WRITING three years ago in Foreign Affairs quarterly, Jessica Mathews of the World Resources Institute (WRI) called for a new definition of national security "to include resource, environmental, and demographic issues."
"Environmental strains that transcend national borders are already beginning to break down the sacred boundaries of national sovereignty, previously rendered porous by the information and communication revolutions and the instantaneous global movement of financial capital," she wrote.
Since then, we all know what happened to the other superpower and its satellite states. Missiles are being dismantled and troop levels reduced as the United States evolves into the lone superpower in a "new world order." At the same time words like "biodiversity" and "climate change" and "sustainable development" have entered the political and diplomatic vocabulary, highlighted as they were at the recent Earth Summit in Brazil.
Under the old national-security regime, in which advanced weaponry was the key, the US enjoyed a clear advantage. But there are signs that this country is falling behind in the development of technology for the new national-security age in which resources and environment grow in importance relative to military might.
Japan and Western Europe are putting more dollars into environmental technology, and their governments are further ahead in promoting research and development. It's not just a matter of protecting against pollution and resource depletion, points out WRI president James Gustave Speth, but one of strengthening one's competitive position in international industries - yet another example where economics and environment coincide .
"In Japan, Germany, and France, among other countries, environmental technology has already gained widespread acceptance as a subset of the industrial technology so critical to national well-being," states a new WRI report on the subject.
"In this regard, the United States stands in stark contrast to other highly industrialized countries," the report continues. "Explicit support for environmental technology has not surfaced as a clear policy objective."
For example, renewable energy has received only 5 percent of the Energy Department's research and development (R&D) budget over the past 15 years, much less than nuclear power and fossil fuels. Low-input and alternative agriculture gets just 2 percent of public-research funding. Military research, meanwhile, continues to receive 60 percent of all federal funding.
Traditionally, the US has led the way in developing and enforcing national environmental standards. Yet, according to R. Darryl Banks of the World Resources Institute and George R. Heaton Jr. of Worcester Polytechnic Institute, who testified before Congress recently, "other nations are forging ahead faster with the implementation of environmental technology polices to craft tomorrow's solutions."
Among such technologies are energy capture and storage, transportation, building construction, agricultural biotechnology, precision fabrication and separation, and manufacturing modeling and monitoring.
This should be a nonpartisan issue, but the Democratic ticket is searching for at least rhetorical advantage. It was Senator Al Gore's subcommittee that heard Messrs Banks and Heaton. In his nomination acceptance speech, Gov. Bill Clinton promised to "take the lead on creating jobs in environmental technology."
There is a strong nongovernment role for business here. The recent announcement of a cooperative agreement between General Motors and the Environmental Defense Fund to develop new environmental technologies is to be welcomed. Yet in what Mr. Speth terms the critical "precompetitive" stage of technology R&D - the stage where basic ideas and techniques emerge ahead of marketable products and processes - government must be the catalyst and key source of financial support. This may take new institutions or a
reordering of priorities at existing federal research facilities. But in any case, the US should not continue to be seen as a laggard.