New Strategic Dynamics in the Arctic Region: Implications for National Security and International Collaboration

Last updated November 01, 2012

In a few years’ time, the combined impact of climate change, a melting polar ice cap, the opening of new (and potentially more economical) maritime transport routes, growing interest in the Arctic region’s underwater mineral resources, and competing territorial claims among the coastal states could transform the Arctic from a relative strategic backwater to a strategic crossroads of global importance. Already, a number of Arctic rim countries (with Russia and Canada leading the pack) are increasing their military activities in the region in an effort to assert and protect national interests, and NATO is pondering what role it ought to play in support of member-state security concerns. At the same time, several resource-deficient, but influential, non-Arctic countries from Asia (most notably, China, Japan, and South Korea) are turning their attention to the Arctic, given the lure of new commercially viable Arctic sea lanes and the prospect of major, technically recoverable off-shore deposits of oil and gas, as well as non-fuel minerals, that could one day be extracted from the Arctic seabed. These trends have led one informed observer to conclude that “it is no longer a matter of if, but when” the world will witness a “great Arctic gold rush” that could introduce a previously unimaginable potential for competition and conflict in this once fairly inaccessible and inhospitable region.   

Unfortunately, no commonly agreed-upon mechanism exists for handling disputes that could lead to conflict between or among countries with a stake in the Arctic, nor is there any near-term prospect of reaching multilateral agreement on a governance regime for the Arctic that deals directly with the security of the region as a whole. At the moment, national self-interest and unilateral actions appear to have the upper hand in the race for leverage in the Arctic, a geopolitical race in which the United States — with a miniscule icebreaker capacity, a limited military presence in the region overall, and only the bare bones of an official Arctic policy — is currently one of the “slower entries.” As a result, the Arctic could soon be the setting for the type of armed brinkmanship that has plagued other remote, resource-rich maritime arenas, such as the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. For America, new and looming national priorities arise from the fact that the United States abuts the Arctic and occupies areas of it: hence, it is in the U.S. national interest to forestall hegemony by any one claimant and prevent conflict in or over the Arctic, not to mention heading off the use of its poorly monitored sea lanes for illicit trafficking (including for weapons proliferation).

This project will provide a forward-looking, comprehensive assessment of strategic dynamics in the Arctic that: 1) explores in greater detail the range of security risks and challenges that realistically could arise in the Arctic region over the next ten to fifteen years; 2) examines in considerable depth what this means for U.S. military force structure requirements and operational planning, including with regard to coordination with key allies and partner states such as Canada; 3) takes a hard look at how the private sector might help to address certain high-priority capability needs, especially in the realm of ship design and construction, traffic monitoring, and broader communications and information sharing; and 4) evaluates how the principal security organizations and other institutional stakeholders with a role to play — including the Arctic Council, the Nordic Council, NATO, the EU, and various UN agencies — can be marshaled most effectively, individually and in concert, in support of a multifaceted, whole-of-government approach toward the Arctic. Based on these four analyses, the project will recommend more specific measures that the Obama administration can take to add real substance and guidance to the skimpy U.S. Arctic policy outline released by the White House as NSPD-66/HSPD-25 in January 2009.

In addition to archival research and literature reviews, project activities include extensive interviews with official and non-governmental experts in both Arctic countries and in non-Arctic countries with a growing interest in the Arctic region, as well as with senior representatives from key institutional stakeholders noted above. This will require, in turn, research trips to Europe and Northeast Asia, as well as to Canada and Alaska. Research findings will be supplemented with insights gleaned from working group meetings in Washington, D.C., among civilian and military specialists on various aspects of Arctic policy. The primary products of this project will be a monograph-length report that will be distributed, and tailored briefings that will be presented, to key U.S. and allied decision makers.