In early April, a desperate plea from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a group of leading scientists working with UN patronage, went largely overlooked. “It’s now or never, if we want to limit global warming to 1.5ºC (2.7ºF),” wrote Jim Skea, the co-chair of IPCC’s Working Group III. “Without immediate and deep emissions reductions across all sectors it will be impossible.” While global warming of 1.5ºC above pre-industrial levels may sound marginal, it is already a compromise. The situation also now looks to be far worse than initially estimated and is expected to occur much sooner. By 2040, there will likely be “significant coastal flooding, even more intense storms, fierce droughts, wildfires, and heat waves causing damages worth $54 trillion.” Absent truly staggering carbon-reduction, the IPCC estimates that warming may reach an apocalyptic 4.0ºC above preindustrial temperatures by 2100.
The Pentagon recently requested a defense budget of $813 billion for FY 2023. Adjusted for inflation, this figure exceeds spending at the heights of both the Korean and Vietnam wars, and, as William Hartung, senior research fellow at the Quincy Institute, notes, is “$100 billion more than peak spending during the Cold War.” Unsurprisingly, the U.S. spends more on its military than any other country in the world. It has been continuously at war for decades, is currently engaged in counterterror operations in more than 80 countries, and maintains approximately 750 far-flung military bases across the globe.
There is a stark contradiction between the embedded inertia of U.S. military-industrial predominance and the epochal challenges that lay ahead. The tools that enshrined Washington’s world order at the dawn of the American Century—a globe-spanning military footprint, liberal international principles, and free market capitalism—can no longer guarantee its continuation. In fact, the same strategic architecture that elevated the U.S. as a singular world power may be its undoing. Failure to effectively respond to the pressing realities of climate change and complex international conflict bears grim consequences for both U.S. dominion and the fate of human life on this planet.
In To Govern the Globe: World Orders & Catastrophic Change, Alfred W. McCoy, Fred Harvey Harrington Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, offers a kaleidoscopic and timely analysis of the present U.S. decline, contextualizing it among a succession of empires and world orders across the past millennium. Empires are ephemeral, McCoy writes, but the world orders within which empires ebb and flow are enduring. If an empire’s habits can both create new and shape existing world orders, a world order, in contrast, is deeply rooted and can even “survive the decline of the global hegemon that created it.” Emerging from historical hinge points—at the intersections of catastrophes like the Black Death and innovations in energy achieved through the use of slave labor or fossil fuels—world orders structure the relations among nations and the conditions of life for their peoples. Importantly, McCoy argues that world orders are often undone by a “distinctive duality” that exists between their power and principle.
Looking back some seven centuries, it is evident that the core contradictions now running through Washington’s world order are neither unique nor unprecedented. Spain and Portugal ruled in the Iberian age, both utilizing advances in navigation and shipbuilding as well as novel geopolitical concepts, to craft intercontinental empires. Through territorial conquest and extractive slave labor, the Spanish and Portuguese crowns amassed great fortunes. Yet they squandered their riches on lavish excess at the expense of their cities and local manufacturers, accruing extensive foreign debt. With little fanfare, the Iberian empires collapsed, no longer able to bear the weight of their lumbering kingdoms and challenged culturally by the burgeoning Protestant Reformation.
However, by 1700 the “hallmarks of the Iberian age, slavery and imperial conquest,” had survived. Britain infused these Iberian holdovers with the market logic of merchant capitalism and, through the “barely visible tendrils of trade, capital flows, and naval patrols radiating from London,” compromised the sovereignty of peoples across the globe. The industrial revolution played a key role in the growth of Britain’s “informal empire,” the population of which ballooned from 12.5 million in 1750 to 200 million by 1820 and peaked at nearly 700 million on the eve of the Second World War. Steam, fossil fuels, and, later, electricity radically increased the productive potential of its economy, grew its military, and accrued massive wealth. Despite its material prosperity, the dissonance between Britain’s domestic freedoms and colonial injustices, along with its failure to build a stable system of international alliances, wrought chaos upon its dominion.
Thus, in the wake of two devastating wars, European economic decline, and widespread social upheaval across the formerly colonized world, the U.S. ascended as global hegemon. Presciently, Britain’s world order crumbled owing to the duality of its “global power that balanced a liberal world order with a self-aggrandizing empire.” It also pioneered the energy transition towards fossil fuels and the global exploration for oil, soon to be double-edged cornerstones of Washington’s rule.
By 1945, with just a small fraction of the world’s population, the U.S. accounted for 60% of its industrial output, generated 46% percent of its electrical power, and held 59% of its proven oil reserves. U.S. casualties in World War II totaled 416,000, a costly figure that nonetheless paled in comparison to the 19 million lives lost across Europe, 20 million in China, and 24 million in the Soviet Union. With a standing military of more than 12 million active-duty members, 1000 warships, and some 39,000 aircraft, President Harry Truman remarked that the U.S. was “the most powerful nation, perhaps, in all history.”
Such raw industrial and military strength buttressed newly established U.S.-led international governmental and financial institutions. At Bretton Woods in 1944 and San Francisco in 1945, the U.S. and other Allied nations created the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and UN. Though couched in liberal internationalist rhetoric, the U.S. ensured that these organizations would accommodate the excesses of its empire, advance its global dominion, and, importantly, safeguard its wealth and power. Indeed, George Kennan, the American statesman and author of the “Long Telegram,” which asserted the necessity of communist containment, put the realpolitik of postwar-U.S. empire bluntly:
We have about 50 percent of the world’s wealth but only about 6.3 percent of its population…Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which permit U.S. to maintain this disparity without positive detriment to our national security. To do so, we will have to dispense with all…high-minded international altruism.
With a “formidable four-tier apparatus—economic, military, diplomatic, and clandestine,” McCoy writes, the U.S. set out to govern the globe.
To maintain its wartime advantage and grow the global capitalist system for which it was now responsible, the U.S. required untrammeled access to oil and other strategic resources. However, the quest for and profligate expenditure of fossil fuels were not without consequences. Throughout the Cold War, the U.S. frequently compromised its claims to moral leadership: covert coups and interventions subverted surging Third World nationalism, exposing self-interested and short-sighted foreign policy. State department-funded development initiatives also ensured that modernization was sympathetic to U.S. interests. American officials justified many of these programs using prevailing ideas about nature. As historian Megan Black argues in The Global Interior: Mineral Frontiers and American Power, the U.S. Department of the Interior, having outgrown continental expansion, set its sights abroad in the postwar years. Interior “offered that resources were global and thus belonging to all…and were dangerously misunderstood and undervalued by people across the globe.” This twin thrust recast U.S. extraction as both natural and righteous. In sustaining its empire and superpower status, the U.S. engendered a climate that was at once destructive and self-perpetuating—the chaotic volatility it introduced into host societies would give rise to conflict, decades down the road.
Simultaneously, scientists were beginning to theorize the effects of human activity on the Earth’s climate. During the Cold War, the Pentagon endeavored to research extreme climates, such as the Arctic, in order to maintain its military edge in adverse conditions. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers created the Snow, Ice, and Permafrost Research Establishment (SIPRE) in 1950 to generate data that could be “used as a basis for increasing the efficiency of military operations.” Buried beneath Greenland’s icesheet at Camp Century, SIPRE set about extracting ice-cores, thousands of meters long, as documented by Kristina and Henry Nielsen in Camp Century: The Untold Story of America’s Secret Arctic Military Base Under the Greenland Ice. Analyzing the carbon content in sections of the ice-cores, SIPRE scientists Chester Langway and Willi Dansgaard discovered climate variations in response to changes in atmospheric content across vast swaths of time, a finding with troubling implications for the fossil fuel-dependent U.S.
In a case of great historical irony, Camp Century also provided cover for Project Iceworm, a secretive nuclear deterrence program. Iceworm entailed the construction of a sprawling rail network under the frozen surface, “spanning several thousand square kilometers…the aim being to enable the hidden transportation, by train, of 600 missiles equipped with nuclear warheads” to launch sites aimed at the Soviet Union. The uncomfortable intimacy between the doomsday potential of Cold War atomic strategy and cutting-edge climate science at Camp Century encapsulated the contradictions at the heart of Washington’s world order—at once aware of the deleterious effects of its power, but neither willing nor able to change course.
Allowed to compound throughout the twentieth-century, McCoy argues that the “production, delivery, and consumption of fossil fuels” that has underwritten Washington’s rule now constitutes the “world’s most extensive, and the most expensive, web of energy-intensive infrastructures.” Neta Crawford, co-director of the Costs of War Project based at Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University, writes that the Department of Defense is now the largest consumer of energy in the U.S., and is moreover the single largest institutional consumer of fossil fuels in the world. And consumption begets emissions. To demonstrate the singular toll U.S. military operations take, consider a 2017 strike on Islamic State targets in Libya: two B-2 Stealth Bombers flew nearly 12,000 miles, emitting 1,000 metric tons of greenhouse gases. By comparison, the average passenger vehicle typically emits just 4.6 metric tons of carbon dioxide in an entire year.
Instead of altering costly practices, the Pentagon has remained stubbornly committed to its standard operating procedures. In the recent past, policy makers and advisers felt that the civilian branches of government were incapable of meeting the threats posed by climate change and sought to “securitize” the federal response. However, Nils Gilman, a former consultant to the Department of Defense on climate, recalls that the Pentagon used this as an opportunity “demand more, rather than to act differently.” Military budgets have continued to climb in order to maintain activities that were concerns long before climate change was on anyone’s mind. Conspicuously, Gilman writes, neither the Pentagon’s 2021 Climate Risk Analysis report nor its accompanying Climate Adaptation Plan “proposed a single reordering of the defense and foreign policy establishments strategic priorities, with the one exception of plans (eventually, one day) ‘to include consideration of the social cost of greenhouse gas emissions in applicable cost-benefit analysis decisions.’” In an executive order signed in December 2021, President Biden called on government agencies to transition to 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2030 and reach net-zero emissions by 2050, as well to eliminate climate pollution from federal buildings and vehicles. The military, however, will be exempted across the board.
As it currently stands, national security comes at the cost of high levels of emissions. Yet climate change promises to compromise national and global security. It is often described as “existential threat,” in that it fundamentally alters our conceptions of human history and existence, while changing our relationships with both the planet and other people. But the Center for Climate and Security has also referred to climate change as a “threat multiplier.” Too often, climate change is pigeonholed as an environmental issue when it is concerned with economics, security, geopolitics, and society at large. Climate change will undoubtedly affect “physical infrastructure on which economic activity depends,” affect resource disputes as melting sea ice changes access to oil reserves, affect migration as refugees follow shifting food and water sources, and, importantly, affect social stability, thereby increasing the likelihood of future unrest and conflict. Given that mitigating climate change would serve strategic objectives—as well as stave off end-times predictions—it should be surprising that the U.S. is not currently taking drastic action.
Cutting military fossil fuel consumption would have cascading positive effects. The first is an overall decrease in greenhouse gas emissions and promotion of carbon sequestration. If the military were to become less oil-dependent, it could reduce the political and fuel resources used to defend its access to oil, particularly in the Persian Gulf. The U.S. could then shrink its global military presence and decrease its dependence on oil-rich states, reevaluating Faustian relationships with current allies. Finally, scaling back operations would entail smaller defense budgets, freeing up precious resources to be invested in economically productive activities and transferred to agencies better equipped to fight climate change. Each of these would also contribute to the long-term prevention of multi-level threats stemming from climate-related natural disasters, famines, and the like.
The U.S. remains militarily involved across the globe because of the many vested interests and careers that now depend on its perpetual foreign adventures. A systematic policy of restraint—along with climate policies that reduce many of the root causes of military conflict—would render thousands of people and institutions obsolete. Failure to act by the U.S. military-industrial establishment is, in no small part, an act of class-preservation.
The climate crisis has also been exacerbated by neoliberal economic globalization. For much of the twentieth-century, Washington’s world order was defined against its perceived antithesis in the Soviet Union. The presence of an external and existential foe allowed it to neglect its own mounting contradictions. However, following the implosion of the Soviet system and Cold War drawdown, the U.S. unleashed a “two-tier strategy to open the world to unchecked capital flows.” With the enactment of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), creation of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 1995, and broad financial deregulation, it engendered an ideal business climate for multinational corporations. U.S. foreign investment increased tenfold “from $700 billion in 1990 to $6.3 trillion in 2014.” At the same time, Washington set out to bring former Soviet satellite states into its orbit, weaponizing the concepts of human rights and democracy promotion in doing so.
The open and globalized world economy came at the detriment of domestic social safety nets and produced staggering inequality. Largely insulated from public opinion—and with the momentum of a runaway freight train—the ascendant ruling class pursued top-down capital accumulation with little regard for social, environmental, or political stability. “U.S. elites,” McCoy laments, “failed to craft a shared vision to replace the Cold War’s anti-communist containment,” leading to increasingly fragmented and insufficiently ameliorative policies. There is a case to be made that the U.S. has become “parastatal” in this way; its power is decentralized and divided among corporations and self-interested lobby groups not subject to democratic oversight.
To return to the central question of To Govern the Globe: Can this liberal international system survive the ongoing erosion of U.S. global power and the potentially catastrophic heating of the planet? According to McCoy, the answer is uncertain. But without serious reflection and immediate action, the contradictions baked into Washington’s world order will likely bring about its downfall. Past paradigms for U.S. engagement with the world are no longer feasible. Entrenched militarism expends excessive resources, prevents collective action, and, significantly, wastes what little time there is to act. Uni- and bilateral foreign policy must also be eschewed in favor of multilateralism and “great power engagement”—to do otherwise, the U.S. risks inhibiting international diplomacy and cooperation on pressing, existential issues like climate change. The current global system is characterized by “strong nation-states and weak global governance,” McCoy writes. “Any world order based on primacy of the nation-state will probably prove incapable of coping with the political and economic crisis likely to arise from the appearance of some 275 million climate change refugees by 2060 or 2070.” Since the end of the Second World War, U.S. global primacy has taken on a quality of inevitability. However, as humanity teeters on the precipice of cataclysmic change, it is imperative to both imagine its end and the emergence of new forms of global governance.
1. Molly Taft, “‘It’s Now Or Never’: We Have 3 Years to Reverse Course, Major Climate Report Finds,” Gizmodo, April 4, 2022, https://gizmodo.com/it-s-now-or-never-we-have-3-years-to-reverse-course-1848745616. ↑
2. Alfred W. McCoy, To Govern the Globe: World Orders & Catastrophic Change (Chicago, IL: Haymarket Books, 2021), 305-306. ↑
3. William Hartung, “Biden’s new Pentagon budget request is too damn high,” Responsible Statecraft, Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, April 10, 2022, https://responsiblestatecraft.org/2022/03/28/bidens-new-pentagon-budget-request-is-too-damn-high/. ↑
4. McCoy, To Govern the Globe, 15. ↑
5. I have borrowed the term “hinge points” from historian Daniel Bessner, who has used it describe moments in history that mark decisive breaks with the past, https://jsis.washington.edu/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/sites/25/2017/04/v5n2-Bessner.pdf. ↑
6. McCoy, To Govern the Globe, 14. ↑
7. Ibid., 75. ↑
8. Ibid., 83. ↑
9. Ibid., 132. ↑
10. Ibid., 133. ↑
11. Ibid., 188. ↑
12. Ibid., 215. ↑
13. Ibid., 220. ↑
14. Ibid., 219. ↑
15. Ibid., 220. ↑
16. Megan Black, The Global Interior: Mineral Frontiers and American Power (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2018), 120. ↑
17. Kristian H. Nielsen and Henry Nielsen, Camp Century: The Untold Story of America’s Secret Arctic Military Base Under the Greenland Ice (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2021), 200. ↑
18. Ibid., 255. ↑
19. Ibid. ↑
20. McCoy, To Govern the Globe, 260. ↑
21. Neta C. Crawford, “Pentagon Fuel Use, Climate Change, and the Costs of War,” Costs of War
Project, Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, Brown University, updated and revised November 13, 2019. ↑
23. Nils Gilman, “The Guns of Warming: How Treating Climate Change as a Security Issue Backfired,” The Breakthrough Institute, March 29, 2022, https://thebreakthrough.org/journal/no-16-spring-2022/the-guns-of-warming. ↑
24. Ibid. ↑
25. Ibid. ↑
26. Adam Aton, “Military Exempt from Biden order to cut federal emissions,” ClimateWire, E&E News, December 22, 2021, https://www.eenews.net/articles/military-exempt-from-biden-order-to-cut-federal-emissions/. ↑
27. Andrew Moseman and Kieran Setiya, “Why do some people call climate change an “existential threat”?’, MIT Climate Portal, July 12, 2021, https://climate.mit.edu/ask-mit/why-do-some-people-call-climate-change-existential-threat. ↑
28. Caitlin E. Werrell and Francesco Femia, “Climate Change as Threat Multiplier: Understanding the Broader Nature of the Risk,” The Center for Climate and Security, BRIEFER No. 25, February 12, 2015, https://climateandsecurity.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/climate-change-as-threat-multiplier_understanding-the-broader-nature-of-the-risk_briefer-252.pdf. ↑
29. Ibid. ↑
30. Crawford, “Pentagon Fuel Use, Climate Change, and the Costs of War.” ↑
31. Nils Gilman, Twitter post, August 29, 2021, https://twitter.com/nils_gilman/status/1431967061631127556. ↑
32. McCoy, To Govern the Globe, 237. ↑
33. Ibid. ↑
34. Ibid. ↑
35. Ibid. ↑
36. Ibid., 6-7. ↑
37. Richard Hanania, “‘Great Power Competition’ as an Anachronism,” Defense Priorities, November 23, 2020, https://www.defensepriorities.org/explainers/great-power-competition-as-an-anachronism. ↑
38. McCoy, To Govern the Globe, 316-17. ↑