A New Cold War In the Arctic

From a Washington Post opinion piece by Kenneth R. Rosen headlined “A growing rivalry in the Arctic? Talk about a cold war.”:

As far as U.S. policy goes, the Arctic is synonymous with Alaska. And that’s a growing problem. Climate change, military competition and the search for natural resources are turning the frozen north into a hotbed of global rivalry. The United States must start thinking bigger or risk being left behind.

Admittedly, the region is poorly defined, even among scientists and the eight Arctic Council members. Some propose a latitudinal boundary of 66.5 degrees north of the equator; others prefer a topographic boundary (the area to the north of wooded country) or a temperature boundary (median July temperature below 10 degrees Celsius). Based on my conversations with Arctic researchers in seven countries, as well as my travels in the Arctic, the U.S. government and military need a definition that includes far-north allies in a joint commitment to keep the Arctic free and peaceful.

Strategic rivals are moving quickly to dominate the region. Over the past decade, Russia has reopened and modernized upward of 50 Cold War-era bases along the necklace of its Arctic coastline of roughly 15,000 miles. China has invested in liquefied natural gas projects in the Russian north. India has also invested in energy and mineral resources in the Arctic as its economy rapidly expands. One researcher who frequents the Arctic aboard U.S. Coast Guard icebreakers for scientific missions expressed shock “we weren’t paying more attention” to the region.

An updated National Strategy for the Arctic Region, released by the White House last autumn, was disappointing. Like its predecessor from the Obama era, the strategy lacked concrete steps and actionable plans, while once again painting the Arctic as a remote and peculiar afterthought for the nation, home to poor infrastructure and lacking access to health care. And yet there are signs of progress that might point the way to an effective, though belated, future strategy.

In 2020, the State Department opened a consulate in Nuuk, Greenland; the same year, a U.S. coordinator for the Arctic region was appointed. In the past year, a diplomatic mission in Tromso, Norway, has opened, and two positions have been created to focus on the region: an ambassador at large for the Arctic region at the State Department and a deputy assistant secretary of defense for Arctic and global resilience working at the Pentagon. The Northern Warfare Training Center in Alaska prepares twice as many troops than in years past. A $600 million-plus project will create Alaska’s first deep-water port in Nome.

There is much more to be done. “I’ve been making the case for years on the need to establish greater American presence in the Arctic — vessels, personnel and ports — as America’s strategic rivals lay claim to this important region,” Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) said last year. The United States must also update its northernmost military facility, in Qaanaaq, Greenland, to take account of rising temperatures and thawing permafrost, which are damaging aircraft runways.

It’s time to expand the U.S. fleet of icebreaker ships instead of relying on other nations’ fleets. Ratifying the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea would put the United States on equal footing with Russia and other nations staking claims to resources extending to the North Pole.

Further, the United States should shoulder the burden of integrated Arctic defense by filling gaps in surveillance, specifically in the North Atlantic between Greenland and Iceland and the United Kingdom. U.S. drones can keep an eye on remote Arctic regions, while imagery from surveillance satellites is more widely shared with Arctic allies, rather than relying on infrastructure and equipment owned and operated by those allies that are already turning their defense strategies homeward. American forces should participate more regularly in NATO Arctic exercises. (American B-1 bombers and F-35s joined an exercise in the Nordic region for the first time in June.)

The long-running dispute between the United States and Canada over the boundary of the Beaufort Sea — north of Alaska and Yukon — should be resolved in a display of good faith to enhance cooperation with Canada (another state whose Arctic policy is turning more inward) in modernizing the NORAD network of air defense systems. Such steps would illustrate a previously unseen U.S. commitment to being a cooperative, not passive, regional partner while expanding the vision of a more global Arctic.

Competition among great powers cannot be avoided, but it can be ignored. Despite the actions of our rivals, Washington has made only modest efforts to increase its Arctic footprint, both in Alaska and beyond. A longer and wider vision is required to meet overt and covert threats. That starts with the United States coming to understand that the Arctic is not just Alaska plus ice; it reaches across the northern flank and is a key to national security, global stability and climate resilience.

Kenneth R. Rosen is a journalist who is writing a book about a new cold war in the Arctic.

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