To use a polar metaphor, the Arctic Council has been a pristine ice mass floating above the waves. Underneath that cooperative veneer, however, lies a series of potentially dangerous geopolitical icebergs that could severely damage unwary ships of state. And the United States is plying those waters without a clear sense of where those hazards lie and the belief that they pose no threat.
Scenarios and Threat Perceptions
The Arctic geopolitical situation is changing rapidly. The Arctic is warming faster than the rest of the globe, with the region losing roughly 13 percent of its ice per decade. Melting ice has raised the possibility of access to new transshipment routes, fishing grounds, mineral deposits, vast petroleum reserves, and tourism opportunities. Use of the Northwest Passage across Canada or the Northern Sea Route across Russia could shorten transcontinental shipment distances by at least a third and open new venues for destination tourism. A truly transpolar route may be possible by 2030, which would shorten shipping times even more. On the energy front, the harsh environment, sanctions on Russia, and recent low oil prices have put a temporary halt to Arctic energy extraction, but the long-term potential remains. Thirteen percent of the world’s undiscovered oil and 30 percent of the world’s undiscovered natural gas could lie in the Arctic, to say nothing of huge ore and rare-earth deposits on Greenland and in Arctic waters.
Balancing these opportunities are emerging flashpoints, and not just due to Russia’s growing proclivity to challenge the international order through its remilitarization of its northern coast, its actions in Ukraine, or its infringements on Nordic and Baltic states’ airspace and territorial waters. Consider the following scenarios, each of which represents a type of geopolitical iceberg.
Scenario 1: Geopolitical tensions and resource extraction. Global tensions and increased demand lead to rising oil prices. As the price rises, Rosneft, Russia’s largest state-owned oil and gas company, moves equipment to the waters off Svalbard archipelago to drill test wells. The 1920 Spitsbergen Treaty identified Svalbard as Norwegian territory, but granted all treaty signatories, including Russia, the right to engage in commercial activities and resource extraction on the islands. The Russians argue that the treaty also applies to the surrounding waters, giving them the right to drill and extract any hydrocarbons they find.
Norway objects and moves to intercept the Rosneft vessels. Russia announces a large-scale “snap” military exercise involving multiple Russian vessels, aircraft, cruise missile batteries, air-defense systems, and ground-troop movements in areas from Murmansk to the Baltics. Those exercises put elements of the Russian North Fleet on a collision course with their Norwegian counterparts, while also demonstrating that most of Northern Europe is within range of Russian aircraft, air defenses, and cruise missiles. Most affected countries remain silent as the crisis in Svalbard unfolds.
Scenario 2: Economic influence with security implications. A Chinese mining company convinces the local government in Nuuk, Greenland, to allow rare-earth mineral extraction in areas uncovered by melting ice. The mining company brings in 5,000 Chinese workers and promises up to $3 billion in infrastructure improvements as well as annual payments of $1,000 to each of Greenland’s 58,000 residents. Greenland pushes for accelerated independence from Denmark due to this newfound economic independence. The Danes object but allow a referendum, which passes with a large majority.
The Chinese convince the newly independent Nuuk government to stay out of NATO and the European Union by playing on fears of post-colonial interference in Greenland’s internal business. Greenland subsequently demands that the United States pay $10 million annually for use of Thule Air Base or leave the island. The Nuuk government also announces that China is building a deep-water port in western Greenland for Chinese naval vessels, including electronic-surveillance ships that will monitor the U.S. East Coast. Within months it becomes apparent that Chinese mining is creating an environmental disaster in Greenland, regional search-and-rescue cooperation is quickly degrading, and Chinese fishing vessels are engaging in widespread and potentially illegal harvests in the North Atlantic and the Greenland Sea. Denmark claims this is no longer its problem. Iceland remains silent. Canada, Norway, and the United States protest Chinese actions and must decide whether to confront fishing trawlers backed by Chinese naval vessels.
Scenario 3: Coordinating disaster response. A cruise ship with 1,000 passengers and crew, mostly from North America, travels west to east across the Northwest Passage in the summer. The ship has neither an ice-hardened hull nor an icebreaker escort. The voyage proceeds without incident until the ship reaches the Fram Strait between Greenland and Svalbard, when it is driven into an ice field during a storm. The hull is breached and the ship begins taking on water. There are no surface vessels in the vicinity. Rescue helicopters from Iceland and Svalbard cannot take more than a handful of people to safety. Hundreds perish trying to board lifeboats, and hundreds more die of exposure in the days before the storm breaks and surface vessels can pick up survivors. Recriminations ring out between governments as to who bore responsibility for the disaster. The United States, Canada, Denmark, and Iceland pledge to acquire more and better search-and-rescue assets, but those promises get lost in domestic budget debates.
Threats and Opportunities
These examples are similar to actual planning exercises discussed in the region. One can take issue with the specifics in any one scenario, but they all point to an underlying problem in the Arctic: Countries in the region have very different interpretations of the geopolitical landscape, particularly with regard to hard-power issues like security and economics. (Eight nations possess territory, or territorial waters, above the Arctic Circle: Canada, Denmark via Greenland, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States.)
Take threats: The Canadians fear losing control over the Northwest Passage, which they see as their sovereign territory. Denmark is worried about Chinese influence over an increasingly independent and accessible Greenland. Iceland desperately fears being ignored by the other Arctic powers. Norway’s largest security threats are from possible Russian demands similar to those in Scenario 1, or from an environmental disaster that cripples fisheries in the North, Norwegian, or Barents Seas. Sweden and Finland both worry about a militarily and politically assertive Russia and the possible spillover from a broader East-West dispute over Ukraine, Russia’s energy politics, or a clash in the Baltic Sea. The Russians have signaled that NATO encroachment into Russia’s traditional sphere of influence is their most significant external threat. In short, there is a patchwork of threat perceptions among Arctic powers. In a crisis or emergency, differences in threat perceptions—whether or not they are true—could undermine regional cooperation or contribute to unintended conflicts.
Opportunities, particularly on the economic front, also vary across the region. Norway, Russia, and to a lesser extent Iceland have the most to gain in terms of hydrocarbon and fisheries extraction and an interest in defining best practices to their own advantage. The United States, Canada, and Denmark (via Greenland) have less to gain from near-term resource extraction given the greater ice coverage in the North American portion of the Arctic, and more to gain from stringent codes of conduct for the various extractive industries. Sweden and Finland have little obvious, new economic opportunities associated with their Arctic territories, principally because they are not Arctic littoral states. China and other powerful, non-Arctic states have signaled that they want a role in polar governance and resource extraction. Creating region-wide standards and extraction quotas—on fisheries, for instance—could be difficult when short-term interests conflict across the region, or when the short-term interests of some states undermine the long-term interests of others.
This patchwork of threats, opportunities, and yes, power, has resulted in Arctic countries emphasizing different international forums depending on specific national goals. On security issues, the United States, Norway, Denmark, and Iceland have emphasized NATO. Canada and Russia have emphasized unilateralism. Sweden and Finland have emphasized the United Nations and the European Union. On issues associated with regional governance and stewardship, less powerful Arctic states have emphasized broad multilateralism, principally by adding permanent observers to the Arctic Council and working through the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and International Maritime Organization. The five Arctic littoral states (Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia, and the United States) have emphasized their own abilities to manage the region without outside interference; a form of mini-multilateralism best expressed through the 2008 Ilulissat Declaration. Iceland responded by creating the Arctic Circle, an organization through which interested nations, indigenous peoples, and nongovernmental advocacy groups can discuss Arctic issues, an initiative met with disdain by some Arctic nations but embraced by China and others. When should the United States engage in multilateralism, bilateral relations, or unilateral actions in a region where the appropriate negotiating forum continually shifts depending on the issue and countries involved?
In short, the number of geopolitical icebergs is growing. The region has a cacophony of overlapping and diverging interests and perceptions, power capabilities, and negotiating forums. And that begs the question as to how the United States can navigate those geopolitical waters without hitting an Arctic iceberg.
U.S. Policy: Decidedly Ambiguous?
U.S. strategy for the Arctic is described in five main unclassified documents. These include the 2013 National Strategy for the Arctic Region and the companion 2014 Implementation Plan for the National Strategy, the Department of Defense’s 2013 Arctic Strategy, the 2014 Navy Arctic Roadmap, and the 2015 agenda for the U.S. chairmanship of the Arctic Council.
U.S. strategy sets out very broad goals. The current National Strategy for the Arctic Region lists three: advancing U.S. security interests, pursuing responsible Arctic regional stewardship, and strengthening international cooperation. The DOD’s Arctic Strategy lists three security-related subordinate goals: a secure and stable region, protection of the U.S. homeland, and international cooperation to address regional challenges. Neither strategy provides much detail on what these terms mean, what actions will be taken to achieve these goals, or how progress will be measured.
Supporters of current strategy would argue that such ambiguity is appropriate given the rapidly changing geostrategic circumstances in the Arctic. Russian behavior could change. Climate change could accelerate or decelerate. An alternative to hydrocarbon power could be discovered. Constructive ambiguity gives decision-makers the leeway to change specific policies as circumstances warrant, without appearing to contradict previous strategy or overcommitting resources.
That last point is important. Current U.S. strategy avoids expensive resource decisions. The 2014 Implementation Plan, for example, calls for a “maritime trend analysis and an infrastructure prioritization framework” when discussing increased Arctic maritime activity, rather than building deep-water ports or stationing more Coast Guard vessels in the Arctic. This is a prudent step if one believes that shipping and tourism along the Alaskan coast will not develop quickly.
The one place where the United States has been more specific is with regard to U.S. goals for its chairmanship of the Arctic Council. U.S. goals of enhancing ocean safety and stewardship, improving economic and living conditions for Arctic peoples, and addressing the effects of climate change in the region are well-established areas of international cooperation that build on past Arctic Council discussions and existing international agreements. Those goals also focus on the creation of international standards and norms of behavior, which can bring order to confusing international circumstances and shift the costs of maintaining such order onto end users (i.e., the shipping and extractive industries) or involve relatively low-cost research collaboration.
Three criticisms provide a less sanguine view of current U.S. Arctic strategy. First, existing strategy assumes a generally cooperative atmosphere among regional players. If this assumption is wrong, U.S. strategy may be inadequate to the challenges confronting the region. What happens if Russia continues on a revanchist path? What happens if China gains political influence over Greenland? What happens if an environmental disaster or resource shortage leads to beggar-thy-neighbor policies across the region?
A second criticism is that U.S. goals are mutually unachievable given today’s Arctic geostrategic environment. The first and third goals in the National Strategy are particularly problematic. That is, it may be impossible to advance U.S. security while also cooperating with Russia unless Russian behavior changes for the better, or both the United States and Russia (and other Arctic nations) can continue to compartmentalize issues in the face of additional Russian provocations.
A third and more damning criticism is that U.S. strategy erroneously assumes that achieving U.S. goals is possible without investing in more than token Arctic capabilities. Unfortunately, the United States lacks the capabilities to “advance U.S. security interests” in the Arctic, the first goal in the National Strategy. The U.S. Coast Guard has one working icebreaker to cover the full 6,640 miles of Alaskan coast. The U.S. Navy has no ice-capable surface ships and has yet to retrofit existing ships with reinforced hulls, despite promising to “remain prepared to operate in the Arctic region” in the Navy Arctic Roadmap. In the Navy’s words, “The Navy’s existing Arctic Region posture remains appropriate,” but “the Navy’s surface and air forces have limited operational experience in the region . . . and naval forces without specialized equipment and operational experience face substantial impediments.” Overall, the United States has only limited intelligence, maritime awareness, and communications in far northern latitudes, to say nothing of adequate ports or the infrastructure with which to respond to a disaster.
This may explain why the DOD’s Arctic Strategy says that the United States should be prepared to respond to a wide range of challenges and contingencies, but then says little about the capabilities or actions needed to achieve adequate preparedness. The DOD Arctic Strategy, like the aforementioned Implementation Plan and Navy Arctic Roadmap, calls for more study of U.S. needs, “comprehensive engagement with allies and partners,” and support for civil authorities rather than pushing for Arctic-oriented acquisition.
A New Direction in the Arctic?
All the creative ambiguity in the world cannot mask the serious problems with current U.S. Arctic strategy. It suffers from questionable assumptions, fails to de-conflict goals, and is a poster-child for an ends-means mismatch. Whoever succeeds the Obama administration should step back and engage in fresh strategic thinking or risk being blindsided by fast-paced Arctic developments. That means reassessing the Arctic region, developing appropriate U.S. goals for that region, and then providing adequate capabilities to achieve those goals.
One persistent issue with U.S. analysis is that Americans tend to think of the Arctic, if they think about it at all, as comprising Alaska and its territorial waters. Full stop. Yet the United States is a global power, with interests and commitments (some specified in binding treaties) to the North Atlantic and European portions of the Arctic, to say nothing of protecting the global commons when it comes to freedom of navigation, the sanctity of exclusive economic zones, and environmental stewardship. Upholding those formal and informal commitments requires that the United States think broadly about the Arctic, have a strategy for that broad spectrum of commitments, and develop the requisite capabilities to match those commitments. So the first task is to rethink what we mean by the Arctic.
The next administration then should reassess U.S. goals to accurately and directly correspond to emerging threats, opportunities, and alignments that are developing across the region. One possible way to recast U.S. goals might be to first prevent either Russia or China from dominating the region in terms of economics or security. Regional participation by both countries is inevitable (and, one could argue, desirable), particularly with regard to Chinese investment. Dominance by either power, however, would undercut U.S. influence and commitments and put at risk U.S. interests in protecting the global commons. Coordination of relevant security efforts would take place through NATO. Economic efforts could be coordinated either bilaterally or through a future Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) agreement.
A second goal could be preventing an environmental disaster in the region. This requires that existing cooperation continue on shipping protocols, fisheries management, and oil-spill prevention and response, something in the interests of all Arctic littoral states. The appropriate venue for those discussions is the Arctic Council, with any agreements flowing from those discussions being codified as treaties.
A third goal could be fostering responsible private-sector investment in the region. Specific actions here could include providing U.S. loan guarantees, tax incentives, or access to government climate and geological data in exchange for private-sector creation of needed regional infrastructure. If extensive enough, private-sector investment could help ensure that neither Russia nor China achieves economic dominance in the region.
These goals better de-conflict the myriad crosscutting priorities, threats, and opportunities of the Arctic nations. The first goal aligns the United States with every Arctic nation but Russia and is just the sort of assurance that Nordic states (and their Baltic neighbors) have been looking for from the U.S. government. The second goal focuses on the environmental concerns of the Arctic littoral states and their economic self-interest. Even Russia, with its less-than-stellar environmental record, has an interest in maintaining fish stocks, and the Western-based oil companies that Russia will need to extract oil and gas from the Barents and Kara seas have the reputational and fiduciary need to engage in relatively careful extraction in Arctic waters. The third goal is attractive across the region, but particularly with regard to Canada, Denmark, and Iceland, each of which wants more investment in its Arctic territories.
Adopting these goals would require that the United States invest now in additional civilian and military capabilities. Acting now is crucial given the long lead-time needed to build and field appropriate capabilities. The three greatest priorities are in sensors, communications, and surface ships. Sensors are necessary for even rudimentary maritime-domain awareness; knowing who is traveling where in the region and for what purpose. The United States needs better civilian capabilities in this regard to regulate shipping and avoid maritime accidents, including oil spills. Better civilian and military communications are needed for everything from coordinating search-and-rescue to managing sea and air traffic. Communications are particularly challenging given the lack of radio or cellular infrastructure in the region, and the mismatch between high northern latitudes and the orbital paths of most communications and geopositioning satellites. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the United States needs to improve its naval capabilities to demonstrate a maritime presence across the region. At the least that will require more Coast Guard icebreakers and ice-capable Navy surface ships.
These are not trivial acquisitions. A heavy icebreaker, for instance, can cost $1 billion, and the U.S. Coast Guard has argued that it needs three new heavy and three medium icebreakers for northern-latitude operations. But absent these investments, the United States will lack the capability to monitor, communicate, and operate in this harsh environment. The United States needs to dedicate additional funding for this effort or reprioritize money within existing accounts, raise revenue through user fees or energy taxes, or share costs with the private sector in exchange for shared use of acquired assets. U.S. goals cannot be met in any real sense without these capabilities.
‘Increasingly Dynamic and Important’
Skeptics will argue that taking these actions will militarize the Arctic, jeopardize international cooperation in the region, and create a security dilemma vis-à-vis Russia. This belies the fact that the region has always been militarized and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future. All Arctic states, with the exception of Iceland, have military installations above the Arctic Circle. The Norwegian Permanent Joint Military Headquarters, for example, is located above the Arctic Circle. Russia is refurbishing military facilities along its north coast and around the Kola Peninsula. The United States regularly sends submarines and long-range military flights through the region, maintains Thule Air Base in Greenland, and military aircraft in Alaska. So the notion that the Arctic is one large demilitarized zone is a misnomer.
Current events may also have made this criticism a moot point. Russian President Vladimir Putin is in the process of remilitarizing northern Russia as fast as he can, both to defend against existing U.S. capabilities and to reestablish a sphere of influence that Putin has always asserted was Russia’s due. So far there has been no real Western response. Steps to counterbalance Russian revanchist policies, including better Arctic capabilities, might actually slow Putin. At worst, Putin will continue doing what he has always planned on doing.
The question to ask is thus not whether improved U.S. capabilities will create a security dilemma with Russia, but instead whether the United States can afford to do nothing in the face of ongoing Russian redeployments to the region. The Obama administration’s recently released 2015 National Security Strategy argues, “We will deter Russian aggression, remain alert to its strategic capabilities, and help our allies and partners resist Russian coercion over the long term, if necessary.” The key will be matching this rhetoric with real capabilities in the Arctic.
For the past 25 years, the Arctic has been a relatively frozen international backwater, moving at a glacier’s pace. As the Arctic ice melts, however, international politics is seeping back into the region and creating new geopolitical icebergs. Supporters of current U.S. strategy say it is flexible, adaptable, and appropriate for today’s circumstances. Yet U.S. strategy is based on questionable assumptions, inconsistent goals, and inadequate capabilities. The next administration should reassess the Arctic region, develop appropriate goals based on that assessment, and provide adequate capabilities to achieve those goals. None of this will be easy, particularly with regard to acquiring the capabilities needed to operate in the region. Inaction, however, risks being caught unprepared in an increasingly dynamic and important part of the world.