The Chilly Truth: An Examination of U.S. Arctic Policy

Written by: Michael Sauer

Rapidly-warming temperatures are superheating the prominence of the Arctic region. The Arctic’s thawing ice sheets are in swift decline, unlocking previously inaccessible natural resources, fishing industries, and tourism opportunities. Countries around the globe are vigilantly observing the ever-changing Arctic landscape, eyeing possibilities to salvage the northern expanse. For its part, the United States has remained attentive to the Arctic, but when evaluated against optimal policies, the U.S. clings to an incomplete strategy that is rife with conflicting objectives, poor foresight, and a precarious strand of isolationism. Without necessary reform, the U.S. leaves national security imperatives susceptible to the evolving Arctic. 

By virtue of purchasing Alaska in 1867, the United States formally joined the family of Arctic nations. For much of this history, however, the U.S. relegated this responsibility as inconsequential. Little significance was given to the cold, desolate North, but the American disposition on the Arctic underwent a slight shift in the late 20th century. In 1996, the U.S. joined the Arctic Council, helping to launch the world’s preeminent global partnership on Arctic affairs. Yet, domestically, the U.S. had no profound policy to advance national prerogatives in the Arctic. Instead, the United States opted to channel its efforts toward international cooperation. 

The final days of President George W. Bush’s administration witnessed a profound transformation of U.S. Arctic policy, with the issuance of National Security Presidential Directive – 66. Calling for improved collaboration and prioritization of national objectives, the directive emphatically declared the Arctic a major concern for the United States government. At long last, the Arctic had finally earned its day in the sun. 

Proceeding in the same spirit, the Obama Administration charted an ambitious policy agenda encompassing support for indigenous populations, conservation of Arctic biodiversity, protection for the Freedom of the Seas, and commitment to mitigate climate change. They generously funded Arctic research projects and infrastructure development, working in tandem with local governments to best secure their interests. Developing U.S. domestic discourse on Arctic policy propelled the United States to capable leadership as Chair of the Arctic Council from 2015-2017. With this platform, the U.S. forged a variety of Arctic Council initiatives, including public-private renewable energy partnerships, environmentally-sound shipping practices, and a greater global unification of Arctic research. The U.S. Arctic chairmanship achieved numerous victories for Arctic stabilization, development, and protection. Even under the Trump Administration, these measures have largely become institutionalized and persist to the present day.

For all of its successes, gaping contradictions still exist in U.S. Arctic policy. First, the United States exacerbates Arctic degradation by promoting an “all of the above” energy security policy. Fossil fuels are the primary contributors to intensifying weather patterns and global warming. The Arctic’s fragile existence is impaired by the perpetuation of fossil fuels usage. Extracting from the Arctic, which in turn kills the Arctic, is upsettingly ironic and foul. The U.S. itself should disband ambitions of Arctic drilling and leverage its political capital amongst Arctic Council members to champion a full-scale moratorium on drilling activities. If preserving the Arctic’s environment is to be a central goal, nothing should be left to chance. 

Another area where U.S. strategy undermines itself is an incongruity on international maritime affairs. While affirming support for the ‘Freedom of the Seas’ is inherently admirable, the United States does so sans global standing. Of all eight Arctic Council members, the U.S. is the only non-signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Laws of the Seas (UNCLOS). Composed of 167 nations, UNCLOS serves as the constitution of the oceans, accounting for maritime disputes, environmental management, and Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs). By refusing to approve UNCLOS, the U.S. waives full international recognition of its maritime claims and exposes these claims to potential geopolitical competitors. 

Opponents to UNCLOS ratification argue that it would infringe upon U.S. sovereignty and confer decision-making power to an unknown arbiter. To the international community, the U.S. appears duplicitous for sponsoring the rules-based order with words and not actions, distrustful for coercing smaller nations to comply with what it snubs, and haughty for its holier-than-thou approach to contested border disputes. Submitting the U.S. to the same standards as other countries is a guarantor of responsibility, not infringement. Officially complying with basic international norms, by acceding to UNCLOS, is the best course of action to strengthen legitimacy and dispel hypocrisy.

President Trump, upon inheriting America’s most sturdy Arctic policy in history, single-handedly rejected scientific consensus by labeling climate change a hoax. In doing so, he has profoundly altered the government’s perception, recognition, and reporting on climate change. Rather than pursuing marketable renewable energy, the Administration has doubled down on fossil fuel consumption. The newly introduced Trump White House website was purged from allusions to ‘climate change’ and ‘global warming’. Neglecting responsibility on this magnitude is nothing short of dereliction. 

Future generations must contend with the sins of the past, but the Arctic may soon not even have hope of a future. Habitat destruction, death, repeat—this is the failure of American leadership to anticipate the cries of an unambiguous science. President Trump must perform a complete political reversal by acknowledging climate change’s existence, reinstating the Paris Climate Accord, and severing America’s addiction to fossil fuels, lest global progress melts into oblivion.

A peaceful Arctic is predicated on steadfast cooperation in all dimensions. Every nation, especially the United States, has benefited immeasurably from joint scientific research and trust-building diplomacy. The Trump Administration’s adherence to “America First” policies reflect a preference for unilateralism, to the detriment of unity and the advantages accrued from partnership. Abandoning the Paris Agreement significantly damaged America’s standing in the world while welcoming impending harm. The world is no better off for this. 

Even nationally, this isolationist reflex has demoted American security imperatives. For instance, icebreakers, fortified ships capable of piercing thick Arctic ice, are revolutionizing trade routes throughout the Arctic. Nevertheless, icebreakers remain in critical supply: Russia boasts over 40 ships in its fleet; the U.S. has just two. Recognizing this situational urgency, the Senate supported legislation funding the construction of a third icebreaker in 2018, but the nationalist demand for a border wall effectively killed the program. Michael Sfraga, director of the Wilson Institute’s Polar Center admitted, “We often count on the fact that the United States can stand on its own. Here is one area where we simply can’t”. This is especially the case when the United States turns inward and forsakes the order it once upheld. 

The United States has unfinished business remaining in the Arctic. Tremendous success has already been achieved, but climate change ceases at nothing. Until the U.S. remedies these internal and international discrepancies, American policy will be persistently deficient, and the Arctic, a forthcoming puddle.