The Polar Pivot: Great Power Competition in the Arctic and Antarctica

  • Published

The Polar Pivot: Great Power Competition in the Arctic and Antarctica by Ryan Patrick Burke. Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2022, 261 pp.

In 1947, America was beginning to reckon with an Arctic paradox. The polar reaches were at once a valuable strategic location for the United States and also a site of American vulnerability. The first chief of staff of the nascent US Air Force, General Carl Spaatz, described this paradox: “Through the Arctic, every industrialized country is within reach of our strategic air. America is similarly exposed. We are, in fact, wide open at the top.”1 Ryan Patrick Burke’s new monograph, The Polar Pivot, revisits this opportunity/vulnerability dichotomy. Burke shows that today, more so than in the period following World War II, the polar regions should be a primary focus of American security discourse because they are the most likely venues for competition and conflict.

Burke brings an impressive resume and background knowledge to the task of redefining the strategic importance of the polar regions. He is currently a professor and deputy department head in the Military & Strategic Studies department at the US Air Force Academy, where he is the research director for the Homeland Defense Institute, its joint partnership with US Northern Command. Since January 2021 he has been the co-director of the Modern War Institute at West Point’s Project 6633, a platform for discussion and debate about polar security. The publication of Burke’s book coincides with that of his Project 6633 co-director, Elizabeth Buchanan. While Buchanan’s work focuses on Russia’s Arctic strategy under President Vladimir Putin, Burke’s book outlines the threats to US security in the polar regions from both Russia and China while also proposing a strategy for the United States to adopt. One of the main contributions of Burke’s research to the body of scholarly debate is to describe the security considerations in the Antarctic and the Arctic, the former often neglected in favor of the latter.

Burke’s overall argument is that the high latitudes should be more of a focus for international security dialogue as both will likely become contested geographies in the future. In support of this overall point, he makes three subordinate claims. First, he claims that the polar regions are not newly relevant but have historically been geopolitically significant. Burke describes the relevant recent history of great power competition in the Arctic and Antarctic—a useful exercise which grounds his later theorization and recommendations in a historical context. His chronological accounting highlights the ways in which the liberal order and its international institutions provided security and rules-based norms during the Cold War. He takes this approach to contrast the ways in which America’s revisionist peer competitors challenge those norms today.

Burke’s second claim establishes why the polar regions are so important. To this end he evaluates certain categories that will be more influential than others in terms of future polar security. Through an alliterative device that anchors his independent variables, he describes the “four polar Cs” of regional security: commons, claims, covenants, and cosmos. Burke defines the commons as “regions of shared access and activity” and asserts that freedom of action within the commons is an enduring American interest (46). While the United States was distracted by other geopolitical events during the preceding 20 years, Russia and China have leveraged advantages created by warming oceans to challenge free and open access to the polar regions. Some of the ways in which those states do so is through territorial claims of ownership. Burke argues that, contrary to the liberal internationalist contention, international institutions like the Arctic Council and Antarctic Treaty are not sufficiently credible to maintain the status quo.2 This is because no mechanism is in place to ensure compliance. Thus, he argues, the resulting international agreements are grounded in wishful thinking. Burke states that Russia and China will become economically incentivized to break international laws and customs in accordance with neorealist theory, which posits that states pursue power amidst the anarchy of the international system. Burke argues that the United States must be prepared to secure its own interests because America exists within a state system where no legally binding agreements will prevent its enemies from pursuing what is in their own national interests. Therefore, Burke suspects that the covenants—his third C—may be less useful in the future than they were during the Cold War period of liberal hegemony. Burke’s cosmos, his fourth C, refers to the celestial commons where he sees increasing competition for access, specifically with respect to the polar infrastructure that allows for space-based communication capabilities.

Burke’s third claim is that some states will have greater influence in the polar regions than others and that they have agendas which are evident from their present behavior. He delineates the international players, grouping them into a typology consisting of four categories depending on intent, comprised of posture and policy, and capability, comprised of presence and power. According to this distribution, only three states fall into the polar power category denoting the strongest powers: China, Russia, and the United States. One strength of Burke’s analysis is that it avoids simply grouping China and Russia together. While both are dissatisfied with a status quo that favors the United States, they have divergent motivations and goals. This nuanced presentation suggests that different policy approaches may be necessary depending on the region (Arctic versus Antarctic) and actor (China versus Russia).

The “pivot” in the title of Burke’s work recalls the Mackinderian phrase familiar to political geographers, that the so-called Eurasian heartland represented decisive terrain around which the future of the world order pivoted.3 Perhaps a more fitting allusion, however, is to the would-be “Pacific pivot” of the Obama administration.4 Burke argues that the United States should turn its attention geographically from Europe and the Pacific but also intellectually from its default inclination toward liberal approaches to international relations.

In place of this approach, Burke suggests a transactional style of international politics aligned with the neorealist playbook. This, he argues, will prevent America from falling into a Thucydidean polar trap. A strength of this approach is that it moves the United States from a knee-jerk militaristic response yet allows America to still demonstrate its assertiveness and leadership. One outstanding question with Burke’s recommendation, however, is whether this policy prescription will result in Russia and China willingly assuming the status of a subaltern power. The answer to this question may deal more with whether the United States is in close competition with China, as Burke suggests, or whether it retains unchallenged unipolarity, as others argue in the neorealist camp.5

Perhaps the strongest point in Burke’s presentation is that it avoids becoming mired in a climate debate and instead takes anthropogenic change as a given. Rather than debating the science he substitutes two relevant questions: 1) What are the geopolitical security implications for all countries of a warmer Earth; and 2) What should the United States do about it? To the first question, Burke believes the most pressing implication will be the rush to secure economic interests in newly navigable areas of the North and South Poles. To the second, Burke recommends the United States develop a realistic polar strategy now, while it can, rather than later, when it must (202).

The framework of Burke’s polar pivot strategy encompasses what he calls projection, protection, prevention, and preservation. Of these four, the most fully articulated is projection, which he argues will allow the United States to demonstrate its commitment to the region. To this end, Burke proposes somewhat counterintuitive suggestions—for example, to stop focusing on building icebreakers, and instead build ships with ice-hardened hulls—and other novel ideas. To the latter point, Burke articulates an interesting idea to create a new US Polar Command or POLCOM that would encompass territory above and below 60 degrees latitude north and south. This new combatant command would cover two independent areas of responsibility and address what Burke sees as a design flaw in the current unified command plan. According to Burke, the plan is cluttered in the North and confusing in the South due to competing responsibilities amongst current regional combatant commands.

The Polar Pivot is an important, interesting, well-researched, well-reasoned, and logically argued presentation of an increasingly important and often neglected geopolitical region. Burke presents rational arguments in support of his transactional approach, which fits comfortably within the current scholarly debate about where the United States should invest its attention and finite resources in a world of strategic competition. In contrast with authors who point to the Indo-Pacific, or others who suggest Europe, Burke makes a compelling case that the future of great power competition will be in the polar extremes. It then follows that the United States should begin planning and posturing for strategic competition there today. Burke’s blueprint for American polar defense, security orientation, and influence is a vital contribution to this important debate.

Lieutenant Colonel James M. Davitch, USAF, PhD

1 James Reston, “Pact with Canada Affirms Agreed Defense Principle: Stations Were Discussed Last Summer, but Appropriation Has Been an Issue,” New York Times, February 13, 1947, 17.

2 G. John Ikenberry, “Why American Power Endures: The U.S.-Led Order Isn’t in Decline,” Foreign Affairs, November 1, 2022, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/.

3 Gearóid Ó Tuathail, “Putting Mackinder in His Place: Material Transformations and Myth,” Political Geography 11, no. 1 (1992), https://doi.org/.

4 “Pacific Pivot,” Harvard Political Review, November 2, 2012, https://harvardpolitics.com/.

5 Stephen G. Brooks and William C. Wohlforth, “The Myth of Multipolarity: American Power’s Staying Power,” Foreign Affairs, April 18, 2023. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/.

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."