reap foreign policy dividends, it should be noted that public willingness to support such
aid, even run through military channels, may eventually wane as the costs and impacts of climate
change intensify. Proposals for environmental peacekeeping or treaty monitoring should be
carefully considered in light of the complex effects and linkages already present in the military–
environment nexus, which climate change promises to further complicate.
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