From the Last to the First Frontier: Why the US Needs to Include the Arctic in its First Priorities

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Tomorrow, a new Biden administration will move into the White House. The new government has set many ambitious goals. However, foreign policy experts emphasize that Biden’s program and statements did not include enough Arctic topics, and that there is no clarity as to when, or if, this new administration will pay sufficient attention to it. Moreover, there are concerns from many international experts, including National Interest observer Nick Solheim, that the following US Arctic policy is “left to gather dust in the corner,” which will play in favor of America’s current Arctic adversaries – Russia and China. To further highlight the gravity of the issue, Finland president Sauli Niinisto recently pointed out, the Arctic “is a matter of global significance. If we lose the Arctic, we lose the World.”

Many international experts and scholars repeatedly expressed their concerns that the new American administration may not tend enough to the Arctic issue. For example, an observer from National Interest, Nick Solheim, is afraid that the “case of Arctic policy may be cast aside and left to gather dust in the corner.” Opinion contributor of The Hill, Mike Sfraga, wrote that Biden’s recent “Foreign Affairs” essay highlighted many priorities without mentioning the Arctic region. “The plan is broad in scope but fails to mention what is perhaps the world’s most dynamic and rapidly changing region, the Arctic,” he emphasized.

TOO EARLY TO CELEBRATE

The Arctic was a stumbling block for decades in the era of superpowers competition. The Soviet Union and the United States had many disagreements regarding control of the Arctic especially as to the status of Greenland. The region became an arena of many military exercises that were established by both sides. However, in 1996, a few years after the USSR crashed, several Arctic nations presented a new organization, the Arctic Council. This Council’s formation gave hope of non-military regional development. Interestingly, the first move towards the Council’s arrangement happened in 1991 when the eight Arctic nations presented the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy (AEPS). The Ottawa Declaration (1996) finally set up the Arctic Council as a discussion for advancing participation, coordination, and communication among the Arctic states, with the other interested parties’ inclusion. The Council members are only those currently with established Arctic territory (Denmark, Canada, the US, Russia, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Iceland). The Arctic Council has focused on environmental change, oil and gas development, and Arctic shipping (a safe passage, emergency, and environmental response).

Most researchers writing in the post-Cold War time celebrate international steadiness and useful collaboration in the Arctic, characterized by what they called “icy exceptionalism.” The situation could be portrayed as the absence of global forces’ rivalry in the locale and concern outside of the conventional pragmatist viewpoint, pointed out by The Arctic Institute. However, this is now changing. 

A significant player in the Arctic, Russia for many years was burdened by internal problems. After years of this turmoil, the country’s government began to recover over a decade ago. Russia has invested more than $86 billion into the region. The investment was in rebuilding the infrastructure of more than 50 Soviet-era military bases, upgraded and modernized icebreakers, and reinforcing military capacities. As a result, last year, we witnessed many theatrical military exercises by NATO and Russia. 

Military confrontation has become the new normal in the Arctic, that is perhaps too reminiscent of the Cold War. While Moscow stresses its right to develop and defend its territory and waterways (Russia has 24,140km of Arctic coastline versus America’s 1,706km), other states see these actions as unnecessary and describe them as overtly aggressive. “The region has become an arena for power and competition. And the eight Arctic states must adapt to this new future,” Secretary Pompeo stated during one of the meetings of the Arctic Council in 2019. Concurrently, other Arctic nations still want to see the region free from any military involvement.

CHINESE GAMBIT 

Alternatively, the region’s security could suffer from the other superpower’s growth – China. Greenland and Iceland are again in the focus of a discretionary tussle between the United States and China. Many American experts and politicians have concerns about the massive Chinese investments in Greenland’s mineral assets, geothermal energy in Iceland, and a joint undertaking with Finland to build up a “Silk Road.” This may be why President Trump’s recent suggestion to purchase Greenland is less absurd than it seems from an initial reaction to the idea.  The US State Department proposed the same deal (which included Iceland) to Denmark in 1967. Chinese investment in Russian energy consists of the Arctic, such as the Yamal LNG facility in the Yamal region. (Two years ago, it was Chinese equity LNG from that project which was delivered to Boston during the winter’s natural gas shortage).

Nonetheless, the ascent of China and its Russian stakes in the Arctic, its self-pronounced status of being a new Arctic state; Russian militarization of the Arctic waters; expanding activities between Russia and China; international pressures among Russia and the United States; and the worldwide tensions between the United States and China are making the Arctic a centerpiece for commercial and military rivalry among the three countries.

During a recent discussion at the Wilson Center’s Polar Institute, professor of the London School of Economics, Kristina Spohr, said that the most notable players in this game would be the US, China, and Russia. “Russia is, of course, by far the largest in the Arctic. But China is now calling itself a new Arctic State and seeing the region as a key area to assert influence.” The current alignment of forces “represents the post-Cold War order. For centuries the Arctic has been the last frontier now it is the first,” she insists. From her perspective, the Arctic region is also a place for opportunities for small states and great powers, and “nobody wants to be left out if indeed something is to be gained, but technologically it will be difficult.”

 She concluded that the Arctic would be “the 21-century arena to watch,” “it will be the area of cooperation and also of competition, and potential conflict.” This is why the world expects the US to continue to maintain as strong presence in the Arctic Council and diplomatic efforts to maintain the status quo, a delicate equilibrium in the Arctic.

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