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PERSPECTIVE ON NATIONAL SECURITY : Armies Won't Win the Next War : Quality--or inequality--of life is the ticking bomb. Arms spending is a waste when global catastrophes loom.

July 07, 1991|JIMMY CARTER

As nations today evaluate their security interests, their frames of reference must shift profoundly. The Cold War context is virtually meaningless. New power centers, chiefly based on economic strength, are ascending. Conflict is rooted increasingly in racial, ethnic, religious, nationalistic and self-determination causes quite independent of ideological politics. At the outset of the Persian Gulf War, the Carter Center had identified 112 ongoing conflicts in the world, 32 of them "major" in the sense that more than 1,000 people had been killed, and all of them involving civil strife within individual countries.

Many of these conflicts illustrate that threats to domestic tranquility are much more likely to come from drug trafficking, secessionists, religious extremists, explosive urban population growth, hopelessly declining living standards or deprivation of life-sustaining resources, such as water or energy, than from invading armies.

What is common to these threats is that they can attack a people's quality of life as surely and as fatally as any military aggression. Yet we cannot respond to them with weapons and military capabilities. Thus, the essence of national security--being able to defend and enhance the quality of life for the entire citizenry--must be pursued through non-military means.

"Security" must be redefined for the '90s and beyond, taking into account that the safety of a nation's citizenry--literally, its physical health and well-being--can be jeopardized as much by a neighboring country's smokestacks or diversion of water supplies as by its war machines. Today's "invaders" are as likely to be environmental refugees as armed soldiers.

Security policies must be re-grounded with respect to realities like global interdependence, the imperative of sustainable development, the ominous appearance of environmental threats that are global in nature and conflicts over vital natural resources, as well as a widening, explosive chasm between "haves" and "have-nots."

It is likely that the North/South, or rich nation/poor nation, gap will replace the struggle between East and West as the engine of violence and conflict for the future. Environmental deterioration and resource depletion in the developing world exacerbate the situation. What rich nations and their citizens consider inconveniences or burdens readily shifted to others easily become matters of life and death to the poor.

The political rivalries and tensions that already exist among leadership groups and that, in the extreme, cause violence, are intensified drastically when people believe that their very survival is at stake--when there is no fuel wood to cook daily meals, when there is no drinking water, when the land is no longer farmable, when exploding populations overwhelm available natural resources, to say nothing of health, education, housing and other social infrastructures.

That desperation and despair are triggers of violence within the poor world--and between rich and poor nations--should not surprise us. We need only look to our own cities and then imagine cities throughout the developing world where, by comparison, the opportunity for lives of dignity and hope is orders of magnitude more remote.

These new dimensions of national and international security require new policy responses, especially from wealthy nations like ours that have the capacity to provide leadership based on self-interest, if not on the higher ground of moral responsibility.

In the future, transfer of appropriate energy technology to developing countries will furnish more security than military advisers. Investments in housing and child survival will yield more security than arms sales. Environmental defense spending will buy more security than military spending. International compacts that balance the costs and responsibilities between North and South for curbing pollution and energy overuse on the one hand, and assuring sustainable development on the other, will prove more central to global security than military alliances and treaties.

Nations of the world are preparing now for the U.N.-sponsored Earth Summit to be held next June in Brazil. It will address the environmental security of the planet, in the context of assuring lives of quality for all. Many nations of the South already understand this new security agenda; it springs from their daily struggles to survive.

It is not so clear that the prosperous North has embraced this new agenda. We Americans, for our part, are doing little to exhibit leadership. Instead, our policies continue the course of wasteful energy consumption, undermine international family-planning assistance and impede most international efforts to rectify global environmental problems.

While there are opportunities before us daily that should be seized to incorporate a new definition of security into our national policies and behavior, the Earth Summit will take the measure of American leadership in this arena. It will require all of us to demand fresh thinking and initiatives if our nation is to earn a passing grade by next June.

Former President Jimmy Carter is the founder of the Carter Center in Atlanta, a nonprofit organization that works to resolve conflict, promote democracy, preserve human rights, improve health and fight hunger throughout the world.

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