There's no such thing as a 'green' army

Rarely in history have we faced such major challenges: we are facing a climate crisis, a pandemic, and an impending global recession. It is clear: our world is going to change irrevocably. It calls on our ability to work together and look beyond differences. The military and the defense industry also, succesfully, invited themselves to the meeting tables.

The Dutch 'green general' Tom Middendorp, former commander of the armed forces, for example. In last month's book Nu Het Nog Kan (Now We Still Can) - a 'rebel handbook for head and heart' by Extinction Rebellion Netherlands - he is one of the thirty specialists in their field who reflect on the climate crisis. It is not surprising that the activists of Extinction Rebellion want a wide range of allies to speak in their book. Still, it is a fallacy to see the armed forces and military industry as allies in the struggle for a just energy transition.

Guarding the ruling order

Because logical climate measures, such as setting limits on our consumption economy, are bad for the eligibility of political leaders and the profits of large multinationals, the primary goal is to secure our prosperity and access to energy, raw materials, and food. If necessary at the expense of less powerful parts of the world. To this end, governments call on their armed forces.

In the climate crisis, the task of these armed forces is therefore not so much to reduce climate disruption itself, but to defend the existing distribution of power and prosperity in a world that is changing as a result of this climate disruption. See, for example, the Dutch Integrated Foreign and Security Strategy 2018-2022: 'The deterioration of the international legal order is also putting the open and free international trade flows at risk. Keeping supply routes safe on land, at sea and in the air is a shared interest of the international community for which the Cabinet is committed. Keeping supply routes safe also means providing security of supply. This means monitoring vital production or maintenance capacity and logistics chains' (p, 36). It protects access to the raw materials that devour our insatiable economic system. Not infrequently, the answer to 'social unrest' (i.e. resistance to the consequences of inequality and climate change) is also military intervention, surveillance, or the arming of authoritarian leaders. This linkage of economic and military interests has had major consequences in recent decades.

Since colonial times, the security of energy supply has been linked to economic, but certainly also military, interests. This insight was confirmed by experiences from the Second World War, where closing the German access to important oil wells proved vital for victory. The task of the military alliance established in 1949, NATO, is not only defensive but also focuses on controlling spheres of influence and securing raw materials.

In particular, the foreign and defense policy of the United States and other NATO countries is aimed at securing control over oil, on which Western supremacy depends. For example, Richard Nixon stated at the Washington Energy Conference in 1974: ‘Security and economic considerations are inevitably linked and energy cannot be separated from either’. Before that it was justified to support authoritarian regimes with weapons, to intervene directly militarily, and to carry out coups d'état, as happened in 1953 when the democratically elected Iranian government Mossadeq was overthrown with the support of the CIA and the British secret service MI6. Mossadeq had tried to nationalize the Iranian oil industry and expropriate British oil companies.

Other oil countries that threatened to interfere with Western control also had to deal with military violence. During the First Gulf War the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein changed from an ally of the US into a great enemy, when he started interfering in the Kuwaiti oil fields. Hussein's earlier aggressive actions, such as bombing a Kurdish village with poison gas, provoked considerably less international reactions. To this day, the power struggle over Iranian oil is being fought with Western military involvement. The most recent example is the European led naval mission in the Persian Gulf.

Climate refugees as a safety issue

Western armed forces present themselves only as guardians of peace and security. They can, according to Middendorp, 'bring an impartial voice to the table, a voice that is not political, a voice that is not domestic, and a voice that has a certain authority'. But armed forces are not impartial voices at all; they represent the interests of their governments and allies. Framing the climate crisis as a security problem ignores its causes and perpetuates global inequality. The security of people in rich and prosperous countries is paid for by the real victims of climate change, such as climate refugees.

In military thinking, climate migration is not a humanitarian problem: climate refugees are a security problem. In 2014, the European Council called for a 'firm fight against illegal migration', in which 'all available means must be deployed'. The Dutch Defence Policy Memorandum of 2018 appears to have responded to this call: the memorandum includes refugees in a list of threats to the Netherlands, together with terrorism, cyber-attacks, and foreign interference. Last year, General Middendorp legitimized the increased defense budgets and research subsidies with the argument that 'we must face up to the threat of the three R's': Russia, Radicals, and Refugees.'

Instead of seeing the climate crisis and its distressing consequences as a 'threat to our security', we should see it as humanitarian and distributional issues. Unequal access to resources, care, and education are at the root of destabilization and insecurity, Oxfam wrote last year in a report on living conditions in the Sahel region. Climate change is a given, but it is regional and global inequality that is at the root of social unrest, conflict, and migration. We feed that scarcity and inequality with unfair trade treaties, legal constructions, and the maintenance of corrupt local elites. Western military interventions to 'maintain' or 'stabilize' peace often mean in practice maintaining unequal power relations.

Powerful industries

Powerful (fossil) industries do not benefit from a rapid transition to a new economy and a new social structure. Particularly in the countries where the climate crisis and exploitation manifest themselves most strongly, you see that activists are suppressed with (Western) weapons: in the 1990s, for example, Shell and the Nigerian government worked together to crush the protests of the Ogoni with Western weapons. All over the world violence is being used against indigenous populations and their habitats attacked to maintain Western consumption.

Large Western arms companies, such as Thales and Airbus, see the climate crisis as a new business opportunity and are looking for subsidies. At the same time, they have successfully lobbied not to be included in the Paris Climate Agreement. Proposals by General Middendorp to see the military industry as a pioneer for a sustainable economy strengthen the position of the arms industry. At the Munich Security Conference, for example, he said to high-ranking politicians and the military: 'The big tech companies and the military industry are going to be a driving force behind the change'.

With large numbers of sailing, flying and rolling heavy equipment, the armed forces (including the Dutch) are notorious users of fossil fuels. Occasionally 'green' projects, such as a (short-lived) experiment with four F-16s that flew on 5% biofuel, make a good impression. The reality, however, is that clean fuel technology for the army's heavy equipment will take at least another ten years, despite enormous subsidies that the armed forces receive for this, not only in the United States but also within the EU. It is not for nothing that the Dutch armed forces recently put forward their reduction target for 2030 to 2050.

Climate justice

The militarisation of the climate problem is standing in the way of the energy transition. If it comes to a transition with the current balance of power, it will be an unjust transition. Instead of oil, other raw materials such as lithium and graphite will take center stage. This will lead to new struggles for control over new areas and supply routes. For example, you see that Moroccan farmers and nomads will have to make way for gigantic solar meadows whose electricity mainly flows to Europe and which will not provide the local population with a cent or kilowatt of energy.

The armed forces and military industry are highly equipped to protect an unfair economic system, using fuel consuming weapons such as fighter planes and naval ships. If we want a fair, democratic, and sustainable world, it is crucial that we fight the military-industrial complex. Various social movements, including the climate movement, the anti-racism movement, and the peace movement, can more often seek cooperation and strengthen each other. It is important to listen to the activists who risk their lives daily worldwide in their fight for (climate) justice. Please do not let the armed forces join this coalition; the military-industrial complex is not an ally in the fight against the climate crisis.

Benjamin Baars (Stop Wapenhandel) Chihiro Geuzebroek (Climate Liberation Block) Mitchell Esajas (New Urban Collective)