By Maj Hila Levy, DPhil, USAFR
/ Published October 25, 2021
In the Arctic region since the end of the Cold War, if not before, there has been a mismatch between the national interest of the United States as expressed on paper versus the drive to act on feelings expressed by the American public. The era of great-power competition, played out against the backdrop of rapid environmental changes and increasing commercial interests, has accelerated focus on the Arctic region across the US defense enterprise.1 And though looking outwardly at the stated and implicit intentions of the People’s Republic of China and Russian Federation in the region is valuable for strategists, we should also think about our internal strengths and weaknesses with regard to perceptions, investments, and actions in the Arctic of today and tomorrow.
The attention placed on the Arctic has roots in the early 1990s, when climate change was first mentioned in President George H. W. Bush’s 1991 National Security Strategy and President William J. Clinton’s issuance of Presidential Decision Directive 26 (PDD-26) titled “United States Policy on the Arctic and Antarctic Regions.”2 PDD-26 was essential for structuring the executive branch and budgeting for scientific research and logistics in the polar regions, but it hardly caused a media sensation.
In 2009, President George W. Bush established a new US policy (National Security Presidential Directive 66/Homeland Security Presidential Directive 25) for the Arctic region that superseded the Arctic portions of PDD-26, leaving Antarctic policy intact.3 Therein, President Bush made clear that the “United States is an Arctic nation”; his successor, President Barack Obama, embraced this in the last portion of his 2010 National Security Strategy, the first to contain a section on “Arctic Interests.”4
In May 2013, President Obama issued a separate “National Strategy for the Arctic Region,” followed by the issuance of the Department of Defense “Arctic Strategy” in November 2013.5 The release of the US Coast Guard’s “Arctic Strategic Outlook” in 2019, the US Air Force’s “Arctic Strategy” in 2020, and the US Navy’s “Strategic Blueprint for the Arctic,” the US Army’s “Regaining Arctic Dominance” guidance, and the Department of Homeland Security’s “Strategic Approach for Arctic Homeland Security” in 2021 highlight recent defense and security prioritization of the northern polar region as climate warming takes hold and opens new areas to trade and resource exploitation.6 On the procurement front, defense leadership and Congress have reached a consensus on the need for polar security investments and prioritization, with funding for ski planes, the Polar Security Cutter program, and Arctic port studies.7
America’s Arctic Heritage
The exponential, upward curve in strategic document production demonstrates that US policy has rediscovered the security value of its Arctic homeland. While some of this is an acute awareness of the existential threats to sea ice, temperatures, permafrost, and ecosystems, the visible Russian and Chinese naval, aerial, maritime, space, and commercial presence in the Arctic have given policy makers a reminder that Alaska is very much a part of the United States.
Congressional and media focus on weapons and technologies acquisitions of F-35 fighter aircraft, ballistic missile defense systems, radar systems, and space surveillance in Alaska has led many to believe that the northern front is a vast, white, depopulated wasteland sprinkled with military resources and training facilities. This vision obscures some of the greatest assets our nation has with respect to the Arctic region: the land and sea itself, the social and cultural heritage of Alaska Native peoples, and our nation’s human capital.
Alaska as we know it was purchased from the Russian Empire and transferred by treaty in 1867 to the United States.8 However, Alaska Natives were present on the land for thousands of years prior. Though largely outside the scope of this work, the history of America’s largest state by area is thus rich and complex and can be studied from multiple perspectives to account for Indigenous heritage and the US federal government’s involvement.
In 1935, Brigadier General William L. “Billy” Mitchell, a key early proponent of American airpower, told the House Military Affairs Committee: “I believe in the future he who holds Alaska will hold the world, and I think it’s the most strategic place in the world.”9 Basing aircraft there provides clear time-distance advantages in accessing Eurasia. The Alaskan theater was critical in World War II (when Japan invaded the Aleutian Islands) and the Cold War. This geostrategic refrain is often referenced by US congressional delegations from Alaska vying for infrastructure budgets and defense resourcing.10 Their voices and those of military leaders familiar with the theater have seemed trapped in an echo chamber until the renewed surge of strategic competition narratives.
Defining an “Arctic State”
One item sparking interest in the Arctic is Russia’s chairmanship of the Arctic Council, set to last until 2023.11 The Arctic Council is a consensus-based international forum of Arctic Indigenous peoples and eight national governments for cooperation across Arctic affairs related to the environment and social and economic development. It is not a treaty-bound organization, but its founding charter, the Ottawa Declaration of 1996, specifies there are eight official Arctic States: Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, the Russian Federation, Sweden, and the United States.12
There are a few definitions of “the Arctic.” First is the strict geographical definition of all portions of the globe above 66°34’ North latitude (the Arctic Circle). Second is the political definition instituted in the Ottawa Declaration, defining “Identified Geographic Areas” that extend farther south to encompass the Bering Sea, Hudson Bay, and territories in the high-50° latitudes.13 Additionally, there are two environmental definitions: the area north of the northern tree line, and the area in which the average daily temperature in summer does not exceed 10° Celsius (50° Fahrenheit).14 These latter definitions are shifting along with climate change and may alter political conceptions of what the Arctic is in the future.
As a percentage of territory and coastline, the Arctic portion of the United States is low relative to some of the other states. Russia has 53 percent of the Arctic Ocean’s coastline, for example, stretching across 24,150 kilometers, compared to the 1,790 kilometers of Alaskan Arctic coastline.15 More than 40 percent of Canada is within the Arctic Council’s Identified Geographic Areas, and large proportions of each of the Scandinavian member nations’ territories are included.16
There is no doubt that Russia is an Arctic State, and it invests, acts, and defends its interest as such with military forces, bases, icebreakers, aircraft, and a dedicated Northern Fleet.17 As well, 2.5 million Russian citizens live in the Arctic, including members of 40 Indigenous groups.18 This inherent relationship with the unique regional environment and its peoples is not without struggle for the Russian government. Siberia—long thought of as a place for gulags, hard labor, and mineral extraction—faces similar domestic challenges in narrative for most of the population. There is a great need for government support and infrastructure repair as individual villages and regions fight to maintain livelihoods and protect themselves from physical changes such as melting permafrost, coastal erosion, raging forest fires, and the dangerous combination those elements present to the industrial processes and chemicals stored in Arctic facilities.19 Though news of natural and commercial disasters in the Russian Arctic is not always reported openly, Moscow cannot easily forget its Arctic endowment.
The People’s Republic of China, by contrast, has none of the above inherent stakes to claim it is an Arctic State. It has no historical territory, geographic adjacency, or peoples there. Nevertheless, it has relentlessly pursued access to the region for resource development, scientific, and trade purposes. Despite its status as a non–Arctic State, China managed to obtain Permanent Observer Status at the Arctic Council in 2013.20 China has called itself a “Near-Arctic State,” issued an official “Arctic Policy” paper in January 2018, and most recently embarked on its “Polar Silk Road” initiatives via the 2021–2025 Five-Year Plan.21 China’s stated intentions have been backed up with budgetary investments in polar research, the launch of the second icebreaker in its inventory (the R/V Xue Long 2, China’s first domestically built icebreaker), and multiple transits of Arctic sea routes by Chinese shipping fleets.22
These actions have attracted high-level attention in the United States and among NATO allies. In a fiery speech at the May 2019 Arctic Council Ministerial Meeting in Rovaniemi, Finland, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated: “Beijing claims to be a ‘Near-Arctic State,’ yet the shortest distance between China and the Arctic is 900 miles. There are only Arctic States and Non-Arctic States. No third category exists, and claiming otherwise entitles China to exactly nothing.”23
US-Chinese and US-Russian relations currently are on downward spirals. However, the Arctic is a global commons. Human activities worldwide affect the health of Arctic marine and terrestrial ecosystems, while that degradation in turn affects our climate, wind, and weather patterns here in the United States. The Arctic Council was formed to collaborate on these issues and has provided opportunities for international understanding and cooperation in search and rescue, science, the environment, and other areas.
The Role of Narrative and Polar-Mindedness
Our capacity to lead globally and regionally will be dependent on narrative. We have seen the importance of this in battles of information and disinformation across borders and domestically. A narrative of external fixation on the actions of the People’s Republic of China and Russian Federation does have its place in the battle for budgets. The United States has a long, upward crawl ahead to invest in resilient infrastructure, icebreakers, ski planes, and communications systems in Alaska, Greenland, and at NATO bases.
It is time to open the aperture beyond procurement and look within. The United States is an Arctic State through and through. The land, the coast, the tundra, the mountains, the rivers, the ice—they are all Arctic. The psychological, cultural, and social elements of geography are essential. There is a need for a unification of these fields to have success in preserving the environment itself, the people’s way of life, and the geopolitical standing of the United States.
If narrative is where the battle is to be fought, then Arctic identity cannot be a theory on paper. The elements of heritage and culture must be embraced in a powerful display of truth and fact—that Alaska is both a point of pride and an American responsibility. Polar-mindedness—appreciating the relevance of the polar regions to national and international policies and our daily lives—can help us venerate the legacy of the Arctic in a way that serves the national interest.24
A polar-oriented mindset that reverberates through our education system, science and technology investments, and strategic thought would be beneficial to harnessing the human capital of our diverse nation. This expression of truth in narrative must not become exploitative of Alaska Native communities but should instead engage and support them as they face the burden of environmental and political challenges ahead.
The keystone to our success in the Arctic during the era of great-power competition is right in front of us. It is within us. The Department of the Air Force’s “Arctic Strategy” highlights the importance of cooperation with allies and partners.25 This overarching line of effort acknowledges the roles of Indigenous communities and traditional international partners in a military context. But it could go further in recognizing that the strength of our operations in the Arctic does not begin in Alaska alone. It starts with partnerships in academia, industry, civic society, and population-wide interest across all US states and territories.
Maj Hila Levy, DPhil, USAFR
Major Hila Levy is a polar biologist and US Air Force Reserve intelligence and foreign affairs officer currently assigned to The Joint Staff. She works in science policy, has researched US engagement with polar strategy, and previously taught Arctic and Antarctic ecology at the University of Oxford. She is a graduate of the US Air Force Academy and holds an M.Phil. from the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies, M.S. from Johns Hopkins University, and M.St., M.Sc. with Distinction, and D.Phil. from the University of Oxford.
1 David Krumm and Matthew Nicholson, “The Arctic in an Age of Strategic Competition,” Journal of Indo-Pacific Affairs 4, no. 3 (Summer 2021): 18–27.
2 George H. W. Bush, “National Security Strategy of the United States” (White House, August 1, 1991), https://history.defense.gov; William J. Clinton, “Presidential Decision Directive/NSC-26. United States Policy on the Arctic and Antarctic Regions,” 9 June 1994, https://fas.org.
3 George W. Bush, “National Security Presidential Directive 66/Homeland Security Presidential Directive 25 (NSPD 66/HSPD 25),” 12 January 2009, https://www.hsdl.org.
4 George W. Bush, “National Security Presidential Directive 66/Homeland Security Presidential Directive 25 (NSPD 66/HSPD 25)”; Barack H. Obama, “National Security Strategy of the United States” (The White House, May 2010), https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov.
5 Barack H. Obama, “National Strategy for the Arctic Region” (White House, May 2013), https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov; Charles T. Hagel, “Department of Defense Arctic Strategy” (US Department of Defense, November 2013), https://dod.defense.gov.
6 United States Coast Guard, “United States Coast Guard Arctic Strategic Outlook” (US Coast Guard, April 2019), https://www.uscg.mil; Secretary of the Air Force, “The Department of the Air Force Arctic Strategy” (United States Department of the Air Force, 21 July 2020), https://www.af.mil; Department of the Navy, “A Blue Arctic: A Strategic Blueprint for the Arctic,” 5 January 2021, https://media.defense.gov; “Regaining Arctic Dominance: The U.S. Army in the Arctic” (US Department of the Army, 19 January 2021), https://api.army.mil; and “Strategic Approach for Arctic Homeland Security” (US Department of Homeland Security, January 13, 2021), https://www.dhs.gov.
7 Changes in the Arctic: Background and Issues for Congress (Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, 1 February 2021), https://crsreports.congress.gov/; Coast Guard Polar Security Cutter (Polar Icebreaker) Program: Background and Issues for Congress (Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, 11 March 2021), https://crsreports.congress.gov/; Theresa Hitchens, “Eye On Arctic, Congress Pushes More C-130Js; Including Ski Planes,” Breaking Defense, 16 November 2020, https://breakingdefense.com; David B. Larter, Joe Gould, and Aaron Mehta, “Trump Memo Demands New Fleet of Arctic Icebreakers Be Ready by 2029,” DefenseNews, 9 June 2020, https://www.defensenews.com; and Donald J. Trump, “Memorandum on Safeguarding United States National Interests in the Arctic and Antarctic Regions,” 9 June 2020, https://www.govinfo.gov.
8 US Department of State, Bureau of Public Affairs, Office of the Historian, “Milestones: 1866–1898—Purchase of Alaska, 1867,” 2021, https://history.state.gov.
9 John Haile Cloe, The Air Force in Alaska, Part I, Early Flights and Strategic Importance: 1920–1940 (Elmendorf AFB, AK: Office of History, Alaskan Air Command, 1983), 64.
10 Lisa Murkowski, “Floor Speech: Unveiling Arctic Legislation to Reinvigorate America’s Arctic Role | U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska,” 11 December 2018, https://www.murkowski.senate.gov.
11 Arctic Council, “The Russian Federation,” Arctic Council, 2021, https://arctic-council.org.
12 Arctic Council, “Declaration on the Establishment of the Arctic Council. Joint Communiqué of the Governments of the Arctic Countries on the Establishment of the Arctic Council,” 19 September 1996, https://oaarchive.arctic-council.org.
13 US Department of State, “Arctic Region,” Office of Ocean and Polar Affairs (blog), 2021, https://www.state.gov.
14 National Snow and Ice Data Center, “What Is the Arctic?,” 4 May 2020, https://nsidc.org.
15 Laura Neilson Bonikowsky, “The Arctic, Country by Country,” Diplomat & International Canada (blog), 4 October 2012, https://diplomatonline.com; and Arctic Council, “The Russian Federation.”
16 US Department of State, “Arctic Region”; and Arctic Council, “Canada,” Arctic Council, 2021, https://arctic-council.org.
17 Nicole Franiok, “Russian Arctic Military Bases,” American Security Project, 22 April 2020, https://www.americansecurityproject.org.
18 Arctic Council, “The Russian Federation.”
19 “Russian Arctic Oil Spill Pollutes Big Lake near Norilsk,” BBC News, 9 June 2020, sec. Europe, https://www.bbc.com; Anton Troianovski, “As Frozen Land Burns, Siberia Trembles,” New York Times, 17 July 2021, https://www.nytimes.com; B. M. Jones et al., “Arctic Report Card 2020: Coastal Permafrost Erosion,” ed. United States, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research, Arctic Report Card, 2020, https://doi.org/10.25923/e47w-dw52; and Maria Polovtseva, “A Blessing and a Curse: Melting Permafrost in the Russian Arctic,” Arctic Institute (blog), 3 November 2020, https://www.thearcticinstitute.org.
20 Matthew Willis and Duncan Depledge, “How We Learned to Stop Worrying about China’s Arctic Ambitions: Understanding China’s Admission to the Arctic Council,” Arctic Institute (blog), 22 September 2014, https://www.thearcticinstitute.org.
21 Reuters Staff, “China Pledges to Build ‘Polar Silk Road’ over 2021–2025,” Reuters, 5 March 2021, https://www.reuters.com; and State Council of the People’s Republic of China, “China’s Arctic Policy,” January 2018, http://english.www.gov.cn.
22 Malte Humpert, “China Reveals Details of Newly Designed Heavy Icebreaker,” High North News, 16 December 2019, https://www.highnorthnews.com; Anne-Marie Brady, China as a Polar Great Power (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017), https://doi.org/10.1017/9781316832004; and Kevin McGwin, “China’s COSCO to Stay Course on Arctic Shipping,” ArcticToday (blog), 16 May 2019, https://www.arctictoday.com.
23 Michael Pompeo, “Looking North: Sharpening America’s Arctic Focus (Speech by Michael R. Pompeo, Secretary of State in Rovaniemi, Finland on May 6, 2019),” US Department of State (blog), 6 May 2019, https://2017-2021.state.gov.
24 Hila Levy, “Polar-Mindedness: A Prerequisite for Strategic Success in the Polar Regions,” Modern War Institute, 26 May 2021, https://mwi.usma.edu.
25 Secretary of the Air Force, “The Department of the Air Force Arctic Strategy.”
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