Focus of Competition: Why is American interest in the Arctic increasing?

American awareness of the strategic importance of the Arctic region is growing due to its economic potential and the changing geopolitical landscape. This has led the United States to establish various alliances and partnerships with different countries in the region to strengthen its positions and interests, as well as to develop relations with its allies in the area. The strategic importance of the region has raised many questions about the nature of American movements there, especially in light of the diverse incentives driving increased American interest, which in turn may escalate international competition, particularly among major powers, over expanding their influence in the region.

Washington’s Moves

Current geopolitical trends indicate increasing interest from the United States, as well as its allies and strategic rivals, in the Arctic region, which can be observed through several indicators, the most notable of which are:

Updating the American Strategy towards the Arctic:

President Joe Biden encouraged his institutions to update the national strategy for the Arctic in October 2023, a strategy that was first published in 2013, to support his country’s influence in this region in line with developments in the international system, in light of the outbreak of the Ukrainian war that destroyed the few remaining hopes for cooperation between Moscow and Washington in this area. It has become a new issue related to American security policy. This step contrasts with many military documents during former President Donald Trump’s era; the 2020 American naval strategy took a more relaxed tone towards the Arctic compared to other parts of the world, leading the region to suffer from a lack of American funding due to competition focusing on the Indo-Pacific region as a major flashpoint in Sino-American rivalry.

Intensifying Military Drills with Arctic Allies:

The American navy has maintained a constant presence in the Arctic region in line with its new “Blue Arctic” strategy, aiming to improve its ability to operate under new conditions characterized by rapidly melting sea ice and gradually usable maritime routes. The United States has also intensified joint maneuvers and drills with its allies in Arctic operations, particularly Canada, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Denmark. Expanding large-scale training and operations in cooperation with these countries can enhance the United States’ capabilities in the region.

Increasing Involvement in Arctic-Related Initiatives:

The United States held its first chairmanship of the Arctic Council from 1998 to 2000 and again from 2015 to 2017, focusing on Arctic Ocean safety, security, and stewardship, including cooperation in search and rescue, oil pollution preparedness and response, maritime protection, shipping, and ocean acidification monitoring. Washington, in cooperation with the other seven Arctic nations, launched the International Arctic Observation System. To address the impacts of climate change, the United States launched the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (ACIA), the first-ever comprehensive scientific assessment of the effects of climate change in the Arctic. Additionally, Washington has worked to improve economic and living conditions in the Arctic, including pursuing innovative technologies for exploring the region’s wealth and addressing communication infrastructure.

Exploiting Moscow’s Withdrawal from Its Arctic Council Commitments:

Russia remains one of the major powers in the Arctic region, which Washington finds difficult to exclude, especially given geographical considerations and Russia’s membership in the Arctic Council, a forum for Arctic countries, including the United States and Russia, primarily addressing common challenges like climate change and shipping routes. However, with Russia suspending its annual financial contribution to this intergovernmental forum during its presidency in 2022 due to its focus on its war against Ukraine at the time, the United States remained committed to its responsibilities to the council, despite some observers questioning the forum’s viability without Russia’s participation, which represents an estimated 45% of Arctic geography. Some experts warn against exaggerating such concerns, arguing that the council’s ability to function does not depend on the financial contributions of any single country.

Supporting American Diplomatic Presence in the Arctic:

There are signs of American progress towards a more effective future strategy, even if belatedly. In 2020, the US State Department opened a consulate in Nuuk, Greenland, and appointed an American coordinator for the Arctic region. In 2023, it opened a diplomatic mission in Tromsø, Norway, and for the first time appointed a roving ambassador for the Arctic region at the State Department and a Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Arctic Affairs, highlighting the increasing importance of the Arctic region to Washington at a time when Arctic cooperation has been harmed by the Ukrainian war. Commenting on the opening of the American diplomatic mission in Tromsø, Norway, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken explained that this step is a means for the United States to gain a “diplomatic footprint above the Arctic Circle.” Tromsø is the largest city in the Norwegian Arctic, located about 400 km west of Russia, underscoring the strategic importance of this region to the United States.

Planning to Increase American Icebreakers:

While NATO largely relies on American capabilities in the Euro-Atlantic region, the United States relies on icebreakers from European allies in the Arctic. This is reflected in the Arctic strategy, which emphasizes the goal of maximizing “unity of effort” with allies and partners. However, many analysts see the United States’ lack of icebreakers as a sign of its disinterest in the Arctic, considering icebreakers a key guarantee of American presence in the region. The US Coast Guard’s icebreakers’ mission includes conducting and supporting scientific research in polar regions, monitoring maritime traffic, and performing other Coast Guard duties such as search and rescue and marine resource protection. Currently, Washington has only two icebreakers, one of which is primarily used in Antarctica. Consequently, the United States plans to acquire three new icebreakers, the first of which is expected in 2026 or 2027, putting the United States on par with China but still significantly behind Russia, which owns about 40 icebreakers, giving it a unique advantage over its rivals in the region.

Motivations for Action

The United States has diverse interests in the Arctic, including national and homeland security, environmental protection, sustainable development, and enhancing cooperation with other Arctic countries. Thus, the main motivations for American action in this region can be summarized as follows:

Geographical Connection of the US to the Region: The United States became an Arctic country with the acquisition of Alaska in 1867, making it the largest and least densely populated state in the US. With the advent of intercontinental missiles, the Arctic became more militarily significant to the United States during the Cold War, prompting the establishment of early warning stations in northern Alaska, Greenland, and Canada. More recently, the US has deployed initial missile defense systems in the Arctic to address growing threats from Russia, China, and North Korea and has improved its monitoring capabilities in the region. These systems are not designed to control the Arctic but to protect the US and its NATO allies from military threats originating from or passing through the Arctic.

Economic Importance of the Arctic: Reports indicate that the Arctic region may be home to 160 billion barrels of oil and 30% of the world’s undiscovered natural gas. Since the Arctic is mostly composed of water, unlike the landmass of Antarctica, no treaty protects it from international development, making it a focal point for international competition over managing and exploiting its resources. However, this increasing competition in the region could accelerate the melting of sea ice, ocean acidification, and rising temperatures. On the other hand, the Arctic region is likely to remain a stagnant area for competing economies in the foreseeable future due to the relatively high costs of resource extraction and transporting goods through the Arctic. The region may only become more attractive to Western companies if there is a sharp increase in demand for specific resources or long-term bottlenecks in alternative trade routes.

Accelerating Climate Change: Despite the negative impacts of climate change globally, proponents of the claim that the United States is losing the race for influence in the Arctic often highlight the melting Arctic ice, suggesting that this environmental change opens potential trade routes and makes natural resources more ripe for exploitation. The United States relatively lacks icebreakers compared to its competitors, who can exploit their capabilities to benefit from climate changes. If current forecasts continue, the Arctic could see its first ice-free summer by 2030. Politico reported that the vast sea ice covering the Arctic Ocean is melting rapidly due to climate change and could become completely ice-free in summer by 2035. These projections have driven Washington to increase its future icebreaker fleet to help serve its interests in the Arctic.

Increasing Russian Activity in the Region: Russia controls approximately 53% of the Arctic Ocean coastline and has made significant investments in building and modernizing its bases, fleets, and weapon systems in the Arctic over the past two decades to dominate Arctic sea routes. Russia has also militarized fishing vessels, icebreakers, and other commercial ships and taken increasingly confrontational actions in the Arctic, disputing jurisdiction over territorial waters and seabeds. Experts often suggest that the military balance in the Arctic is heavily tilted towards Russia, which has a head start in many areas, especially as Moscow has reopened and modernized over 50 Cold War-era bases along its Arctic coast in the past decade. Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly emphasized the strategic importance of the Arctic to Russia, highlighting the region’s vast economic opportunities, which link enhancing the country’s energy capabilities, expanding logistical capacities, and ensuring national security and defense to Arctic development. Russia is also working to increase the significance of the Northern Sea Route, known as Russia’s alternative to the Suez Canal, prioritizing it among other alternatives by the Russian government. This focus has led to an increase in cargo transported via this route from 4 million tons in 2014 to 34 million tons in 2023, with the Russian government aiming to surpass 200 million tons of cargo by 2030.

Responding to the Russian-Ukrainian War’s Consequences: The war in Ukraine has spurred NATO countries to reassess their military commitments and priorities in Europe. In May 2023, the Northern Command and the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) announced that the Arctic region is emerging as a new front in the American strategy to deter Russia, focusing on improving surveillance systems and increasing radar capabilities to prevent Russian intercontinental missiles from reaching the American mainland. The possibility of further Arctic militarization has drawn mixed reactions. While some US lawmakers believe Washington should lead NATO in deploying more aircraft carriers, submarines, and missiles to counter Russian threats, others argue that US priorities in the Arctic should focus on more pressing and less costly goals, such as ensuring freedom of navigation and expanding cooperation with allies, including Canada and the Nordic countries.

Increasing Chinese Investment in the Region: The United States has long opposed Beijing’s exploitation of its resources and efforts to expand its political, military, and economic influence. Many observers note that China, driven by the “Silk Road” project, is building a research station in Greenland and investing in projects such as rare earth mineral mining. China also regularly sends research vessels to Arctic waters. American officials are concerned about China’s potential presence in the Arctic, especially since it launched its first domestically-built icebreaker in 2019 and has a second icebreaker in the Arctic fleet. Observers note that China has more icebreakers than the United States, prompting Washington to consider this an emerging threat to its interests. According to the American Congressional Research Service, China wants to shape the future of the Arctic as it sees fit.

In summary, American moves in the Arctic region are a response to a combination of geographic, economic, environmental, and geopolitical factors. The United States is increasingly recognizing the importance of the Arctic and is taking steps to ensure its interests and influence in the region while responding to the actions of other major powers, particularly Russia and China.

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a Bachelor's degree in Political Science and International Relations in addition to a Master's degree in International Security Studies. Alongside this, I have a passion for web development. During my studies, I acquired a strong understanding of fundamental political concepts and theories in international relations, security studies, and strategic studies.

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