Sustainability and National Security

By Drazen Smiljanic

Sustainability and National Security

The notion of the security of state has changed significantly in the post-Cold War era. During that period the concept of security has gradually become much more multifaceted and complex and it currently includes more variables than scholars of international relations used in the greater part of the 20th century. Consequently, external factors and trends that shape contemporary global security environment are not the only forces that affect security of a state. The world, in general, has changed significantly over the past fifty years and the pace of change in the past decades is unmatched in history. Factors as population growth, scarcity of resources, energy security, and climate change are combined with rapid cultural, social and technological changes. All of these bring additional variables in the equation of the state security making therefore its framework much broader. The concept of sustainability has entered consideration of the security of state relatively recently. A preliminary literature search has shown that the first appearance of relevant works related to the sustainability-national security nexus could be seen in the early 2000s.

In the beginning of 2000s sustainability started moving rapidly from the periphery to the mainstream of politics, business and science. A strong consensus has started to emerge that some major global problems can only be overcome through a largescale concerted action. “There is increasing evidence that we have approached, or perhaps even surpassed, the capacity of the planet to support continued human population growth and socioeconomic development.” The need to change unsustainable practices resulting with environmental degradation and climate change are amongst the most known in a wider public.

The majority of researches in the area of sustainability are focused on development, analyses and enhancement of its global understanding. Some goes farther in discovering and implementing sustainable solutions to world needs for reliable energy, a resilient environment, and responsible economic development (The Atkinson Center for Sustainability Future at Cornell University). Others are focused more on social aspects. The Sustainability Science Program at Harvard University, for example, is the hub of Harvard’s research, teaching, and interventions on the challenges of sustainable development which designed it mission to fostering shared prosperity and reduced poverty while protecting the environment. The Program promotes the design of institutions, policies, and practices that support sustainable development.

Sustainability, however, has been much less examined in the framework of national security. Scholars at the U.S. Army War College, for example, explore sustainability at three levels: strategic, operational and tactical. These three levels correspond to the levels of warfare, a framework within which military activities are rationalised and categorised. In practice, at the tactical level the primary purpose of applying sustainability in the U.S. military is to reduce the logistic burden and footprint. At the operational level sustainability practices are applied primarily to achieve greater savings. The most advanced practices have been developed and applied in the areas of environmental protection (military installations) and energy efficiency (systems and operations). While the practices at the tactical and operational levels may be considered fully aligned with the basic premises of the sustainability – those at the strategic/national level reflect an ethno-centric perception of the term. “At the national level, it should inform national security policy designed to insure the freedom, vitality and security of the United States, guiding the policies to insure access to the resources necessary to sustain the U.S. economy and defence capabilities.” Sustainability in this context, although approached pragmatically, may contradict to one of its basic characteristic of representing a meaningful coexistence. “In a world that has finite resources and is increasingly experiencing high competition for these resources, the military has embraced sustainability as both a vital strategic security element and as a mission enabler.” Hypothetically, this approach may lead to a conflict over resources which therefore contradicts to the very essence of sustainability.


Sustainability perspective makes the basic contribution to the security issues analysis through systemic linking of economic, social and environmental spheres into a long-term, dynamic perspective. It also represents a paradigm shift in examining security concerns of a state and beyond. The new security challenges stem not only from recently actualized threats from state and non-state actors but, in long term, from unsustainable practices that make a state more vulnerable to “internal” and less resilient to external threats. Sustainability, as a set of principles or practices may be applied on different levels, from tactical to strategic, where the latter is also the most important. 

Drazen Smiljanic

Colonel Drazen Smiljanic is the Director of the Centre for Defence and Strategic Studies, in Zagreb, Croatia. His research activities are focused on the key aspects of national security and defence (security environment, strategy/concept development, resource management, and leadership development).