REPORT: The New Arctic: Navigating the Realities, Possibilities, and Problems

Photo Credit: School of Foreign Service


By: Daniel Zhang, Columnist

“What happens in the Arctic does not stay in the Arctic,” was the overarching theme for the panel discussion hosted by Georgetown University’s Institute for the Study of Diplomacy (ISD) on its latest working group report, titled “The New Arctic: Navigating the Realities, Possibilities, and Problems.” On November 28, 2018, a few members of the working group, including the Director of ISD, Ambassador Barbara K. Bodine, adjunct professor for environmental policy at Georgetown University, Jeremy Mathis, and the Director of Europe Program at Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Heather Conley, discussed their findings and policy recommendations.

The effects of the changing climate, great power competition, economic opportunities in the form of energy resources as well as more efficient shipping routes, and the endangered indigenous communities in the region are some of the most critical issues related to the Arctic in years to come. This two-year working group brought policymakers, academics, and senior practitioners together, aiming to discuss and explore possible policy solutions and guiding principles.

Ambassador Bodine started off the conversation by laying out three core themes of the working group report. First, the Arctic is a new global common. Countries with no direct territorial claim in the Arctic have now shown interests in the region due to rising concerns on climate change and economic opportunities. The region has observed increasing competition among the great powers over fisheries, resources, and security. Second, the Arctic features a set of multi-level problems. From the local concerns over the effect of climate change on livelihoods and tourism to international cooperation on scientific research, the Arctic embodies a myriad of global issues. Third, the Arctic’s environmental conditions and eco-system remain vulnerable. The collapse of the Arctic environment would have severe consequences beyond the region and international scientific cooperation is needed to manage if not repair the damages.

Central to the argument of the panel discussion as well as the working group report is the reality that the current U.S. policy does not live up to the challenges the country will face in the Arctic region. The latest U.S. National Security Strategy published in 2017 by the Trump White House did not include climate change and the Arctic was only mentioned once. This leaves the U.S. vulnerable in the face of great power competition and climate change effects.

On geopolitics, both Russia and China have been branching out in the Arctic region, according to Conley. Worrisome trends were seen in Russia when they declared a strategic plan in the Arctic a decade ago, which has led them to build gas fields and fifty airfields across the Arctic that are close to the state of Alaska and U.S. NATO allies such as Norway. Russia is also locked in with Canada in a decades-old dispute over which country owns vast stretches of the Arctic. The dispute could potentially determine the right of sea navigation and access to the rich oil and gas resources beneath the Arctic ice, which Russia claims.

While China seeks continued expansion of scientific research in the Arctic, its real intention in the region remains unclear. The satellites used by Chinese science research center in Norway and Ireland have dual-use capabilities in radar systems, and there was also curious Chinese financial support to indigenous communities in remote Alaskan villages, according to Conley. Moreover, the government of Greenland is considering allowing Chinese companies (with potential ties to China’s People’s Liberation Army) to build three airports in the region that are alarmingly close to U.S. Air Force space and missile defense systems in the region.

The growing cooperation between China and Russia in the Arctic region is also alarming, according to Mathis. Due to the sanctions on Russia over its annexation of Crimea, Russia lost its technology support of gas industries from the West. As a result, it turns to China for help in exchange for the rights to conduct scientific research in Russia’s arctic water that was originally given to the U.S. The ramifications of China and Russia’s growing presence in the Arctic region put U.S. national interests at stake when the U.S. government does not have an Arctic strategy properly coordinated, according to the panelists.

Regarding the environmental perspective, the Ambassador pointed out that two environmental reports have indicated that the negatives of climate change are happening now. The Arctic Council’s Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP) report in 2017 details the paramount consequences of melting permafrost, including the large amounts of greenhouse gases released that contribute to global warming. The 2018 U.S. climate assessment released in November predicts that climate change will cause a ten percent reduction in U.S. GDP till the end of the century. Mathis called attention to the unimaginable disruption in the economy based on the prediction, especially on oil and gas production in Alaska.

In the face of significant changes in the Arctic and far-reaching implications for U.S. interests, the panelists and the working group report provide a few guiding principles and policy recommendations. On the science front, Mathis called for greater communication to the public about the magnitude and implications of the changing climate. There were potential links between melting of Arctic icebergs and the devastating flood caused by Hurricane Harvey in 2017, the droughts and wildfire in California, and the rising temperature on the East Coast, according to Ambassador Bodine. A more aware public could raise policymakers’ attention to Arctic issues.

Moreover, a strong international collaboration over Arctic issues is encouraged to support effective Arctic policymaking. Strategies have to be brought in with a science lens, said the Ambassador, and a multilateral cooperation could shed a light on effective policies on the changing weather patterns and the level of environmental degradation, just to name a few.

On security and diplomacy, the Ambassador urged for a de-politicized and demilitarized Arctic. Many international treaties or platforms that are currently governing the Arctic have proved to be inadequate. Conley points out that an effective code of conduct with diplomatic and intelligence efforts are needed to determine states’ real intention and capabilities towards the Arctic.

In the meantime, the U.S. should develop partnerships with both allies and adversaries. A closer relationship with China and Russia would foster an open atmosphere that benefits the U.S. with natural resources, shipping access, and rights to conduct scientific research. Partnering with Canada could also create more of a “North American Arctic,” according to the report, that strengths the U.S. defense mechanism along with capabilities to protect the environment, indigenous communities, and resource extraction rights.

One Reply to “REPORT: The New Arctic: Navigating the Realities, Possibilities, and Problems”

  1. Dialog with Russia and China on any strategic subject is basically a charade. Both posture for tactical advantage and nothing less. Given the opening from a position of strength, a joint move on Alaskan territory by the communist cohorts wouldn’t surprise me. Both countries are hellbent on changing the world order. There may be a short period when the window opens just here they convince Iran and N.Korea to get in on the coup. Surprise attack on every deployed carrier at once and seize Alaska with all the Northern defense early warning systems. Now that may all be far fetched. But I don’t think China is looking to gain fishing and gas rights in the arctic. They intend to dictate to the world and take what they want. Russia’s on an unsustainable path. Hopefully the US can get some credible foreign policy in place to answer this grave threat. The gravest in 80 yrs

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