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No. 3 | A Global Arctic Order Under Threat? An Agenda for American Leadership in the North

The views and opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect positions of the Polar Institute.

Arctic relations are fracturing. Northern military activity is at its highest level since the end of the Cold War. The idea of the Arctic as a ‘zone of peace’[1] has been replaced with a narrative about the top of the world as an emerging arena for great power rivalry. In 2020 alone, the U.S. Sixth Fleet recently conducted three maritime security operations in the Barents Sea, just off the Arctic coast of Norway and Russia. This followed warnings by then U.S. Secretary of the Navy, Kenneth J. Braithwaite of increasing hostility in the Arctic, noting, ‘The Chinese and the Russians are everywhere, especially the Chinese.’

This explicit name-calling in Arctic politics was a shift from previous U.S. administrations’ more sober approaches to circumpolar geopolitics, where resource development, mitigating climate change, and ensuring harmonious regional relations were pronounced priorities. The recently inaugurated Biden Administration will have to grapple with what to do with, and in, the Arctic. A reversal, however, to the old days of the 2010s, is not possible. In fact, the deterioration in the Arctic is not so much a response to events in the Arctic, as a consequence of the challenges and trends emerging in global politics over the last decade. If President Biden wants the United States to lead again, the Arctic will need to be on his radar.

As noted by Francis Fukuyama, ‘Major crises have major consequences, usually unforeseen’. The COVID-19 pandemic might have been unanticipated, yet its impact on an ever-eroding international order is already tangible. Multilateralism – the rule-based collaboration between states – is not dissolving because of a small contagious agent. Instead, the pandemic might only be promoting an already on-going development.

What we have seen over the past years has not only been an accelerated transformation of our well-known liberal international order of rules, norms and institutions, dominated by a single hegemonic superpower. Perhaps we have witnessed the first manifestations of its dissolution. This ongoing transformation is best understood when studying international politics concerned with specific geographical domains or issue areas. Such regional examples provide an answer on what comes next for the liberal international order.

Nowhere is this more apparent than the Arctic region in the 21st century. Despite hopes that the Arctic remain isolated from troubles elsewhere, the Arctic cannot indefinitely remain a separate region independent of what happens in other parts of the world, often involving the same (Arctic) actors. Nevertheless, there is room for diplomatic action and handywork, trying to keep the illusion of a special Arctic spirit alive. This is where the U.S. under President Biden must step up and alter the course set out by the previous administration.

The Arctic of the 21st Century

Over the past fifteen years, the circumpolar North has become a global hotspot – unfortunately quite literally, but also as an emerging arena to take the temperature on international politics and relations between great powers. Today, the region is one of the spots on the planet most affected by climate change, as sea ice and the Greenlandic ice sheet continue to melt at an ever-increasing pace. Eventually, rising sea levels and coastal flooding are set to have negative cross-border effects, causing more extreme weather events globally, from devastating storms to extreme droughts.

Yet, this is only one side of the Arctic’s story. The region is also home to some of world’s largest fish stocks, undiscovered oil and gas resources as well as an abundance of rare minerals found only in a few places around the world. In addition, the increasingly ice-free waters can serve as a maritime transportation shortcut from Europe to Asia (or reverse) via the top of the world.

And even though the Arctic region is warming twice as fast as the rest of the globe, it is still one of the coldest spots on Earth. This provides the Arctic with a climatological competitive advantage, currently to be discovered by the world’s leading tech firms to appease the world’s hunger for digital infrastructure. The colder it is, the less energy is needed to cool down data centers, while the remaining energy demand can be met using renewable energy sources (for example, hydro power or wind farms). Thus, only few places have been the source of as much speculation, hype, and sweeping statements as the Arctic region at the start of the 21st century.

Yet already during the Cold War, the Arctic held a prominent place in the political and military standoffs between the two superpowers. This was important not because ofinteractions in the Arctic itself (though the cat-and-mouse games of submarines took place there), but because of its wider strategic role in the systemic competition between the U.S. and the USSR.

With the end of the Cold War, the Arctic was transformed from a region of geo-strategic rivalry to one where a (now diminished) Russian state would cooperate in various novel collaborative arrangements with its former Western adversaries. Several regional organizations (the Arctic Council, the Barents Euro-Arctic Council, and the Northern Forum) emerged in the 1990s to tackle issues such as environmental degradation, regional and local development, and cultural and economic cross-border cooperation. But whereas interaction increased during this period among Arctic states and also included Arctic Indigenous peoples (as they gained more political visibility and an official voice), geopolitically the region seemed to disappear from the radar of global power politics.

Since the mid-2000s the Arctic’s strategic importance has reappeared. Echoing the dynamics of the Cold War, this began to happen primarily because Russia, under President Vladimir Putin, started to re-build its military (and nuclear) prowess in order to re-assert its position at the head table of world politics. And given the country’s geography and recent history, its obvious focus would be its Arctic lands and seas. In this terrain Russia could pursue, unobstructed, its policy of rebuilding its forces as well as expanding its defense and deterrence capabilities.

This has not come primarily becauseof changing political circumstances in the Arctic, but because Russia maintains a naturally (that is, geographically) dominant position in the North. The state’s historically strong naval presence — the Northern Fleet, on the Kola Peninsula where its strategic submarines are based — is essential to the county’s status as a major nuclear power on the world stage. Since its (re)emergence in world politics around 2006–7, the Arctic region has often been portrayed as the next arena for geopolitical conflict — the place where Russia, the U.S., and eventually China are bound to clash. As prominently stated in 2008, ‘global warming has given birth to a new scramble for territory and resources among the five Arctic powers.’

Into this evolutionary geo-economic and geo-strategic mix, China has surfaced as a new Arctic actor in recent years. Indeed, China has proclaimed itself as a ‘near-Arctic state’. With Beijing’s continuous efforts to assert influence through its global network of dominance, the Arctic has emerged as the latest arena where China’s presence and interaction are components of its expanding power in both soft and hard terms, be it China’s interests in scientific research or investments in Russia’s fossil fuel and mineral extraction industries across Arctic countries. China protects its range of interests — from businesses to opinions on developments related to the Law of the Sea — as part of this expansion of its political might in the region and worldwide.

Yet, the last decade has also shown that the idea of ‘resource wars’ in the North are unlikely to emerge.  Oil and gas, minerals, or fish stocks are predominantly located in the maritime zones or territories of the Arctic states. Arctic states — including the U.S. and Russia — desire stable operating environments for extracting costly resources far away from their prospective markets.

Countries in the circumpolar region have recognized the value of creating a political environment favorable to investments and economic development. In response to the outcry and concerns about the ‘lack of governance’ in the Arctic spurred by the growing international awareness of the region, top-level political representatives of the five Arctic coastal states — Canada, Denmark (via Greenland), Norway, Russia, and the U.S. — met in Ilulissat, Greenland in 2008, where they publicly declared the Arctic to be a ‘region of cooperation.’ They also affirmed their intention to work within established international arrangements and agreements, especially the Law of the Sea.

The Arctic states, which also include Finland, Iceland, and Sweden, have repeated this mantra of cooperation, articulating the same sentiment in relatively streamlined Arctic policy and strategy documents. This sentiment has not changed even with the deterioration in relations between Russia and its Arctic neighbors since 2014 as a result of Russian actions in Ukraine and Crimea. Indeed, the foreign ministries of all Arctic Council members (including Russia) keep pro-actively emphasizing the ‘peaceful’ and ‘cooperative’ nature of regional politics.

Moreover, some argued that low-level forms of regional interaction help relax tensions in the North. To illustrate, the Arctic Council emerged in the wake of the Cold War’s close as the primary forum for regional affairs in the Arctic. Founded in 1996, the Council serves as a platform from which its member-states can portray themselves as working harmoniously towards common goals. Adding to its legitimacy, an increasing number of actors have, since the late 1990s, applied and gained observer status on the Council — initially Germany, France, the Netherlands, Poland, Spain, and the United Kingdom, and more recently China, Italy, India, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Switzerland and (unsuccessfully) the European Union.

Pessimists were proven wrong, and instead of Arctic anarchy, the Arctic countries ‘engaged in various impressive feats of cooperation’ (same journal, same author, different year – 2013). Moreover, the Arctic was used as working case of ‘complex interdependence’ able to preserve existing regional cooperation, even in case of international crises, as for instance Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. As such, the Arctic has become an exceptional space of regional governance, co-operation and peaceful co-existence – a political vision detached from global developments.

However, when launching #NATO2030, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg argued for a more global approach of the alliance, inter alia due to China’s increasing Arctic interests. This followed a speech given in 2019 by then U.S. Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, that represented a clear break with notions of the Arctic as a ‘zone of peace’, as he lambasted both Russian and Chinese actions in the Arctic. What the speech essentially did, was to shatter the self-imposed separation between great power politics and regional relations that the Arctic states had, up until that point, made use of to promote constructive regional relations. The main rationale for this is the changing role of the Arctic in an international system in a state of flux.

A Melting International (Arctic) Order

Ever since 1945, the United States have upheld an international liberal order the American way – a set of alliances, institutions, and rules the United States led to create after World War II. An international order organized around free trade and U.S. military presence in Europe and Asia that ensured to protect American interests. An international order that made Europe find its inner peace and eventually assert its full dominance after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

And yet, the end of history brought considerable changes to the international liberal order, transforming both its underlying power configuration, its principles, norms and rules, its patterns of cooperation and conflict, as well as its legitimacy and effectiveness. The dispersion of power in the international system created a more ‘multifaceted order based on complex and polycentric governance arrangements among a wider community of national governments, international organizations and non-state actors.’

The world has changed, and so did the U.S., be it because of 9/11, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a global financial crisis, the deterioration of East–West relations or the rise of China. In came a President that announced America’s Pacific century and simultaneously emphasized the necessity of other nations to share more of the international burden. In came another President who argued for America to be first, dismantling (or at least questioning) the multilateral order and stability the U.S. built for decades. This fueled the fear that the consensus of cooperation and the compliance with international obligations is slightly eroding with short-term national interests dominating long-term international considerations.

Since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. has been integral to the development of the ‘peaceful’ order in the Arctic specifically. Recognizing shared interests with other Arctic states, emphasizing the need for cooperation also with actors that one disagrees with, and initiating new regional projects (symbolic and real) support this development. Now, however, the immediate concern is the growing hostility between what some refer to as the ‘two poles’ — the U.S. and (its perceived challenger) China. The Trump Administration did not question Arctic cooperation or its multilateral modus operandi but made use of the Arctic as yet another arena to challenge in particular China, but also Russia. Great power rivalry returned to the Arctic.

So far, however, China’s increasing global engagement and influence has in fact been rather subdued in the North. Beijing, for all its rhetoric about its ambitions for a ‘Polar Silk Route’ has used all the correct Arctic buzzwords in tune with the preferences of the Arctic states. Yet, there are fears that this may just be a mollifying tactic: merely the beginning of a pushier Chinese presence where geo-economic actions — financial investments motivated by geopolitical goals — are part of a larger political strategy aimed at challenging the hegemony of the ‘West’ as well as the balance of power in the North. The Arctic speech by Secretary of State Pompeo in 2019 fed directly into this narrative.

However, the U.S. has a considerable security presence in the Arctic that ranges from military bases in Keflavik (Iceland) and Thule (Greenland) to troops in Canada and (rotating) troops in Norway, as well as its own Alaskan Arctic component. Five out of eight Arctic states are also NATO-members. It is unlikely that Chinese actions in the region can challenge this presence. Moreover, its regional engagement assumes predominantly soft-power characteristics. Shifting power balances and greater regional interest from Beijing are not destined to lead to tension and conflict; on the contrary, these trends might spur efforts to find ways of including China in regional forums, alleviating the (geo-economic) concerns of Arctic states. In other words, ‘how’ to balance these concerns will be at the core of Arctic geopolitical concerns in years to come.

The other great-power actor with global aspirations (which, in contrast to China, is actually in the Arctic region) is Russia, operating in tandem with its desire to project influence. As by far the largest Arctic country with the most ambition in terms of military investments and activity, Russia sets the parameters for much of the Arctic security trajectory. This is not likely to change, although exactly how the future Arctic security environment will look depends on the ‘West’s’ response to Russian actions taking place predominantly in other regions around the world.

However, Russian military engagement in the Arctic does not have a uniform regional effect. This is where the sub-regional Arctic relations come into play, and geographic proximity should not be underestimated. After all, neighboring regions, like those of Norway and Russia, are forced to interact regardless of the positive or negative character of their relations. The U.S. Sixth Fleet had reasons for sailing in the Barents Sea just off the coast of NATO ally Norway: this is the part of the Arctic region that is experiencing the most military activity and might pose the highest security risk for the U.S. and its allies.

Finally, there is the fear (by the ‘West’) of a Chinese-Russian alliance growing beyond the current economic joint ventures that the two countries’ state-owned companies have embarked on. Although there are signs that this alliance might be a difficult thing to achieve in reality, it can still pose problems for the other Arctic states if sanctions and rivalry continue to push Russia into Chinese arms.

A New Multilateral U.S. Agenda for the Arctic

The U.S., both under Democratic and Republican presidents, always had a troubled relationship with the normative-institutional framework, with its leaders interpreting the U.S.’ role of guarantor of the liberal international order as encompassing a right to derogate from liberal rules and practices whenever it was required by the national interest. The difference today is that the proposition that the liberal order may no longer be an emanation of U.S. power, but in fact a constraint on it, has regained considerable legitimacy under the Trump Administration (and potentially even before).

But this panicked narrative misses a deeper reality: although the United States’ position in the global system is changing, the liberal international order is alive and still functioning. Yes, Russia (and President Putin) might consider the liberal order to be ‘obsolete’. Yes, China and other emerging powers wish to gain more authority and leadership within the international order and international organizations, but they do not necessarily (and automatically) contest the basic rules and principles of the liberal international order.

Similarly, ‘the very fact that more states use multilateral fora, whether regional or global, to push national or regional interests is not per se indicative of a corrosion of multilateralism or economic liberalism.’ Although distinct regional international organization clusters exist, the boundaries between these clusters are becoming less sharp as states are increasingly working through other international organizations with states outside their own clusters.

What does that mean for the Arctic’s international order and the U.S.’ role? The Arctic has risen on the strategic agenda, simply because the U.S. and Russia are already in the region, and China is increasingly demonstrating its (strategic) northern interests. If global relations continue to deteriorate among these actors (i.e., increasingly bellicose statements, military posturing and exercises, sanctions regimes) greater tensions in the Arctic may well result. Crucially, what happens in the Arctic does not remain solely in the Arctic, be it related to the environment or politics.

Conversely, events and processes elsewhere in turn impact the Arctic in terms of global warming, security, and desires to exploit economic opportunities. In other words, the Arctic has become the ultimate gauge of changes in the international order more generally. The Biden Administration needs to take this interdependence into account across a range of pressing issues in the Arctic, ranging from grappling with climate deterioration to the increase in military exercises and posturing.

As such, the most pressing regional challenge derives from international developments: how to deal with and where to talk about Arctic-specific security concerns, which are currently excluded from the regional cooperative forums and venues in an era of a changing international order. Generally, Arctic security dialogues are fragile, and risks being interpreted in terms of the increasingly tense NATO–Russia division in Europe at large. China is naturally excluded since it is not, per se, an Arctic actor. Paradoxically, precisely what such an arena for dialogue is intended to achieve (preventing the spillover of tensions from other parts of the world to the Arctic) is the very reason why progress is difficult.

Enter President Joe Biden. After years of undermining allies and partners, the U.S. needs to re-find its international leadership engine – be at the top of its game in keeping its (old) friends close and its enemies even closer. The Arctic case is ideal to showcase the value of this approach. Under the Trump Administration, the U.S. tactic of name-calling and rebuking China did not achieve much. China is still interested in the Arctic and engaging with Arctic countries primarily through economic means. Russia’s position in the Arctic is inherently difficult to challenge, and the benefits from doing so are questionable.

The fact that there is little in the Arctic region to squabble over results in a situation where tension in the North is predominantly a product of actors dragging the region into conflicts elsewhere. Either the Trump Administration ignored this, or they believed that the Arctic should indeed become yet another arena for confrontation. The former would showcase a lack of understanding of the political dynamics in the Arctic; the latter is a dangerous approach to international politics.

President Biden needs to master an Arctic status quo where cooperation with Russia is a geographic necessity, and the one with China a future imperative; be it on matters of regional security, fisheries management or environmental protection. As such, the U.S. needs to continue (or return) to play a leading role in international institutions and promote multilateral cooperation.

Yet, the process of groups to work together for mutual benefit depends on trust, confidence and predictability in the constant interaction between allies and partners. A transatlantic process that was considerably weakened over the past years. In order to re-store confidence in U.S. leadership, the Biden Administration needs to demonstrate a new, more consultative and committed approach to alliances, be it with its European NATO partners under the transatlantic security umbrella or with the European Union as the continent’s power block.

The Arctic is in the thick of such considerations. The building block of such inclusive approach is the common understanding of the region’s immediate and long-term future – a joint Arctic accord to define future threats and related mechanisms on how to shelter the region from exactly those. This does not mean that the Arctic is in need of a distinct regional treaty, similar to its geographic counterpart, the Antarctic Treaty System. Yet, the Arctic states need to honestly engage in a debate if the region’s governance and cooperation mechanism are ready for the 21st century and increasing security debates in and over the Arctic.

Russia will continue to perceive Arctic cooperation as a zero-sum game of not being opposed to regional collaboration provided it is backed by great power consensus (Russia included) and related to the management of environmental and non-proliferation issues. Yet, Russia will not renounce its position as the dominant pole in the Arctic. Similarly, China will continue to find its way into the Arctic, and spill-over effects related to the South China Sea or Taiwan could potentially impact Arctic matters as well.

And the United States? It is also likely that under the Biden Administration, the U.S. will continue to be more strategically than operationally focused on the Arctic. Accordingly, the U.S. will need to find a way on how to best accommodate both Russian and Chinese concerns also within its very own Arctic considerations. One simple, constructive and costless solution is for the Biden Administration to recognize the effects of increased military activity and bellicose rhetoric in the region and actively tone these down while also inviting to a circumpolar dialogue on northern security concerns.

The benefits from such efforts are that they help address serious political problems both globally and in the Arctic that can only be mitigated through cooperation, while they might also keep rather tense great-power relations stable or even help to de-escalate some of the tension that has built over the last four years. Finding new ways to engage in security dialogue with Arctic and non-Arctic actors does not mean that the U.S. undermines its stance on human rights, international law and democratic principles. It is possible to conceive of international politics as multiple domains where in some, carrots and a soft touch are needed, where in others, a big stick is more appropriate.

In the Arctic, military exercises with U.S. participation to response to an increase in Russian exercises are needed and will continue, as we have seen this summer. NATO-allies – especially Norway – request assistance from the U.S. in patrolling its Arctic areas and American troops have increased their North-Atlantic engagement in response. In fact, under the Trump Administration, the U.S. focus on security concerns in that part of the Arctic has increased. Carrots, however, are indeed the preferred approach when all the Arctic states convene, with China as an observer, to discuss issues ranging from oil spill response to northern fisheries management.

The U.S. used to be a world leader in this balancing act: knowing when to use what methods across a range of issue-areas and geographic domains. And nowhere is this more needed than in the Arctic, because of the specific challenges in the region, and the character of the actors engaged there. The question is whether the Biden Administration has the stamina and willingness to return to this approach.

[1] This refers to the so-called ‘Murmansk Initiative’, proposed by the Secretary-General of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union - Mikhail Gorbachev - on October 1, 1987 in Murmansk.

Polar Institute

Since its inception in 2017, the Polar Institute has become a premier forum for discussion and policy analysis of Arctic and Antarctic issues, and is known in Washington, DC and elsewhere as the Arctic Public Square. The Institute holistically studies the central policy issues facing these regions—with an emphasis on Arctic governance, climate change, economic development, scientific research, security, and Indigenous communities—and communicates trusted analysis to policymakers and other stakeholders.  Read more