The Trump administration was slow to turn its attention to the Arctic region, a state of affairs that those in the narrow Arctic policy domain did not necessarily bemoan.
You could see it during Arctic conferences in 2017 and early 2018, when someone, usually a European, would ask an American, “Would you like to see the Trump administration more engaged on Arctic policy?” The answer was always hemming and hawing, and artful dodging. Given the politically charged issues that comprise the Arctic policy realm—climate change, relations with Russia and China, environmental issues, governmental relations with Indigenous peoples—many felt that a lack of political limelight helped preserve international cooperation and hard-won “Arctic exceptionalism.”
Over the past several months, however, the administration has suddenly woken up to the Arctic region.
An early public sign of this new attention arrived in February, when Congress broke a two-decade logjam by appropriating $655 million for the Coast Guard’s new polar security cutters. Meanwhile, Navy Secretary Richard Spencer called for freedom of navigation operations, or FONOPs, in the Arctic in January, and again in May, saying, “If the possibility exists to go all the way around the Northwest Passage, I’d actually give that a shot. It’s freedom of navigation. If we can do it, we’ll do it.” In early June, the DoD released its new Arctic Strategy, a serious if resource-short document that reflects careful consideration.
On the diplomatic side, Secretary of State Pompeo delivered a forceful speech at the Arctic Council’s May meeting in Finland. “The Arctic is at the forefront of opportunity and abundance,” Pompeo said, and warned about Chinese and Russian influence. “Do we want the Arctic Ocean to transform into a new South China Sea?” he asked. “We know Russian territorial ambitions can turn violent.” Pompeo later said that the administration aims “to heighten the awareness of the security threats that China and Russia pose in the Arctic region…this increasing risk that China and Russia will choose to militarize this place and use it for their own national security advantage…”
Even Energy Secretary Rick Perry is getting on the far-north bandwagon: he’s expected in Reykjavik in October, to deliver a keynote speech at the annual Arctic Circle Assembly.
Multiple plausible explanations can be found for the Arctic’s sudden jump in political salience: perhaps it reflects the April 2018 arrival of John Bolton as National Security Advisor; perhaps it was China’s 2018 interest in building Greenlandic airfields. Whatever the cause, it is clear that Trump’s cabinet is now broadly engaged in the region.
It is now possible to discern the contours of the Trump approach to the Arctic. Countering Chinese influence and Russian assertiveness appear to be core elements of the administration’s approach. This mirrors the administration’s strategy in other parts of the world as well and fits with the priorities laid out in the 2018 National Security Strategy. In addition, the administration appears to prioritize business development, in particular energy. A Department of Interior spokesperson said that oil lease sales in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge will occur by year’s end. The Department of State is working to promote energy and mineral development in Greenland.
As in other policy domains, the Trump administration has taken a maximalist approach in the Arctic: applying pressure to both rivals and allies, while refusing to compromise. As in the area of trade policy, this approach may produce decidedly mixed results.
Already, it has driven a wedge between the United States and Canada, its most important Arctic partner. The combined effect of Spencer’s calls for FONOPs in the Northwest Passage and Pompeo’s description of Canadian claims on the passage as “illegitimate” have turned Arctic sovereignty into an issue in this year’s elections. Consider Canadian opposition leader Andrew Scheer, speaking bluntly in May: “Above all, we must establish, without a doubt, everywhere in the world, that our sovereignty over the North is non-negotiable.”
Meanwhile, the Trump administration’s refusal to acknowledge the role of human activity in climate change is causing open rifts among Arctic states. Given the obvious and catastrophic environmental changes that are reshaping the Arctic region, this creates hazards for the administration’s other priorities. It is likely to impede progress through the Arctic Council, the region’s major intergovernmental forum.
The Trump administration’s disruptive approach has been countered by Russia and China. In the wake of Secretary Pompeo’s visit to Finland, Chinese leaders called for urgent action on climate change in the Arctic. Similarly, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov called for peaceful cooperation in the region. The optics of China and Russia leading on environmental protection and international cooperation are bizarre, and matched only by the disorienting optics of U.S.-Canadian feuding. Overall, the administration’s approach appears likely to raise the costs for U.S. strategy and decrease the likelihood of end-state success.
American leadership in the Arctic is important and beneficial. However, it can’t happen without at least a basic acknowledgement of climate change. The administration should provide this acknowledgement, and move on to an “all-of-the-above” approach that includes mitigation, geoengineering/carbon capture, and resilience/adaptation efforts. The United States should be at the forefront of efforts to explore, observe, and predict the future of the Arctic through scientific research. Instead of FONOPs, the U.S. Navy should conduct friendly port calls in Nuuk, Greenland, and conduct a joint U.S.-Canadian transit of the Northwest Passage.
The United States can compete best by playing to its strengths: allies and partners, and its innovation-friendly business environment. Creative public-private efforts to increase educational opportunities for Arctic residents, improve social outcomes, and enhance sustainable development are natural areas for U.S. leadership. When the U.S. uses the attractive force of its leadership, rather than threats, China and Russia simply can’t compete.