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An opening for NATO in the Arctic

AP Photo/Evan Vucci
Adm. Linda Fagan takes command of the U.S. Coast Guard on June 1, 2022, in Washington.

In her first testimony as Coast Guard Commandant, Adm. Linda Fagan emphasized the importance of maintaining a persistent U.S. navigational presence in the Arctic. Citing Russian and Chinese ambitions in the High North, Fagan asked for continuing support for the $1.8 billion Polar Security Cutter program, which is slated to deliver three new heavy icebreakers by 2027. Yet she left unanswered — and her congressional inquisitors left unprobed — the precise strategic aims for this hefty investment. What is the United States’s long-term strategy for an increasingly navigable Arctic?

Rarely has the question been riper. In March, seven members of the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental forum for Arctic coordination, paused their work and condemned the council’s eighth member, Russia, for invading Ukraine. The seven others later resumed coordination on projects unrelated to Russia, in effect sidelining Moscow indefinitely. Meanwhile, Sweden and Finland, the only non-NATO Arctic states other than Russia, took the momentous step of pursuing NATO membership — a move Congress recently voted to support.

In the wake of this geopolitical reshuffle, the U.S., together with its partners and allies, can set a clearer direction for the Arctic’s geopolitical future. In particular, the U.S. should consider a greater role for NATO in Arctic affairs, for at least four reasons.

First, the status quo no longer suffices. If Arctic geopolitics once distinguished itself as a model of cooperation, the Arctic Council’s ejection of Russia heralds a more contentious era. The other Arctic nations can refuse to talk to Russia but they cannot ignore Moscow’s activities in the region. Russia is, after all, the 800-pound gorilla of the High North, with a formidable Arctic fleet and 15,000-mile northern coast — stretching nearly halfway around the Arctic Circle — as well as a 1.7 million-square-mile exclusive economic zone that grants it certain rights to ocean resources. The Arctic Council can neither solve Russia’s aggression in Ukraine nor counterbalance Russia’s Arctic ambitions. NATO can step into this breach.

Second, traditional objections to NATO’s involvement in the Arctic have begun to lose their appeal. It is said that NATO leaders have shied from Arctic affairs to avoid provoking Russia in what historically has been a quiescent region. But the Arctic is no longer quiescent; it is stirring. And a measured NATO presence can be no more provocative than Sweden and Finland’s accession to the alliance. The greater risk, history tells us, is failing to deter Russian maximalism.

It also has been said that NATO leaders have heeded the objections of smaller Arctic nations, who view Arctic issues as regional in scope — not the business of Paris, Lisbon or Ankara. But now that Sweden and Finland are poised to join the alliance, all Arctic nations (except Russia) will be NATO members, ensuring that each has a voice in NATO business. In addition, as I have argued elsewhere, non-Arctic stakeholders deserve a say in the fate of this global commons. NATO can serve as one additional, if imperfect, proxy for non-Arctic voices.

Third, NATO is well-equipped to ensure freedom of navigation, a cornerstone of our rules-based order and the backbone of the law of the sea. Freedom of navigation also serves as a bulwark against parochial, maximalist claims to maritime territory and resources that buck international law. To promote this freedom and reinforce international law, NATO navies and coast guards can perform varying levels of freedom of navigation operations (FONOPS).

This is where Adm. Fagan’s icebreakers can support a greater strategic vision. As she noted in her testimony, Russia’s icebreaker fleet exceeds 40, ranging from nuclear-powered cutters to vessels of lesser capability. By contrast, the U.S. fleet is modest — currently two. But Finland’s 10, Canada’s seven, Sweden’s seven, Denmark’s four, and others under construction make for an allied fleet capable of a more formidable circumpolar presence. To be sure, comparisons of fleet size without regard to quality can mislead, but the point stands: An Arctic-involved NATO is a better guarantee of public order than what any Arctic country alone can do.

Some may object that a FONOPS risks military confrontation in the Arctic. This is a strawman. Not all FONOPS are created equal. And as a legal matter, a FONOP need not test “red lines” to vindicate navigational freedoms. The “actual presence,” to use Adm. Fagan’s term, of coast guard vessels performing lower-profile regulatory and scientific tasks is sufficient to reinforce international law.

Others may worry that Arctic FONOPS could needlessly rankle Ottawa by raising questions about the Northwest Passage, which Canada deems an internal water subject to its regulation, although international law strongly implies it is a freely navigable international strait. This concern, too, is misplaced. Just last year, the U.S. cutter Healy transited the Northwest Passage in what the Coast Guard characterized as a non-FONOP scientific mission in collaboration with Canadian and Danish personnel. This diplomatic compromise of sorts allowed the U.S. to project presence without sowing disagreement with its neighbor to the north — one model for future NATO operations in the Arctic.

Some argue that the discourse on Arctic competition is too often alarmist, anticipating a more freely navigable Arctic that is still decades away. Even if so, this does not mean the U.S. and its NATO allies should forego the strategic opportunities emerging now.

Timothy Perry is a lawyer, former federal prosecutor, government official and adjunct professor. He frequently writes about matters of national and homeland security. Follow him on Twitter @timothycpereira.

Tags Arctic Icebreaker Linda Fagan NATO Russia

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