External Affairs

In Dealing With Threats to Our Existence, Uncertainty is the New Normal

Cooperation and sincerity are key to dealing with the challenges we face today, both natural and man-made.

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Credit: Reuters

Threats to our existence and security come from two sources – challenges presented by nature and the elements, and those that are man-made. In several respects, the two dangers are umbilically linked. Ironically, we seem to be gaining a better understanding of natural disasters and are in the process of enhancing our capacity of meeting those challenges through prevention, response and resilience building. US President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord is, therefore, so much more difficult to comprehend. Tragically, we are exacerbating the threats that emanate from flawed policies.

Responding to a question on whether climate change is a security threat, US secretary for defence James Mattis said, “Climate change can be a driver of instability and the Department of Defence must pay attention to potential adverse impacts generated by this phenomenon”.

He went on to say, “Climate Change is a challenge that requires a broader, whole of government response,” adding that he would “ensure that the Department of Defence plays its appropriate role within such a response by addressing national security aspects”.

This was in the Armed Services Committee during his confirmation process earlier this year. Mattis, in fact, has been remarkably consistent. Five years before the Paris Climate Accord was inked, whilst still on active duty in 2010, his command issued a report which noted: “The impact of Climate Change, specifically global warming and its potential to cause natural disasters and other harmful phenomenon such as rising sea levels, has become a concern”.

Trump chose not only to disregard the advice from Mattis but also his Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, apart from the strong pleas from his daughter Ivanka Trump and his otherwise influential son-in-law Jared Kushner.

One aspect of the US position that commentators do not appear to have sufficiently focused on is that the design of the Paris framework is precisely what US negotiators wanted all along.

In a piece ‘Leaps of Faith?‘, which I jointly wrote for Horizons in the February 2016 with my colleague Jimena Leiva Roesch at the International Peace Institute (IPI) in New York, we had recalled:

“During COP21, US Secretary of State John Kerry confessed that the United States ‘had learned the lessons of the past’ when it had tried to ratify the Kyoto Protocol and failed. The United States opted for an agreement in which every country on earth has its own set of national circumstances to consider, its own politics, its own economy, its own capabilities.”

The position of the US has in fact been consistent throughout a number of years. Since 2007, the US has stated that the new agreement needed to be flexible and “global”. It argued that developed countries could not foot the bill alone.
I have recalled what I wrote then only to drive home the point that for the world’s largest economy – responsible for a quarter of the global carbon emissions – to now argue that the Paris Accord has resulted in the US being shortchanged is not only disingenuous but utterly lacking in credibility.

It is almost inconceivable that the other 190 or so countries will agree to re-negotiate a fresh climate agreement. That being said, the immediate consequence of this rash and hasty decision for the US, apart from undermining multilateral cooperation to fight global warming, is that in, the first instance, the provisions of the agreement would complicate the task of exit till 2020, disadvantage the big US corporate entities that have already made significant investments in clean energy products, and hand an easy advantage to China and some other countries.

Trump clearly has not done his homework. His reference to representing Pittsburgh and not Paris has invited sharp comment, including from the mayor of Pittsburgh. Not only did Trump not carry Pittsburgh in the presidential election but the city has twice as many workers in clean energy that in hydrocarbons.

So, in the end, this was a doubling down, like the Mexican ‘Wall’, Obamacare and the travel ban against Muslims, to reiterate positions taken during the campaign when he described climate change and global warming as a ‘hoax’.
The extent of uncertainly and adverse impact this decision will have for the US will only begin to become clear in the coming weeks. Many US city mayors and big corporations have already signalled their desire to disregard their president’s decision and proceed with their plans for clean energy nevertheless.

This brings me to the other existential danger that is posed, the one by the global terror machine. The UK suffered its third major terrorist attack in as many months, the second in 12 days, when militants attacked the London Bridge on June 3.

A question I am often asked – most recently at an event at the Yale Club in New York on May 17 – is, are we winning the battle against terrorism? My answer, for quite some time now, has been that we are losing that battle slowly but surely. Let me explain.

The terrorist takes away the most fundamental right of all, the right to life. Despite global norms, now anchored in ‘zero tolerance’, the reality is that individual countries are selective in their fight against terrorism. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states are actively supporting terror outfits against the Assad regime in Syria. The Turks prioritise their effort against the Kurds and so on. It is difficult enough to deal with radicalised individuals but almost impossible when they surreptitiously enjoy state patronage.

This is by no means the only problem. It goes without saying that the fight against terror outfits has to be anchored in human rights and humanitarian law. But double standards would appear to apply here as well.

During an assignment in London in 1999-2002, I would often tell my hosts that they were allowing the democratic freedoms available in their society to be misused. I should have added ‘selectively’. This realisation seems to have dawned on the UK now.

On May 22, Salman Abedi, a British-born suicide bomber killed 22 people at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester. He was reportedly on the radar of security agencies for some time. Security agencies have clearly adopted a lenient and accommodating approach towards radicalised youth. If they were fighting the Assad regime in Syria, they were not only tolerated but encouraged. Abedi was one of 10,000 Libyans living in the UK. Like the US, the UK has also been under the mistaken impression that the ‘use of force’ in Libya and the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi have endeared them to the average Libyan. The tragic assassination of US ambassador Christopher Stevens in Benghazi in September 2012 provided a rude wake up call. The Manchester attack has served to re-affirm that flawed policies have disastrous long term consequences.

Unless countries cooperate with sincerity and without hesitation in global counter-terrorism efforts, the chances of success for the world at large will remain questionable. A terror machine requires funds and support, both material and moral, which would appear to be available in abundant supply around the world.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s statement in response to a question from journalist Megyn Kelly in St. Petersburg captured the situation well: “Terrorism affects the entire world. All humanitarian forces have to come together to uproot the menace of terrorism from our planet”.

The current selective approach is adding to, not solving, the problem.

British Prime Minister Theresa May’s ‘enough is enough’ speech in the aftermath of the London Bridge attack appears to miss the point altogether. Talk about “values”, “democracy” and “evil” ideology without any reference to the countries that produce the Wahabist “ideology” that has seeped into the bloodstream of ISIS, al Qaeda and the Taliban is meaningless, as one commentator has observed. It is perhaps self-serving on my part to say that the use of force invariably has long term consequences, both intended and unintended. It is still not too late to acknowledge that undertaking perilous interventions in other countries and unravelling them undermines the safety of the average UK citizen at home.

Hardeep S. Puri is a diplomat and the author of Perilous Interventions, Harper Collins,  2016.