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U.S. Foreign Policy in the Arctic: A Complicated Present and Unknown Future

U.S. Foreign Policy in the Arctic: A Complicated Present and Unknown Future

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. Even China is starting to explore its options in the 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. Oil prices have been chronically volatile in recent years and cheaper renewable energy and growing social pressure are increasingly curbing demand for fossil fuels. Global pressure to reduce carbon emissions could stoke domestic resistance to expanded Arctic activity in the name of energy security. Even so, Arctic states and multinational companies alike are excited by the prospect of greater access to fossil fuel and rare mineral deposits.

Trade is a more stable prospect in the Arctic, though it will require serious capital investments to be viable year-round for decades yet. 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. Few states currently have the capabilities of chaperoning trade shipments. While it takes years to build new icebreakers, more states could develop the necessary hardware for the region. China, despite having no having no territory, has been looking to the thawing Arctic as a boon to its export-based economy. Transnationally, there is also interest in laying undersea cables to shorten the already minuscule time it takes for financial transactions between continents.

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 already on strained, triggering a security dilemma in the Arctic is unwise. If there is one cornerstone of Russian foreign policy that outsiders should understand, it is that Russia is extremely sensitive about its territory and periphery. Given its extensive coastline there, Russia clearly views the Arctic as firmly its own. The U.S. must realize that Russia is operating in the Arctic because it must, and will likely be much more defensive in that region than anticipated.

Chinese activity in the Arctic could prove an additional geopolitical complication, particularly for the U.S. China has shown that it can be aggressive in its maritime interests and has been rapidly growing its naval capabilities in recent years. A partnership between Russia and China in the Arctic—though somewhat unlikely due to territorial issues—could present a serious challenge to U.S. interests there.

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 is 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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