To conventional thought, the Arctic evokes images of a pristine land filled with fauna and beautiful landscapes but largely untouched by humans. As time passes, however, it is becoming apparent that the Arctic is an emerging region for geopolitical competition.
The melting of ice in the region, facilitated by climate change, has opened the far north for development and exploration. The new competition involves a litany of actors, from large powers like Russia and the United States to smaller northern European and Asian countries. The issues involved intersect energy, trade and hard power.
Emerging from this competition are two competing schools of thought about U.S. policy toward the region: some scholars argue that dominance by the United States in the region should be secured before it is too late, while others argue that international institutions should be used to prevent conflict escalation. While both sides have reputable points, it is becoming apparent that inaction will be dangerous, especially with the recent buildup of military technology by Russia. The United States should increase development in the Arctic, starting with substantial investment in single-purpose polar-class icebreakers.
It is fact that activity has increased in the Arctic recently. This includes shipping route exploration by multiple private companies, oil ventures mainly by the United States and Russia and the buildup of military forces by Russia. The Centre for High North Logistics reported recently that the number of ships passing through the Arctic increased from 4 to 46 from 2010 to 2012.
The military side of the equation is even more dangerous — the Commander of the U.S. Pacific fleet claims that Russia’s current development shows they are deliberately defying the United States. The START treaty, a landmark agreement signed by Russia and the United States and one of the hallmark international agreements developed during the Obama administration, requires “14-day advance notification” for military testing, and the Russians gave no such notification last year when they conducted military drills in the Arctic. Current U.S. Arctic policy lacks the capability for response, effectively giving Russia the ability to conduct military drills in the region without accountability.
At the same time, many scholars point to international institutions like the United Nations as means to stabilize regions and deter conflict. The proponents of this peaceful status quo say that the security capabilities being developed by Russia are simply defensive, not offensive. This is not entirely true, as the weapons being developed can be used either way at a moment’s notice. Even if Russian technology is completely defensive, the United States is still falling behind because the country has no way to access the region, even for peaceful ventures.
In terms of international organizations, the Arctic Council is frequently cited as a forum for countries to resolve issues. It is made up of states with direct and indirect interests in the region, and has conferences to discuss everything from missile development to the stability of fish populations. Publicly, relations at the Council are stable, with John Kerry saying in May, “There is nothing that should unite quite like our concerns for both the promises and the challenges of the northernmost reaches of the earth.” China also was added as an ‘observer state’ to the committee, further illustrating increased interest in the region. The problem is that the council itself cannot fully address issues because its enforcement power is relatively limited; nevertheless, it can function as an important mediating organization if its members want to cooperate.
NATO has also been cited as a potential organization to combat powers, but historical evidence demonstrates that Russia does not trust NATO because it sees the entity as U.S.-controlled, pursuing only American interests.
For Russia, becoming mesmerized by the far north is not new — it’s a historical recurrence. Russia’s path of exploration began in 1934 under Stalin. Stalin’s government sent the Chelyuskin, a ship built for Arctic navigation, into the frozen north for a test mission. The ship had an accident, and the ensuing rescue missions were used by Stalin to mobilize public opinion for future exploration of the region. This, in a way, was used to boost the national psyche and incorporate elements of nationalism into Arctic exploration. Pavel Baev, a Norwegian political scientist, connects this historical incident to today and says the Russian quest for land and resources is due to a strong presidency, just like today under Putin.
Janusz Bugajski, an acclaimed policy analyst and international affairs author, believes Russian activity in the Arctic is now part of a broader Russian movement to defy us. Such defiance, if successful, could mean loss of access to resources, Russian dominance in northern trade routes and more. Bugajski sees Russia as an exploitative state that disregards international institutions, attacks sovereign states like Georgia and obsesses about internal control. This makes Russia much more likely to ruthlessly pursue resources in the Arctic region.
The escalation of regional conflicts without a credible sign of U.S. influence would be devastating — Wallace, a professor at the University of British Columbia, predicts that two nuclear states fighting uncontrolled in the Arctic would draw in other countries and result in a war. The risk is amplified by other allied NATO countries, who could cause other disputes and flare-ups in the area. Even if there is a short-term loss of control, states will feel as though they need to redeem themselves and will try to dominate the land in the future, which creates the risk of conflict. This is an interesting element of international relations that does not always apply to conflict areas, making the Arctic even more volatile.
Preventing conflict in the region can only come by increasing U.S. influence through physical presence. International organizations can sign sheets of paper to prevent conflict or declare certain areas off-limits, but until there is a credible presence by the United States, Russia has a green light to blur the lines of treaty commitments, as they have already done with the START treaty. Specifically, the U.S. should develop and deploy single-purpose polar class icebreakers.
Icebreakers are specially designed ships that can cut through areas of ice and create a clear path through new areas. The United States fleet of icebreakers is severely limited — we have two working ships. Currently, if a U.S. Navy vessel needs to patrol a certain part of the region in the status quo, there is no credible mechanism for the ship to get there. Russia’s fleet of 37 icebreakers, by comparison, is larger than almost every other countries’ combined, and more are being built for future missions (according to the US Naval Institute). Such ships have specially designed hulls to cut through the ice in order to create a ‘roadway’ through the region and thereby support the operation of other ships. Developing a fleet of icebreakers would give the U.S. similarly easy access.
The United States risks losing control of the region if we don’t develop ways to navigate because, as past negotiations have shown, Russia and others see only physical presence as a valid deterrent factor. The consensus is that improving the U.S. fleet is the best option. The National Research Council released a report in 2012 which specifically proposed such an increase.
As the Arctic becomes more accessible, it will become a new center of great power activity as countries aim to expand their spheres of influence. Activity already indicates that the United States is lagging behind in development of strategic interests, mainly because it lacks a means of access. As a result, there needs to be more discussion of Arctic issues in policymaking discussions. Only by increasing awareness of the risk of conflict can the United States develop the political will to increase assets. Time is of the essence, because as presence increases from foreign powers it will become harder for the United States to accurately predict outcomes and resolve disputes without physical capabilities in the region. Developing a fleet of new icebreakers is the best route to establish physical credibility to back up peaceful statements — absent that, America’s words will have no force.
—Tucker Boyce is a freshman majoring in international business and magagement
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