FOR decades, the United States has defined national security threats in terms of nuclear arsenals, arms balances, and hostile alliances.
But since the end of the cold war, policymakers have become increasingly attentive to "natural" occurrences, such as poverty and overpopulation, that are often the underlying causes of the political and social disorder that can implicate US interests abroad.
The growing importance of environmental concerns in foreign-policy making will be underscored when Secretary of State Warren Christopher gives what is being billed as a major speech at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., tomorrow.
Mr. Christopher is expected to highlight the need to factor in famine, water shortages, greenhouse gasses, and other concerns when conducting foreign diplomacy. The address coincides with the implementation of a recent Christopher directive to State Department officials to pay closer heed to environmental issues.
"I expect regional bureaus to identify how environment, population, and resource issues affect key US interests," Christopher instructed top department officials in an internal memo in February.
"There's a growing appreciation of how environmental factors interact with our diplomacy," elaborates a senior department official. "The purpose of the initiative is to consolidate the lessons we've learned over the past three years and to bring them more fully to public attention."
One such lesson was learned in Haiti, where the overthrow of a democratically elected president and the subsequent exodus of refugees to the US combined to create a major foreign-policy problem for Presidents Bush and Clinton.
Many experts believe the real source of the country's troubles lies with the widespread deforestation, soil erosion, and water shortages that have left tens of thousands of Haitians without a livelihood. "There's a direct link between this and why the government was overthrown and why 50,000 migrants left Haiti in 1994," says the State Department source.
"You can't say deforestation alone created the political problems in Haiti but it contributed to poverty and thus to an unstable situation," adds the senior official. "There's no question those factors will make the challenge of political and economic reconstruction in Haiti much more difficult."
Emerging 'green' issues
Other problems department officials are worried about: food shortages resulting from population growth and disappearing cropland; scarce water resources leading to conflict within or between states; overcrowded cities swelled by migrants from environmentally wasted rural areas; and political unrest caused by the inability of poor nations to keep up with the demands of populations with doubling times of 25 years or less.
The link between environmental decline and regional instability has long attracted the interest of the US intelligence community and has become the object of new interest in academia. Sixty experts assembled in 1990 by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the University of Toronto noted that scarcities of renewable resources - especially cropland, water, forests, and fish - are contributing to violence in a number of developing countries.
One example: Population pressures combined with inadequate land and water supplies have prompted an estimated 10 million Bengalis to quit Bangladesh since the 1970s and to migrate to the Indian states of Assam and Tripura. The result, notes Thomas Homer-Dixon, director of the Toronto project, is ethnic conflict leading to thousands of deaths and serious strains between India and Bangladesh.
"With the increase in research activity in the academic world, the salience of the environment-security nexus has been greatly heightened," notes P.J. Simmons, director of the Environmental Change and Security Project, which convenes representatives of government, academia, business, and nongovernmental organizations to talk about environmental security issues.
The Clinton administration institutionalized its own convictions on the matter by creating a new position - undersecretary of state for global affairs - to ensure that environmental considerations are factored into a policy process traditionally dominated by political concerns.
The emphasis has been encouraged by Vice President Al Gore, whose book on the global environment, "Earth in the Balance," has been widely read throughout the government.
The most important factor leading to tomorrow's speech, officials say, is the accumulating evidence that environmental factors are capable of producing instability within the international system.
Environment spurs cooperation
"When you talk about the environment," the senior State Department official says, "there are two dimensions to consider: those aspects that directly affect the health and economic well-being of Americans, like greenhouse gases, climate changes, and the depletion of fishing stocks; and those aspects that are indirect, like environmental changes that affect regional stability in other parts of the world."
Making a virtue of necessity, US officials add that environmental problems - like water shortages in the Middle East - could lead to greater regional cooperation.