Rethinking ‘National Security’ & ‘National Defense’

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A recent online conversation among members of the Council of Fellows of the Development Academy of the Philippines (DAP) considered two concepts of national security.

The first, discussed by former Senator and Defense Secretary Orlando Mercado, is security of territory and people. This is security from external and internal threats, mainly military aggression and insurgency. I discussed Human and Ecological Security, or security from threats to human life, property and the economy as a result of our weakened environmental defenses.

Both kinds of security involve harms and losses of lives and property, havoc to our economy and communities and risks to our national well-being.

External aggression and insurgency are what often come to mind when thinking national security and national defense. Hardly do we think of environmental security and environmental defense as within the purview of national security and national defense. We don’t think of the deadly and destructive impacts of environmental disasters as concerns of national security and national defense.

We see national security and defense as being about military capabilities to thwart armed assaults on our territory and national well-being, not capabilities to thwart risks to our environmental security.

This, even if (a) in our recent history after World War II, environmental security threats have persistently proved more destructive and deadly than have been invasion and insurgency, and (b) environmental threats are harder for us to tame once they begin to take shape (like preventing dark thunder clouds in the horizon to not cause wind or rain once they form).

Look at the facts:

In a period of 5 years from 2014 to 2018, based on numbers from various sources, 7,806 died from armed conflicts in the Philippines. Property damages have been high. The estimated property losses and damages in the Marawi siege was P18.6 billion (ADB.org).

The Zamboanga siege damaged properties costing an about P3.3 billion (business.inquirer.net). But in contrast, in just a year in 2013, a single typhoon (Yolanda) killed 6,300 and caused damages to properties estimated at P95.5 billion.

In another year, in 2012, just one typhoon (Pablo) killed 1,901 and caused damages estimated at P43.2 billion (from various sources). We still don’t know the final numbers on typhoons Rolly and Ulysses.

These are from just one environmental threat – typhoons – of which we have some 20 each year with five being classified strong (https://www.adrc.asia/nationinformation.php? NationCode=608&Lang=en).

We could add deaths and destruction (including crop damages) from other catastrophic environmental events like flooding, drought, pests, air and water pollution, and, yes, contagions like CoViD-19 that has flipped our economy into a deep recessionary dive.

And we could add the endangerment to our economy and well-being because of our depleting freshwater supply, biodiversity loss, declining fisheries, crop failures, and weakened natural resources to support and sustain domestic energy generation – all of which affect our food security and industries.

The point is: in our highly archipelagic country, environmental risks are high and environmental disasters kill, maim, and cause property losses, upend the economy, and harm communities much like (if not more than) invasions and insurgency.

So, why not include these in the compass of our country’s investments and capacity building on national security and national defense?

Why not define Philippine “national security” and “national defense” in terms of the wider realm of human and ecological security, which would include defending Filipinos from three kinds of threats: (1) armed aggression from outside, (2) armed aggression from inside, and (3) environmental threats from inside and outside the country?

Our present ability to manage all these risks seems low. But our build-up of assets and arsenals to contain these risks is mostly concentrated on what the military and police would need to defend us from armed threats. We’re not investing as much on defending us from environmental risks. Just compare the budgets for the military and police as against those for DENR, DOST, and the Department of Agriculture.

Yes, we need to keep our people consistently safe from armed threats, but so, too, from environmental risks.

For one, we may need to label and imprint deeply into our public and policy mindsets that avaricious and harmful behaviors toward our environment – and the climate crisis that’s the result of long past failures to care for our environment – are a “clear and present danger” to our national security as are threats of being invaded and assaulted with firearms and other deadly and destructive weapons.

One strong impediment to being able to address these risks systematically is, perhaps, because we’ve been compartmentalizing them as concerns of many agencies, instead of integrating them into a single intertwining national response.

My take: “national security” and “national defense” in the Philippines should be (1) expanded to include both armed and environmental threats to life, property, and to our people’s well-being, and (2) made a multi-agency, “all-of-government”, and “all-of-society” effort.

How? Well, why not start a hard and good faith national conversation on it?

NOTE: A few days ago, Dr. Lemuel Aragones, a Sillimanian and Marine Scientist in UP, wrote an opinion piece in Rappler, “The environmental crisis must be a matter of national security!” [Nov. 23]. Also, I heard from news reports that President-elect Joe Biden of the United States declared that the climate crisis is a matter of its country’s national security. Apparently, this call is not mine alone.

OPINIONS