The US must reconsider its role in the Arctic
Washington’s renewed strategic attention to the Arctic has been welcomed by many, even if it is seen as long overdue. But if it is primarily driven by a perception of Russian or Chinese encroachment, policies will be narrow in scope and vulnerable to the shifting focal point of global strategic competition.
With increased Arctic awareness, there is an opportunity to build a sustainable American Arctic policy. As the United States prepares to appoint an Arctic ambassador, it is time to shift the strategic discussion from merely countering Russia and China to highlighting the intrinsic significance of the American Arctic in and of itself.
The last few years have seen a surge of strategic interest in the Arctic, with numerous new Arctic strategy documents released, the formation of the U.S. Army 11th Airborne Division in Alaska and the establishment of the Ted Stevens Center for Arctic Security Studies as just the tip of the iceberg.
Most of this renewed attention is driven by Russia’s “re-militarization” of the Arctic. Moscow was the first country to truly understand the strategic significance of climate change in the Arctic region, recognizing new opportunities for access to resources and routes, but also new vulnerabilities for a nation long shielded along its northern coastline by ice.
China’s declaration of “near-Arctic” status has also raised concerns, as Beijing seeks access to Arctic routes and resources but also looks to the Arctic as a space to assert Chinese global leadership and redefine the global rules in an area it calls the common heritage of mankind
Focusing on countering Russia and China is important. But it risks the sustainability of initiatives, particularly as the tyranny of the immediate often drives U.S. security focus.
The complexities of the Arctic environment and minimal infrastructure make it an expensive area within which to operate, and its distance and small population can quickly leave it at the low end of spending priorities. This only reinforces the challenges of Arctic defense.
One way to reframe views of the American Arctic is to highlight the strategic value of the Arctic, particularly in terms of routes, resources and relationships. Looking through these lenses provides a long-term incentive to strengthen America’s connection to its Arctic frontier, providing not only for national defense but for economic and energy security as well.
A shifting climate is radically altering the Arctic environment. Sea routes are open for ever greater periods of the year, leading to increased maritime traffic through the Bering Sea. The increase in ship traffic requires both greater attention from the United States and the potential to take advantage of changing routes. While the Northwest Passage will be much slower to open than Russia’s Northern Sea Route due to geographic constraints and differing ice patterns, Alaska’s location provides opportunities to tap into trans-Pacific trade and future trans-Arctic trade.
Although Alaska’s port infrastructure is currently incapable of managing a significant increase in maritime trade, with backlogs increasingly frequent at other West Coast ports, Alaska could serve as a key shipping hub for trans-Pacific trade, particularly if the long-discussed but never-actualized rail line is built to connect Alaska via Canada to the lower 48. The importance of Alaska’s location for trade is already seen in aviation traffic. In 2021, the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport was the fourth busiest in terms of tonnage of cargo, beating out South Korea’s Incheon International Airport.
Alaska is known for its fish, gold and oil production, but Alaska is also a major producer of zinc. The Red Dog mine in northwest Alaska, the largest lead-zinc mine in the world, is owned by NANA Regional Corp, a wholly owned Alaska Native corporation. Zinc is just one of dozens of critical minerals, including many of the rare earth elements, found in Alaska.
As a 2015 USGS study puts it, Alaska “contains mineral resources not common in other parts of the United States, including known or potential occurrences of many of the strategic and critical elements that are vital to national defense, renewable energy, and emerging electronics technologies.”
Whether in an “old,” transitional or new energy scenario, Alaska’s mineral reserves, effectively managed, could play a significant role in American energy security.
Alaska also serves as a major source of maritime protein, accounting for around 60 percent of annual U.S. commercial seafood catch. Global competition for seafood has contributed to overfishing and rising illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing.
This not only threatens global food stability, but also has driven Chinese fleets in particular further around the globe, including along the Aleutian Islands. Alaska’s proximity to the Pacific, Bering Sea and Arctic Ocean provide long-term opportunities for sustainable fisheries, export revenue and shaping global standards for the protection of maritime foodstuffs.
Something often overlooked in assessments of Alaska’s strategic importance are the people themselves. Alaska Natives make up nearly 20 percent of the population and are a diverse group of indigenous peoples scattered over 240 villages and regional hubs.
Alaskan Native communities maintain a unique blend of subsistence and commercial activity, blending traditional and modern economies. This is due in part to the half-century-old Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, which mandated the establishment of native corporations, but also settled substantial land claims. Alaska Natives retained ownership land rights (both surface and subsurface) to 44 million acres of their original claim, some 12 percent of Alaskan territory, with the remaining 86 percent to federal or local control, and only around 1 percent left for other private ownership. Alaska Native corporations and communities play a key role in most resource extraction in Alaska, from minerals to fisheries. But these corporations are also active internationally, building key soft-power relationships.
In trans-Arctic dialogue, Alaskan Native communities can also play a key role. Ethnic and linguistic groups around the Arctic are not constrained by political borders. Alaskan Native groups have traditional relationships that reach across the Bering Strait to the West, and across northern Canada to Greenland in the East. More than 88 percent of Greenland’s population is native Inuit, and Native Alaskan Inuit could provide a natural linguistic and cultural bridge to improve U.S. relations with Greenland and across the American Arctic.
Alaskan Natives’ unique land settlement arrangement has also opened doors for consultations and relationships in other countries where native land claims are being explored and modified, providing another avenue to strengthen U.S. relations and soft power from the Pacific Islands and Africa to Latin America.
Rodger Baker is executive director of the Stratfor Center for Applied Geopolitics at RANE.