Barry Scott Zellen, Ph.D., is a visiting scholar in the department of geography at the University of Connecticut and senior fellow at the Institute of the North.
Just as NATO expands to include the last two non-aligned Arctic states, Sweden and Finland, the U.S has been refocusing more of its strategic and diplomatic attention, investment and energy in the Arctic, as reflected in the White House’s August 2022 announced plan for a new Arctic region Ambassador, followed in September with the formation of the new Department of Defense Arctic Strategy and Global Resilience Office helmed by its newly appointed Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Arctic and Global Resilience.
Then, on Oct. 7th, the White House unveiled a new National Strategy for the Arctic Region, updating its 2013 strategy, acknowledging the “increasing strategic competition in the Arctic since 2013, exacerbated by Russia’s unprovoked war in Ukraine,” with four strategic pillars:
On security, the US pledges to “deter threats … by enhancing the capabilities required to defend our interests in the Arctic, while coordinating shared approaches with allies and partners and mitigating risks of unintended escalation.”
2. Climate Change and Environmental Protection
On climate change and environmental protection, Washington “will partner with Alaskan communities and the State of Alaska to build resilience to the impacts of climate change, while working to reduce emissions from the Arctic as part of broader global mitigation efforts, to improve scientific understanding, and to conserve Arctic ecosystems.”
3. Sustainable Economic Development
On sustainable economic development, Washington will “pursue sustainable development and improve livelihoods in Alaska, including for Alaska Native communities” while “work[ing] with allies and partners to expand high-standard investment and sustainable development across the Arctic region.”
4. International Cooperation and Governance
On international cooperation and governance, the US will, “[d]espite the challenges to Arctic cooperation resulting from Russia’s aggression in Ukraine … work to sustain institutions for Arctic cooperation, including the Arctic Council, and position these institutions to manage the impacts of increasing activity in the region” while working “to uphold international law, rules, norms, and standards in the Arctic.”
As a headline in the Oct. 10th edition of High North News described, “New U.S. Arctic Strategy Foreshadows Increasing Hurdles for Cooperation in a More Complex Region” — and, in an equally nuanced subtitle “suggests that addressing the adverse impacts from climate change and maintaining international cooperation despite increasing strategic competition vis-à-vis Russia and China will be key challenges in the region over the next decade.”
While that may be a mouthful, it captures the complex and dynamic nature of Arctic security and diplomacy today, and the uncertainties we face in the Arctic in the wake of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, and the consequent shifting of strategic priorities ever since.