America Needs an Arctic Strategy

An HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter assigned to the 210th Rescue Squadron, Alaska Air National Guard, and two UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters assigned to the 1-207th Aviation Regiment, Alaska Army Air National Guard, fly over the Los Angeles-class fast attack submarine USS Hampton (SSN 757) during Ice Exercise (ICEX) 2016. Photo Credit: Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Tyler Thompson/US Navy.

In 1906, American Robert Peary triumphantly staked a flag at the North Pole. Attached to the flagpole was a note stating, “I have formally taken possession of the entire region, and adjacent, for and in the name of the President of the United States.”[1]What Peary meant by “entire region, and adjacent,” is unclear. A more specific statement may have altered history for the actual value of the pole and the surrounding Arctic region lay not atop a block of floating ice, but miles beneath Perry in the surface bed. Had he added “and what lies beneath”to his statement, the United States may theoretically possess the entire Arctic “region and adjacent.” Unfortunately he did not, but Russia recently did.

Russia The Arctic Power

In 2007, a submersible funded by the Kremlin planted a titanium Russian flag on the ocean floor three miles beneath where Perry made his proclamation a century prior.[2] This stunt prompted a response from the foreign minister of Canada, who stated, “This isn’t the 15th century, you can’t go around the world and just plant a flag and say, and ‘we’re claiming this territory.’”[3] Perhaps this highlights the division between the liberal Western world and the authoritarian regimes of Russia and China, which presents the question: Why can’t a country make claims to land? Isn’t that how countries have always obtained territory and resources? 

Russia’s aggression in Ukraine is the most obvious example of its revisionist tendencies.[4] The Arctic provides more subtle examples.[5] Russia has claimed seabed extending from its northern coastline to the geographic North Pole – some 460,000 sqm – and has indicated it will back the claim with military force.[6] Ships sailing the Northern Sea Route along Russia’s northern coastline need Russian permission. The requirements for these often involve transit fees and the need for a Russian ship captain to be aboard.[7] In summer 2019, Russia launched the first ever floating nuclear power plant escorted by two ice breakers across Arctic waters. This stunt is just part of a broader Russian buildup in the region, including an exercise in 2018 that involved at least 300,000 service members.[8] Russia is essentially stating two things: Russia isthe Arctic and the Arctic is theirs.   

The U.S. is doing very little to confront Russia’s aggression. President Trump’s recent inquiry regarding the acquisition of Greenland was met with criticism and scrutiny,[9] but it has been the most effective measure to date bringing Arctic security matters to the mainstream conversation. Whether or not he was entirely serious about it, his comments briefly brought Arctic dialogue to the forefront of domestic political debate. With just a few tweets, he indirectly yet effectively conveyed that the Arctic matters. In the leadup to President Trump’s Greenland inquiry, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the Arctic “has become an arena of global power and competition,”[10] especially given the “opening of new passageways and new opportunities for trade.”[11] At a recent Arctic Council meeting Secretary Pompeo addressed the escalating Arctic competition by noting that “We’re entering a new age of strategic engagement in the Arctic, complete with new threats to the Arctic and its real estate, and to all of our interests in the region.”[12] He later referred to new Arctic shipping lanes as the “Panama and Suez Canals of the 21st Century.”[13] Claiming, buying, occupying, or patrolling Arctic land and waters is not a thing of the past. Trump and Pompeo’s rhetoric certainly back this, yet the U.S. still lacks a coherent Arctic strategy.

The Arctic Region Ascendant

Environmental change, domestic politics, international politics, and the emergence of great power competition are among the many factors transforming the Arctic. As access to hydrocarbons and minerals becomes more feasible and profitable, reliable transportation routes emerge, abundant fisheries are exposed, strategic land is occupied, and partnerships form, the decisions countries make about the Arctic will define its future. Many commentators say we are witnessing the ‘New Great Game,’ the ‘Cold Rush,’ or the ‘last great race of great powers.’ These comments all convey the same message: the Arctic matters, and it must be talked about.

Many countries have a stake in the Arctic game, but no two are more important to the U.S. than Russia and China. Both are great powers. They are still far weaker than the U.S. and have many military, social, and economic challenges and vulnerabilities, but they are competitors nonetheless. Both are turning to the Arctic and each other to address needs, overcome woes, and achieve goals.

Russia is developing new natural gas fields in the Arctic to replace its own depleting fields and is ramping up liquefied natural gas extraction to increase exports to hungry markets in Europe and Asia.[14] It has acquired significant Chinese investment to work around US sanctions, and it is solidifying control of the Northern Sea Route while steadily deepening its military presence in the Arctic. Thousands of soldiers and a tons of military equipment is stockpiled along the Arctic coast.[15] This is partly because Russia is one of a handful of states that stands to gain from climate change, and this is not only because of the emerging economic opportunities in the Arctic but also because Arctic warming increases arable land and lengthens the growing season.[16] For these reasons and others, most experts consider Russia the Arctic hegemon.

Sino-Russian Regional Collaboration

Simultaneously, China is actively developing the ‘Polar Silk Road’ as a major component of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).[17] By exploring for, and eventually extracting, oil, gas, minerals, and other resources, China seeks to diversify its energy resources to meet its growing needs. It has invested in ports in Greenland and Iceland and agreed with Finland to create a data Silk Road connecting Arctic communications to Asian markets.[18] China’s newly published Arctic Strategy explicitly states that it seeks to assimilate Arctic identity into Chinese culture. And in its Arctic White Paper it claimed itself a “near Arctic State.”[19] Rapid expansion of Chinese tourists in the Arctic is also expected in the next three years.[20] There is, therefore, no doubt China is looking and moving northward.

These trends are exacerbated by growing Sino-Russo collaboration. “China and Russia are more aligned than at any point since the mid 1950’s,” voiced Dan Coates, former Director of National Intelligence.[21] Presidents Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin have met on numerous occasions to discuss their joint efforts, and collaboration is likely to expand in the years ahead. This largely because the two countries have diversified security and economic collaboration. Russia’s Central Bank moved 14.7% of its currency reserves into Chinese yuan in January 2019,[22] and bilateral trade reached $80B in 2018.[23] The BRI is deeply interconnected with Russia via the Northern Sea Route: China National Petroleum Corporation and the China National Offshore Oil Corporation each secured ten percent shares in Russia’s latest Arctic liquid natural gas (LNG) project.[24] And the two countries conducted joint war games in 2018, exchanging soldiers, exercising partnered maneuvers, and sharing strategies.[25] The collaboration signaled that they do not view each other as threats, even as they share a lengthy border and compete for resources and allies. Interestingly, the military maneuvers occurred in the Bering Sea, the Sea of Okhotsk, and the Sea of Japan – all areas in which strategists say an east-west naval encounter could occur.[26]  

But despite the obvious Sino-Russo collaboration in the Arctic and the region’s emergence as a strategic frontier, the U.S. stands idly by, instead focusing on the Middle East, North Korea, Venezuela, and Iran. Make no mistake, those are all important regions, but they are either temporary issues soon to pass or protracted issues likely to remain intractable for some time. A turbulent Middle East is nothing new. North Korean antics never change. Latin America has seen its steady share of dictatorial regime changes. And the standoff between the U.S.-Israel alliance and Iran and its proxies has proven intractable.  

The Arctic is different. It is the geopolitical game of the future where actions are proactive not reactive. Our actions there should seek to gain something rather than avoid loss, which is the case elsewhere. It is a realm where great powers can legitimately apply a grand strategy using all facets of national power. Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska recently stated that “We have entered a new age of strategic engagement in the Arctic.”[27] The result is a growing Arctic security dilemma. Indeed, Robert Huebert, professor of Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary, claims the Arctic security dilemma is driven by the core international security difference between China, Russia, and the U.S. Although conflict inthe Arctic is not likely, conflict fromthe Arctic is.[28] In other words, the Arctic will exacerbate existing animosities and intensify threats.   

Creating an American Response

It is clear the U.S. must develop a comprehensive grand strategy for the Arctic that incorporates every element of national power. Whoever controls the Arctic will control new passageways to international markets, possible access to mass quantities of rare earth minerals and hydrocarbons, and favorable strategic terrain.[29] Here’s how such a strategy could look.

First, America must take non-aggressive military action. The US Navy announced it is mapping potential strategies to expand its Arctic presence beginning around 2020.[30] This is not nearly soon enough. The likelihood of violence is low, but the same can be said for locations in which the US military currently operates. Military power controls and protects US interests all over the world; the same must be done in the Arctic. Until America is militarily capable of operating in the Arctic, it has no say in the game. Building nuclear icebreakers is a start. Presently, only one American icebreaker can break through polar ice.[31] Establishing an Arctic command to oversee and synchronize operations is the next step, but NATO must also strengthen its presence in the region by pulling in non-Arctic states with serviceable air forces and navies. NATO must also consider whether and how to engage with Finland and Sweden in the region.

Second, America must strengthen European trade relations. China and Russia seek to divide Europe: Russian natural gas powers much of Europe, and China’s BRI is creeping in from the Mediterranean, Scandinavia, and Eastern Europe. If Europe sees China and Russia as more reliable and lucrative trading partners, it is likely to turn that way. The current sparring between Europe and the U.S. is widening the division. If the relationship drifts too far apart, America will become more isolated, loses economic power, and sets off on a lonely trajectory.   

Third, America must be at the forefront of diplomatic discussions on Arctic sovereignty claims. The Arctic is partially an extraterritorial space, and even nominally claimed land, sea, and continental shelves considered sovereign territory are subject to dispute. Extraterritorial spaces are areas states use to leverage and balance power as actions there are less escalatory. To suppress escalation and balance the Arctic conversation, America must utilize its soft power capabilities. Diplomacy concerning the Arctic is not to promote democracy, but to obtain fair or advantageous laws and treaties over disputed continental shelves and contested Exclusive Economic Zones. In the case of the Arctic, successful diplomacy provides a significant economic and strategic advantage.

Fourth, America must use its scientific superiority to survey the Arctic both above and beneath the surface. The polar ice cap changes by season and year, altering shipping routes. In fact, only two percent of its waters are charted to international standards.[32] Estimates place 30% of the world’s undiscovered gas and about 13% of the world’s undiscovered oil in the Arctic,[33] but determining exactly where it exists remains a challenge. By way of illustration, Shell recently pulled out of its $7B Arctic project citing “poor results.”[34] The US Geological Survey and American technology can measure, map, and forecast the location of potentially lucrative deposits in the Arctic, but budgets are thin and federal support is weak. China is using state-backed scientific development to make headway in the Arctic but remains behind the U.S. at least for now. Science must be a priority before the advantage is lost because, especially in the case of the Arctic, knowledge truly is power.

Finally, the U.S. government must explain why the Arctic matters. The first action is turning the conversation away from climate change and towards economics and security. The polarizing nature of the climate change conversation blocks what’s really important in the Arctic. A more practical and rational conversation about the Arctic may well bring Americans together rather than apart. If China can be an Arctic state, then so can America.

There is value in the Arctic, and so many countries want access to it. The strategy laid out here is but one of many ways to play the game. It is one thing to play the game and lose; it is an entirely different matter to not play at all. Sitting on the sidelines is the equivalent of forfeiture. China and Russia are both playing — and winning —while the United States does nothing. In fact, the U.S. has not played since Perry sailed home.


[1] McCormick, Ty, “Arctic Sovereignty: A Short History,” Foreign Policy, 7 May 2014,

[2] CJ Shivers, “Russians Plant Flag on Arctic Seabed,” New York Times, 3 August 3, 2007,

[3] Jed Babbin, “Putin’ Arctic Land Grab,” The Washington Times, 7 October, 2018,

[4] Andrei Piontkovsky, “Putin’s Russia as a Revisionist Power,” Hudson Institute, 26 June 2015,

[5] Pavel Devyatkin, “Russia’s Arctic Strategy: Aimed at Conflict or Cooperation? (Part I),” The Arctic Institute, 6 February 2018.

[6] Jon Carlson, “Scramble for Arctic: Layered Sovereignty, UNCLOS, and Competing Maritime Territorial Claims,” SAIS Review of International Affairs, Vol. 33, No. 2, Summer-Fall 2013, p. 28-29.

[7] “What is the Northern Sea Route?” The Economist, 24 September 2018,

[8] Elizabeth Buchanan and Mathieu Boulegue, “Russia’s Military Exercises Have More Bark than Bite,” Foreign Policy, 20 May 2019,

[9] David Smith, “Something rotten? Trump’s state over Denmark at heart of a madcap week,” The Guardian, 25 August 2019,

[10] Somini Sengupta, “United States Rattles Arctic Talks With a Sharp Warning to China and Russia,” The New York Times, 6 May 2019,

[11] Rick Noack, “The day a million species are announced to be on brink of extinction, U.S. says melting ice creates’ new opportunities for trade,’ The Washington Post, 7 May 2019,

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Joel K. Bourne, JR., “See Russia’s massive new gas plant on the Arctic Coast,” National Geographic (online), 22 March 2019.

[15] Pavel Devyatkin, “Russia’s Arctic Strategy: Military and Security (Part II),” The Arctic Institute, 13 February 2018,

[16] Rudy Ruitenberg, “Russia Is Seen Gaining Farmland With Climate Change,” Bloomberg, 18 September 2014,

[17] Jane Nakano, “China Launches the Polar Silk Road,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2 February 2018,

[18] Sherri Goodman and Elisabeth Freese, “China’s Ready to Cash In on a Melting Arctic,” Foreign Policy, 1 March 2018,

[19] Chinese Arctic White Paper, January 2018,

[20] Anne Marie-Brady, “China in the Arctic,” The Wilson Center, 13 June 2017,

[21] Trofimov, Yarolslav, “The New Beijing-Moscow Axis,” Wall Street Journal, 1 February 2018,

[22] IBID.

[23] Tsafos, Nikos, “Is Russia Winning the Race to Develop the Arctic?” Center for Strategic and International Studies, 22 March, 2019,

[24] Humpert, Malte, “China Acquires 20 Percent Stake in Novatek’s Latest Arctic LNG Project,” High North News, 29 April 2019,

[25] Tim Marshall, Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Explain Everything About the World, New York, NY: Scribner, 2016.

[26] IBID.

[27] Lisa Murkowski at the “An Ice Diminishing Arctic” Forum, 17 July 2019, Wilson Center, Washington DC.

[28] Robert Huebert at the “An Ice Diminishing Arctic” Forum, 17 July 2019, Wilson Center, Washington DC.

[29] Sherri Goodman and Elisabeth Freese, “China’s Ready to Cash In on a Melting Arctic,” Foreign Policy, 1 May 2018,

[30] Andrea Shalal, “US Navy Eyes Aggressive Plan For Expanding Its Arctic Presence,” Business Insider, 27 February 2014,

[31] Sabrina Shankman, “US Urgently needs new icebreaker.” NBC News, 16 January 2016,

[32] Heather Conley, Matthew Melino and Whitley Saumweber, “Charting a New Arctic Ocean,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, 15 May 2019,

[33] D.L Gautier, “U.S. Geological Survey circum-arctic resource appraisal,” United States Geological Survey, 2011

[34] Wendy Koch, 3 Reasons Why Shell Halted Drilling In The Arctic,” National Geographic (online), 28 September 2015,

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