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The Arctic in a Post-Election World

Wilson Center scholars and colleagues hosted a virtual roundtable discussion on the impacts and implications of the 2020 US election in the Arctic region.

Date & Time

Nov. 30, 2020
1:00pm – 2:30pm ET


In recent years the Arctic has become the focus of increasing activity and attention due to a wide range of environmental, political, economic, social, and security factors. A U.S. administration under the leadership of President-Elect Joe Biden, as well as potential changes to the composition of Congress, may have profound consequences for U.S. Arctic policy and, as a result, for America’s relationships with both Arctic and non-Arctic nations. How might U.S. Arctic policy and posture change as a result of the U.S. election and how are these potential changes viewed from abroad?

On November 30th, the Polar Institute hosted a virtual roundtable discussion on the impacts and implications of the 2020 US election in the Arctic region. Speaker quotes and related reading are available below.

Speaker Quotes

Ambassador Marie-Anne Coninsx

“It has been mentioned, and I think it will be mentioned several times during this discussion, that the most positive implications that we see for the Arctic and in general for the US after the elections is the renewed focus on climate change. President-Elect Biden has said that climate change is a foreign policy priority and we believe that it needless to say that addressing climate is absolutely key globally. Particularly because of its impact on the Arctic itself. With John Kerry [as] the US envoy, there will be a renewed focus, it's guaranteed. He gave an extremely impressive speech last year at the Arctic Circle Assembly and I would say that it's music to the ears of everybody who cares about the climate and particularly the European Union. And why the European Union? We are a leader on the fight against climate change. We have adopted an extremely ambitious EU Green Deal and in this Green Deal, a part of the pillar is to work very closely together with other partners and there we see that with this new government, that the US will be a very powerful partner.”

“We welcome that the US is regaining the multilateralism and going back to the Paris Agreement on climate, World Health Organization, the Iran nuclear deal. We welcome also the intention to pursue a constructive stand on bilateral trade issues which has been contentious in the last four four years. And we just made progress, I was reading, that we just reached an agreement on a lobster deal of reducing tariffs for lobster, the first positive result already. And we also hope and foresee that there will be closer cooperation with China, where we believe that both the U.S. and the European Union have shared concern regarding trade practices, security and other issues. And very final a point, with the new leadership ready to restart a partnership, we believe that the European Union also will have to step up its contributions, particularly in the security sector, when it comes to NATO and transatlantic security allowing an alliance. Europe will have to take more of its responsibilities on its own security.”

“I will never forget that the Finnish previous Minister of Foreign Affairs said you cannot put a do not disturb sign on the Arctic and what you mentioned is the big risk of spillovers of tensions outside [...].  There is actually a lack of dialogue on security matters. And not having this dialogue and communication is a risk in itself, and I think that this solution should be found where also, without creating new institutions, there should be somewhere a body where these security issues should be discussed.”

Ambassador David Balton

“Politics in the United States have gotten increasingly polarized and because the US election is ushering in a president from a different party, there's a temptation, I think, to say that everything will change—including all U.S. policy in the Arctic. Or at least that most things will change. I think I'm going to resist that temptation. I think the reality is likely to be somewhat more complex and subtle—nuanced.”

“Incoming President-Elect Biden has already announced the United States will rejoin the Paris agreement and presumably will once again become one of the leaders in supporting efforts to combat climate change at the international level. Also, of course, at home. And this will have some profound implications for our relations with other countries in the Arctic and other countries that care about the Arctic because so much of what happened—what is happening in the Arctic—relates, of course, to climate change. I would expect to see the United States pushing for steps to be taken in the Arctic to address problems of climate change, you know, more aggressively than in the last four years; and I think we will find the United states more in alignment with at least most of the other countries on climate policy. Related to this, I think to the extent that issues in the Arctic, like elsewhere, sometimes involve trade-offs between resource development on the one hand and conservation or environmental protection on the other, I don't think there's going to be a complete sea change but I do believe that incoming Biden administration will focus more more attention, more emphasis on conservation and environmental protection.”

Heather Exner-Pirot

“I will say the highest tension in the Arctic in the last three years, I think easily, the argument was actually on American threats to freedom of navigation operations in Canada and Russia, where that might have actually turned into some kind of tension or conflict. And I think what we're all thinking now, outside the United States, is you know there's definitely relief that Trump is gone and Biden is coming in, but the American electorate is the same. And so, can you know—we might be able to trust Biden more than Trump—but can you trust them for more than four years or eight years or twelve years? In fact, maybe Trump wins again and is back in office in four years; and so we are all looking for more strategic security autonomy. And I think on one hand that's exactly what many Republican and conservative American voters and politicians would want, is that everyone else is going to pick up some of their own slack and need a little bit more for themselves rather than relying on the United States. But on the other hand, I think we're just seeing this hastening of what was a bipolar moment in the Cold War to a unipolar moment in the '90s and now really a multi-polar moment that I think we are going to continue.”

I think most people would agree it's been a low point in Arctic relations, not because there was lots of tension or conflict, but because not much has been happening. Pretty much for the last kind of exciting or ambitious thing to happen, I think, was the fisheries agreement in the Central Arctic Ocean. We didn't even have an Arctic Council declaration. A lot has been put on hold for the last two years, I think to see what would happen with the United States. And so now this question is can people be more ambitious with the Russian Arctic current council chairmanship? Can we be more ambitious and do some things in four years? And also, I think, with that thought in mind of 'what's going to happen in four years' and should we be preparing and setting any kind of platforms or frameworks in the Arctic now to insulate against the possibility of another Trump-like presidency in four years time.”

For the United States, I would focus on your own internal house, build some confidence internally because the problem from my perspective isn't that you need to go out and do work and fix, it's that it may happen again, you know. So you can build as much confidence as you want for this four-year term but everyone is thinking about 2024 and 2028. So, what do you need to do in your own house to build confidence that there can be consistency in your foreign policy. And you know, for me it's not a liberal-conservative problem, because if I think back in the history of Canadian and American bilateral relations, Reagan and Mulroney got a lot done and actually had that 1988 cooperation agreement that kind of agreed to disagree on the Northwest passage. Very elegant foreign policy solution and has served as well almost 30 years. And so it's not that, you know, conservatives can't do foreign policy, it's that the United States is in this polarized moment.”

Ulf Sverdrup

“I think that it’s also a fair assessment to say that Trump has not been so influential in fully changing US policy in the Arctic, so compared to other regions, there’s been much more continuity to US foreign policy rather than a change to it. The U.S. election (seen from Norway and from the Nordic countries) has also demonstrated a country that is very split, polarized, and divided not only in its domestic policy but increasingly also in its foreign policy. I think that this election has made Europeans a bit more concerned about, what will happen in four years' time? Where will the US be in the long run? Europeans in general are recognizing that we have to wake up, do a bit more policy making ourselves, and also try to be a good partner with the U.S. We don’t have much time to waste, we have to get to work right away.”

 “Arctic security is very much dependent on how various key states view the strategic importance of the Arctic; and at the same time, Arctic security is very much a byproduct of tensions elsewhere [...]. I think we will continue to face both and more demanding security dynamics between the actors in the Arctic and we will face a more demanding geopolitical dynamic between Arctic and non-Arctic states. We have to manage this risk of tensions elsewhere spilling over into the Arctic.”

“I think the problem is not confidence among allies because the U.S. and Trump, they did a lot to increase the military and they brought up the Arctic as strategically important and they allocated more resources and also started to do more exercising in the Arctic. For allies, their confidence-building is not so much about the security dimension but it’s more on the trust in science—the importance of science—and the trust in institutions. That is something that the US needs to build: confidence in those spheres.”

“I think that we will experience more regional cooperation in Europe but also more regional cooperation in the Nordic region. This is because geopolitics is back, and that means that geography is back. Countries that are close to each other will relate more systematically to each other. Also, it relates to defense spending where countries need to invest more in defense so they have to try to pool resources and to cooperate more so. I’m fairly optimistic in terms of both regional cooperation and also to some extent on Russian-Norwegian cooperation, but it will have to overcome some of the difficulties they are facing now.”

Andrey Todorov

“My vision of Biden’s future policy in the Arctic is quite ambiguous when it comes to Russia. On one hand, Biden is viewed as a successor of Obama in terms of focusing more on the environment. Biden is expected to re-establish climate change as a priority for the country. Commitment to multilateralism and willingness to cooperate with other states on tackling global challenges will of course bring the US closer to the other Arctic nations. In this sense, Russia could benefit from this revived US approach in the international organization and forums that work in the Arctic.”

 “I hope that, despite geopolitical tensions, common sense will prevail and that the countries will continue collaboration on addressing the growing challenges in the region that could not be tackled by countries separately. There are plenty of issues that Russia and the US could and should find common grounds on, both in the Arctic Council and bilaterally: green shipping, reduction of black carbon, problems stemming from permafrost melting, management of the Bering Strait region, you name it. My particular hope is that the two countries would be able to resolve one important problem [and if not resolve,] at least to mitigate a problem related to the military field that could potentially impact any other area of interaction in a very bad way: Despite the fact that the level of potential conflict in the Arctic region has remained low, the spillover effect from the Ukrainian crisis resulted in the loss of trust between Russia and the western Arctic nations.”

“I think that in the Arctic region, there is quite a distorted understanding of what allies and partners are, actually. If we talk about allies of the US in a geopolitical sense, it’s a number of countries. The Arctic is quite different because all the Arctic states, and all non-Arctic states that at least observers in the Arctic Council, are all committed to the same principles and the same rules.”

Hosted By

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

Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier US center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more

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