The West is losing the battle for the Arctic
President Trump’s tweet that he was “looking at” purchasing Greenland from Denmark was met with amusement and derision. But the resulting bewilderment provided a useful service: It yanked back the curtain on the international scramble for the Arctic, which has gone under the radar for too long. Without an accord like the one governing Antarctica, the Arctic could well become a new source of international tension.
Western powers are falling far behind as the race for the Arctic heats up. Climate change is opening new frontiers and unleashing geopolitical forces. The sea ice that was once a barrier to commercial and military ambitions is melting away, making the Arctic region the world’s hottest real estate (sorry, couldn’t help it!). It’s home to vast fisheries, 30 percent of the world’s natural gas and over $1 trillion in rare-earth minerals.
Former Coast Guard Vice Commandant Peter Neffenger, who spent four years crafting the Arctic strategy at the U.S. Coast Guard and led the 2013 U.S. delegation to the Arctic Council dialogue, recently warned on Altamar Podcast that the United States needs to step up its game. “To win a race, you actually have to be in the race,” he said. “And the U.S., to a large extent, has failed to engage in substantial ways in the Arctic… The U.S. has taken a wait-and-see attitude.”
Meanwhile, other countries have been more proactive. Russia, the nation with the largest Arctic frontier, has expanded its military forces in the Arctic and has also made significant investments in northern gas and oil infrastructure. China, which designated itself as a “near-Arctic nation,” has set its sights on a northward expansion of the Belt and Road initiative and is eyeing a future Polar Silk Road.
Though these two nations are often adversaries, they are partnering to coordinate Arctic efforts. They recently signed an agreement to create a gigantic joint transportation initiative and are setting up additional projects for infrastructure, energy, minerals and telecommunications. This gives Russia and China a head start to set the rules of access and play, raising Western fears about a panoply of threats from military use of the Arctic to the ecological impacts of unregulated industrial activity.
Europe, too, seems to be lacking a coherent approach to the Arctic. Its influence is diminished by problems at home: Brexit and political divisions created by the rise of populism in Italy, Poland, Hungary and Spain. Similarly, Canada lacks a long-term strategic plan, choosing instead to narrowly articulate its interests in the Arctic mainly in terms of the environment and indigenous populations.
Engaging in Arctic affairs doesn’t mean launching a 21st century zero-sum, “Scramble for the Arctic.” The possibilities of joint scientific exploration are plentiful. Increasing trade could benefit both continents, with the potential for new shipping lanes that could slash travel time between Asia and the West by as much as 20 days.
Russia and China must not be the only countries visibly present in the Arctic. To prevent unnecessary confrontations and prevent ecological damage, the West needs to ramp up its engagement. As more actors look to the Arctic for economic and geopolitical advantages, a plan to ensure equal opportunity for environmental protection, mineral and resources extraction, and freedom of navigation and trade routes among all nations is crucial.
This won’t be easy. Currently, Arctic policy is an assemblage of treaties, agreements and declarations with no implementation mechanism or international bodies directly responsible for oversight. The Arctic Council, for more than two decades, served as the official forum for discussion among the Arctic States. But in May the Trump administration refused to sign an agreement on challenges in the Arctic due to discrepancies over climate change wording.
President Trump could instead forge a constructive legacy in Arctic affairs by convening a high-level public/private task force made up of civil society actors such as environmentalists, academia and law-of-the-sea, private sector interests and key government agencies such as the State Department, Pentagon and CIA to provide the United States with key policy recommendations regarding the Arctic within 12 months. The task force will have the example of Antarctica to illuminate its work.
The Antarctic Treaty is one of the world’s most successful international agreements. Antarctica, declared an international pole, is completely absent of military operations, the environment is fully protected and scientific research is a top priority – thanks in part to enforcement mechanisms.
Antarctica shows that earth’s poles need not become a source of controversy and antagonism. At a time when the rules-based international order seems to be breaking down further every day, the Arctic is one frontier where there is still time to catch up and get it right.
Peter Schechter is the host and executive producer of Altamar, a global issues podcast and former founding director of the Atlantic Council’s Latin America Center. He can be found on Twitter at @PDSchechter
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