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The Arctic is Important, But Just How Important?

The Arctic is Important, But Just How Important?

The Arctic is a fringe yet increasingly popular topic amongst U.S. foreign policy wonks. The U.S. lags behind its Arctic neighbors—and mostly notably Russia, an adversarial state—in terms of economic and defense activity in the rapidly thawing Arctic. Accordingly, there have been calls for the U.S. to take action. While the U.S. certainly lacks Arctic capabilities, U.S. leadership should exercise caution in how it proceeds there; several geopolitical factors complicate the potential returns from increased Arctic activity.

One complication is energy prices. Much of the gains to be had in the region come from unexplored fossil fuel deposits in Alaska and offshore. While the chronically low fossil fuel prices of today are expected to rally overtime, cheaper renewable energy and growing social pressure are increasingly curbing demand for fossil fuels.

Trade is also affected by low energy prices. The Northern Sea Route can reduce shipping time between the Atlantic and Pacific by 30% compared to other shipping routes. Because of unpredictable conditions, however, ships in the route will require an icebreaker escort for years to come. As a result, only goods with flexible shipping schedules such as fossil fuels will likely get shipped through the route. Low demand for fossil fuels thus could limit the returns from arctic trade, as well.

Russia is also a geopolitical factor worth considering. In recent years, Russia has been significantly increasing its investment and military presence in the Arctic. This is partly due to the vast amount of arctic coastline Russia controls, but also likely because five of the eight arctic states are NATO members. Experts in the U.S. are now demanding more icebreakers and greater military infrastructure in the region as a result.

While remaining vigilant of Russia is critical, it is important to understand that Russia has limited coastline in warm waters. The Russian economy is also highly dependent on fossil fuels. Russia is active in the Arctic largely because it has no choice, and Russian leadership is accordingly wary of U.S. activity there. In March 2017, Russian President Vladimir Putin stated at the International Arctic Forum that, “What we do is contained locally, while what the U.S. does in Alaska, it does on a global level.”

Given that U.S.-Russia relations on already the razor’s edge, triggering a security dilemma in the Arctic is unwise.  It is also critical to remember just how sensitive Russia is about its territory, and given its extensive coastline there, it is safe to say the Russia views the Arctic as firmly its own. The U.S. must realize that the states operating in the Arctic are doing so because they have to. The U.S. is fortunate to have diverse enough territory that it need not rely on the Arctic as other states do.

These complications will not negate all benefits from a pivot to the Arctic. First and foremost, the U.S. government needs to consolidate the numerous federal and state agencies that oversee the Arctic; even within the government, it’s a bureaucratic nightmare currently trying to figure out which agency has jurisdiction where. The U.S. should also increase its number of icebreakers and reexamine the legal limitations of operating in the Arctic at the very least. None of these recommendations preclude exercising restraint at the same time, however.


The opinions expressed in these piece do not necessarily reflect the opinions of other Arbitror contributors or of Arbitror itself.


Photo: "Cold Response DV dag" by Soldatnytt for Flickr with a CC BY 2.0 license.

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