NATO is at an inflection point in its history. The Alliance seeks a new purpose for the twenty-first century as it transitions from a costly decade in Afghanistan and faces a new security landscape in which Europe is neither the world’s geopolitical center of gravity nor United States’ center of attention. NATO must incorporate the “rise of Asia” into its strategic calculus. Being a key part of the security architecture of the Asia-Pacific region is a top priority for NATO policymakers. But despite its Pacific border, NATO cannot claim to be a major player in what has been called a new “cockpit of geopolitics.” To rectify this, NATO must look north to the new frontier of international politics — the Arctic — to assert influence in Asia and reestablish itself as a global player.
Arctic ice has melted rapidly in the recent years, opening once-impenetrable maritime routes of global shipping trade and granting access to a vast cache of untapped natural resources, including 30 percent of the world’s undiscovered gas and 13 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil, according to the European Parliament. It is thus no surprise that countries such as Russia and China have hungrily eyed the Arctic and worked to carve out their influence in the region. The Arctic Council granted observer status to China along with India, Italy, Japan, Singapore, and South Korea in May, which many saw as a geopolitical bellwether for increased Asian involvement in the Arctic. By 2030, one-fourth of cargo shipped between Asia and Europe could use Arctic shipping routes. Asian countries are already posturing for this–Korea aims to develop an Arctic port in cooperation with Russia and this past month the first Chinese merchant ship traversed the Northeast Passage.
In 2007, Russia made international headlines by planting a Russian flag on the seabed of the North Pole, a symbolic gesture to assert its claim to disputed Arctic territory. While flag planting seems anachronistic in the twenty-first century, this move emphatically signaled that Russia was steadfastly committed to a strong presence in the Arctic.
NATO has taken the opposite approach, shying away from any involvement in the Arctic despite the fact that four of the five Arctic littoral states–Canada, Denmark, Norway, and the United States–are NATO members. In a visit to Norway in May, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen stated, “NATO has no intention of raising its presence and activities in the High North.” This was meant to allay concerns that an increased NATO presence would unnecessarily militarize the region and give disproportionate influence to countries not bordering the Arctic. But the secretary general’s declaration was shortsighted.
NATO has an opportunity to practically engage its Asian partners and counterbalance the burgeoning Chinese interests in the High North. Irrespective of the secretary general’s views, the fact remains that the presence of military vessels and equipment in the Arctic form the crucial component of search and rescue capabilities, disaster response units, and air and maritime surveillance that high-traffic maritime trade routes require. Limiting NATO’s presence to these tasks alone will not catalyze a “new Cold War” with Russia as these practical capabilities offer an avenue for cooperation and lack the politically sensitive overtones of full-scale military operations. NATO offers its Asian partners the world’s best (and perhaps only) platform to enhance military cooperation and interoperability in these areas as their shipping traffic and strategic interest in the region grows.
The Arctic also provides an unprecedented opportunity for the United States to rely on NATO as opposed to the tired trend of NATO relying on the United States. The United States does not give the Arctic the necessary attention it deserves as demonstrated by the White House’s “National Strategy for the Arctic Region,” a strategically lackluster document that manifests American under-investment in the region. Even if the political will existed, the United States lacks the capabilities to project power in the Arctic with only the Alaskan National Guard and two Cold War-era Coast Guard icebreakers at its immediate disposal. Relying on NATO would allow the United States, to paraphrase former NATO Secretary Lord Hastings Ismay, to keep the Europeans engaged, the Chinese and Russians at bay, and the costs down.
NATO struggles to practically engage its Asian partners as it grasps for ways to combat the growing sense of U.S. strategic retrenchment from Europe. NATO is turning away from a window of opportunity in the High North to address these challenges and establish influence in the nascent Asia-Pacific. To quote a U.S. Coast Guard rear admiral, “ready or not, here comes the Arctic.” If the alliance buries its head in the snow and ignores its potential value in the Arctic, it risks ceding the window of opportunity to Russia and China.
Robbie Gramer and Alex Ward currently work at the the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council.