Best Defense

Natural Security: Dam problems, security solutions, and a new White House memo

American national security institutions, people, and equipment remain largely optimized for warfighting in the industrial age.

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By Sharon Burke
Best Defense climate chief

Egypt has long been called “the gift of the Nile,” but if Egypt’s upstream neighbor goes ahead with plans to build the massive Renaissance Dam, the Nile might well be exchanging that gift for Ethiopia.

This struggle between Egypt and Ethiopia over water may be peacefully resolved, as are many international disagreements about water rights, but it also has the potential to lead to conflict. Indeed, there have been dark murmurings of sabotage among some Egyptian authorities, who would doubtless find it very difficult to bomb 10 million cubic meters of concrete. This is one security challenge that has no military solution, even if it ends up having military consequences.

I was thinking about this case when I heard that the White House would be releasing a new presidential memorandum on climate security. At first blush, the memorandum may not seem especially impressive — it really just tells 20 government agencies to meet and discuss the topic, and then come up with a plan for more meetings and discussions. But in other ways, this is exactly what the executive branch needs. There’s a governance gap when it comes to climate change policy in general, and even more to the point, this memo underscores the need to rethink what national security means in the 21st century.

The Renaissance Dam is not the only water challenge that has the potential to provoke conflict, nor is it the only 21st century national security problem that that doesn’t lend itself to military solutions. But the U.S. government is not really set up to deal with this kind of non-military, long-term, slow-boil security challenge. Even in more kinetic situations, the United States is struggling to figure out how to resolve such crises as Afghanistan, Syria, and Ukraine. You can see that struggle in the new buzzwords defense experts are coming up with to describe this not-quite-war conflict environment, such as “full spectrum warfare,” “anti-access/area-denial threats,” and “gray zone conflict.”

Despite the new lingo and the creative strategic thinking that goes with it, however, American national security institutions, people, and equipment remain largely optimized for warfighting in the industrial age. The recent readiness hearing in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee was a bit of representative cognitive dissonance: The Service Chiefs all spoke about this turbulent, new security environment, but then largely referred to the big equipment they need (admittedly with a healthy dash of cyber).

What we really need now is a new approach, one that focuses not just on warfighting, but on security building for the digital age.

Don’t get me wrong: There will always be war, and the U.S. military still needs conventional capability. At the same time, the United States is not likely to get in a shooting war with “near peer” nuclear-armed competitors, such as China and Russia. Conflict with them is going to look different — it already does. The Islamic State, al Qaida, and other non-state actors will continue to attack U.S. targets and interests regardless of how many joint strike fighters the Pentagon buys. And some of the most significant threats to U.S. prosperity, interests, and allies are not military in nature at all.

Climate change, in particular, illustrates the importance of making a shift from a warfighting to a security building approach. Climate change is a pervasive threat to national security (as outlined in a new National Intelligence Council report), with the potential to undermine prosperity in ways that can catalyze civil unrest and conflict around the world. At the same time, this is not a security challenge that lends itself to military means; you can’t defeat climate change with weapons, not even GPS-guided bombs or rail guns.

The United States government is not, however, set up to manage such a threat. There is no Department of Climate Security, not even a bureau or an office. Instead, the new presidential memorandum is aimed at those 20 different agencies.

First among equals, when it comes to national security, is the Department of Defense, which has acknowledged climate change, water, and other non-traditional security challenges in some of its strategy documents. And the intelligence community supplies the Pentagon with analysis on such threats. But the Department of Defense has done little to actually adapt its personnel, organization, or equipment for such challenges. The actions it has taken, while not unimportant, are relegated to areas such as military basing, which are largely a support function and not core to its mission. In other words, the Pentagon can invest in resilience to sea level rise at military bases without adapting to a world in which struggles for access to water may cause conflict.

Arguably, it is not the Pentagon’s job to actually build resilience to climate change, even if it is the Pentagon’s job to understand how climate change will affect the defense mission (more disaster relief operations or Russian aggression in the Arctic, for example). Unfortunately, the U.S. government lacks civilian capacity to promote global climate security. The State Department focuses on diplomacy and international negotiations, in particular, a difficult task, and lacks the staff for an operational mission. The United States Agency for International Development makes important investments in development to support climate resilience, but those investments are limited (the entire USAID budget is about $23 billion, compared to the Department of Defense’s budget of around $700 billion), generally do not take the potential for conflict into account, and often are not well connected to other U.S. regional security and foreign policy priorities.

The White House tackled this gap in governance by issuing its presidential memorandum on climate security. The memo directs the key agencies to meet together in a working group to define the nature of this challenge, as well as the various roles and responsibilities. It also explicitly tries to bring together the scientists and the defense, diplomacy, and development communities, looking to bridge an important gap between information and action. Ultimately, it’s really inviting the federal government to begin redefining national security to mean building resilience to non-military threats, such as climate change.

Of course, this administration is in its waning days, so for that vision to be fully brought to life, it’s going to take action from both the next president and Congress. So, while the memorandum is a great step in the right direction, there’s still a long way to travel — and only one of the presidential candidates has expressed any interest in this particular journey.

Sharon E. Burke, a senior advisor at New America, served as the assistant secretary of defense for operational energy from 2010 to 2014. When so moved, she writes the Natural Security column for this blog. 

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at

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