While ‘Arctic Exceptionalism’ Melts Away, the US Isn’t Sure What It Wants Next

U.S. soldiers of the 21st Infantry Regiment provide overwatch during an arctic deployment of Stryker armored vehicles as part of the U.S. Army Alaska led exercise Arctic Edge 18 at Eleison Air Force Base, Alaska, March 13, 2018.

U.S. Air Force / Airman 1st Class Isaac Johnson

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U.S. soldiers of the 21st Infantry Regiment provide overwatch during an arctic deployment of Stryker armored vehicles as part of the U.S. Army Alaska led exercise Arctic Edge 18 at Eleison Air Force Base, Alaska, March 13, 2018.

Global competition is coming to the northern polar region. U.S. policymakers are not clear on a fundamental question about its future.

As the Cold War drew to a close, the Arctic emerged as something of a region apart — a place where nations could interact primarily in peace, unaffected by the world outside, with points of friction mediated in consultative processes and institutions. Today, as this notion of “Arctic exceptionalism” frays, U.S. leaders should consider how to manage this transition to best serve U.S. security and non-security interests.  

The notion that the Arctic is structurally disposed to peaceful mediation and cooperation is now challenged in both rhetoric and action. In 2018, a U.S. carrier strike group — on which I embarked as the CNA analyst — became the first such force to operate north of the Arctic Circle since 1991. The strike group also participated in the Norway-hosted Trident Juncture, the largest NATO exercise since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Six months later, the Alaska-centered exercise Northern Edge welcomed its first carrier strike group after a ten-year absence. In May 2019, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo roiled the Arctic Council by inveighing leaders not to “allow this forum to fall victim to subversion” by Russia and China — an unusually aggressive tone for the venue. And on the last day of 2019, the U.S. Navy announced “full operational capability” for the resurrected 2nd Fleet, to focus on “forward operations and the employment of combat ready naval forces in the Atlantic and Arctic.”

Russia has also stepped into a more confrontational stance. The Russian navy has increasingly integrated Arctic components into its major rotational exercises. In 2018, the Northern Fleet dispatched ships to the eastern Vostok exercise via the Northern Sea Route. Russia has accelerated its submarine activity in the High North, a region strongly affiliated with Russian nuclear doctrine and the “bastion defense” concept. Russia’s Northern Sea Route Administration has tightened Moscow’s grip on Arctic maritime traffic. And Russia’s mid-2010s Arctic building spree, though it has recently slowed, was instrumental in helping Russia recapitalize military and dual-use Arctic infrastructure.

Fading is the era in which the only parties interested in the Arctic were the eight Arctic countries and indigenous nations. The opening of the Arctic caused by climate change attracts Chinese, Japanese and South Korean businesses in fisheries, mining, petroleum, and shipping. Economic and environmental considerations have elevated the region for the European Union, while strategic considerations have reinvigorated NATO’s interest and heightened Beijing’s. China has, famously, begun to call itself a “near-Arctic nation,” attracting the ire of Secretary Pompeo and others. Current governance structures like the Arctic Council, which generally include only geographically Arctic nations, may prove insufficient to deal with rising external pressures. 

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Related: NATO Must Engage in the Arctic

Still, there is a powerful legacy of cooperation in the Arctic. For example, the International Code for Ships Operating in Polar Waters (the Polar Code) entered force in January 2017. The next year saw an Arctic Scientific Cooperation Agreement take effect and the United States sign a Central Arctic Ocean fisheries agreement, the first proactive fisheries agreement forged before a region was even open to commercial exploitation. The North Pacific Coast Guard Forum and the annual operation North Pacific Guard convene China, Russia, the U.S., Japan, South Korea, and Canada — a group of actors that do not always have much in common — to enforce fisheries regulations. Arctic nations also collaboratively facilitate search and rescue deconfliction.

These moments of success are important, because non-security issues such as mariner safety, scientific discovery, environmental protection, indigenous community welfare, and resource extraction may prove to be of greater value to the U.S. than pending security challenges. It may be in the national interest to manage the Arctic’s transition to normal politics instead of hastening that shift.

Unfortunately, U.S. interagency Arctic policy is not clear on the final balance of security and non-security interests in the region. Despite the rising focus on great power relations, the uptick in Arctic exercises, and DOD’s growing voice on the subject, the 2019 DOD Arctic Strategy concedes that the region is not a high priority for the department. A return to greater competition in the Arctic is not ideal, considering a preponderance of other strategic challenges and the requirement to manage investments globally.

There are some immediate steps that the administration could take to help DOD navigate Arctic priorities. Many of these include bolstering non-defense voices in an interagency dialogue to ensure that security objectives are understood in balance with other demands. For example, in 2017, then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson eliminated the Arctic Special Representative post previously held by retired Coast Guard Commandant Robert Papp. That position should be reinstated to promote a senior, consistent State Department voice on the Arctic. Likewise, the administration should prioritize nominating an Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs, who manages the Arctic portfolio. Finally, the intelligence community, through the leadership of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, should create a more robust Arctic-focused network of analysts, to ensure that policymakers receive a holistic view of the threats and challenges emanating from the region, steeped in an understanding of regional dynamics and priorities.

A confrontational narrative is on the rise in the Arctic, and cooperation may be receding to an equilibrium that better reflects normal international politics. Yet even if we take it as a given that Arctic exceptionalism cannot survive indefinitely, U.S. leaders can and should ask whether this change serves the balance of security and non-security objectives, and whether their actions will hasten or delay the demise of a peaceful, cooperative Arctic.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of CNA or its sponsors. 

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