The Arctic is the Mediterranean of the 21st century.
- By James HolmesJames Holmes is an associate professor of strategy at the Naval War College and co-author of Red Star over the Pacific: China's Rise and the Challenge to U.S. Maritime Strategy. The views voiced here are his alone.
If climate scientists’ prophesies of an ice-free Arctic Ocean pan out, the world will witness the most sweeping transformation of geopolitics since the Panama Canal opened. Seafaring nations and industries will react assertively — as they did when merchantmen and ships of war sailing from Atlantic seaports no longer had to circumnavigate South America to reach the Pacific Ocean. There are commercial, constabulary, and military components to this enterprise. The United States must position itself at the forefront of polar sea power along all three axes.
Understandably enough, most commentary on a navigable Arctic accentuates economic opportunities, such as extracting natural resources and shortening sea voyages. Countries fronting on polar waters — the United States, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, and Sweden comprise the intergovernmental Arctic Council — will enjoy exclusive rights to fish and tap undersea resources in hundreds of thousands of square miles of water off their shores. Nations holding waterfront property in the Arctic will bolster their coast guards to police their territorial seas and exclusive economic zones during ice-free intervals.
But they will not be the only beneficiaries. Former U.S. Navy chief oceanographer David Titley estimates that "sometime between 2035 and 2040 there is a pretty good chance that the Arctic Ocean will be essentially ice-free for about a month" each year. If so, polar shipping lanes will cut transit distances by up to 40 percent, saving ship owners big bucks on fuel and maintenance. They could pass those savings on to producers and consumers of the cargo their vessels carry. Global warming, it appears, could bestow significant advantages on mariners, fostering economic growth in the bargain. New sources of wealth concentrate minds.
But the geopolitics of climate change is just as consequential as the economics, and more intriguing. A strategic realignment could take place as the geographic setting — the arena where great powers grapple for advantage — widens to enfold a new inland sea. Navies will dispatch squadrons to the Arctic Ocean lest it become a theater for naval rivalry.
There’s precedent for this. This is not the first time new portals to inland seas have opened — or navies have scrambled to control access to new nautical highways. Until 1869, for example, shipping could enter the Mediterranean Sea only though the Strait of Gibraltar. Geography compelled European ships to round Africa or South America to reach Asia. Passage from the British Isles to India consumed up to six months.
Human enterprise changed all that. Opening the Suez Canal wrought a revolution in maritime affairs, shaving nearly 3,900 miles off the journey to Asia while converting the Mediterranean from a true inland sea into a thoroughfare for commerce and military endeavors. The Mediterranean and Red seas were now a conduit to the Indian Ocean. Europeans, and in particular Britons, swiveled their strategic gaze — and their naval power — southeastward. The canal tightened Europe’s commercial and military grip on Asia.
Or there’s the Caribbean and Gulf. Before 1914, when the Panama Canal opened its locks, America looked eastward to Europe. After 1914, transoceanic passage abridged steaming distances between the U.S. Atlantic and Pacific coasts by 5,000 miles or more. And, in effect, the waterway teleported Atlantic seaports closer to Asia. Writing in 1944, Yale University scholar Nicholas Spykman observed that New York suddenly found itself closer to Shanghai than the British seaport of Liverpool was.
Less circuitous, less time-consuming voyages to the Far East bestowed commercial and military advantages on the United States vis-à-vis its European competitors — allowing the United States to reinforce its standing as a Pacific power. Constructing a transoceanic canal, wrote Spykman, "had the effect of turning the whole of the United States around on its axis." The republic now faced south toward the Caribbean and west toward Pacific waters — dividing its gaze between Europe and the Far East. Talk about a pivot to Asia!
U.S. leaders who felt the tug of the sea — notably Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Cabot Lodge, and Alfred Thayer Mahan — glimpsed this strategic revolution before it took place. Before the Spanish-American War, for instance, Mahan was already warning that European imperial powers would seek naval bases in the Caribbean Sea — bases from which they could control the sea lanes leading to the Isthmus. Official Washington should undertake that kind of strategic forethought today — lest the United States find itself playing material, intellectual, and doctrinal catch-up when Arctic sea routes open.
Admittedly, an accessible Arctic Ocean probably won’t rearrange the physical and mental map of the world to the same degree as the Suez or Panama canals. Even Admiral Titley’s forecast indicates that northern waters will remain off-limits to shipping around eleven months of the year, as the icecap expands and contracts. Consequently, there will be a rhythm to polar seafaring not found in temperate seas. And that seasonal rhythm could be erratic. The icepack’s advance and retreat will presumably vary from year to year with temperature fluctuations. Navigable routes will prove unpredictable — limiting the scope of commercial and military endeavors.
But even partial and episodic access to Arctic sea lanes will add a northern vector to seagoing nations’ strategic calculus. Not just Arctic countries but countries like China, Japan, and South Korea — countries that look eastward across the Pacific or southward toward the Indian Ocean when thinking about maritime security — will cast their gaze toward such polar entryways as the Bering Strait, Baffin Bay, and the Greenland-Iceland-U.K. gap.
What will they see? The intermittent appearance and disappearance of a mediterranean sea — a body of water nearly or wholly enclosed by land — atop the world could renew interest in geopolitical theories that have lain dormant for decades. Starting in 1904, for instance, Sir Halford Mackinder published influential works exploring the relationship between land and sea power. Great Britain’s Royal Navy had ruled the waves since the eighteenth century. Mackinder wrote with an eye toward preserving British geopolitical ascendancy, which was premised on mastery of what Spykman termed the "surrounding string of marginal and mediterranean seas which separates the continent from the oceans" and "constitutes a circumferential maritime highway which links the whole area together in terms of sea power."
Sea power is about strategic mobility. A maritime nation with unfettered access to littoral waters enjoys the liberty to maneuver around the periphery — radiating power into Eurasia without heavy ground forces. Yet Mackinder fretted that land power would win out over British sea power, tapping the strategic mobility offered by railways and steam propulsion. He famously designated the Eurasian "Heartland" — a vast central plain ringed by mountains, and bounded by the Arctic to the north — the key to world dominance. Indeed, his main analytical tool was a map centered on the "pivot area" encompassing and adjoining Siberia.
Mackinder postulated that whoever controlled the Heartland occupied the "interior lines" vis-à-vis a global sea power like Great Britain whose forces had to maneuver along "exterior lines" in the marginal and inland seas. Operating along interior lines is like operating along the radii within a circle; operating along exterior lines is like operating around the circle’s circumference. Shorter distances mean swifter response times when trouble looms. Advantage: land power.
A continental power based in the Heartland lay closer than any seaborne competitor to likely scenes of action around the Eurasian periphery. It could shift armies nimbly from side to side by rail, outpacing navies forced to lumber from place to place across great distances. In short, a land power blessed with this central position could shape events in what Spykman termed the "rimlands," or outlying regions forming the interface between the Heartland and the sea. Western Europe and the "monsoon lands" of East and South Asia fell under the Heartland’s shadow.
Here’s the punch line. Spykman declared that British imperial power "rested on a maritime encirclement of the European land mass." British fleets dominated the circumferential maritime highway, ranging back and forth at the crown’s behest. From there they could radiate power into the Heartland via the rimlands. But a "competing sea power on the littoral of the continent" could threaten British mastery of marginal waters, as could "the penetration of Russian land power to the coast." Such developments could impede British strategic mobility, and thus London’s capacity to project power shoreward through the rimlands. A continental power, then, could prevail over the world’s preeminent sea power by mastering the rimlands.
The United States is heir to British naval supremacy and thus, to borrow Spykman’s terminology, depends on maritime encirclement of Eurasia to sustain its own strategic position. But like fin de siècle Britain’s, America’s naval mastery is under stress, with worldwide commitments and stagnant or dwindling assets to meet those commitments. And climate change promises to increase the burden. Receding Arctic ice promises to complete the watery belt enclosing Eurasia — bringing Russian power to the northern frontier of the Heartland at least intermittently. Indeed, the Northern Sea Route passing along Russia’s northern coast was ice-free in 2008 for the first time in recorded history (as was the Northwest Passage, to Canada’s north).
Further warming would liberate Russia from its perennial quest for year-round access to the sea while granting the Russian military full use of Eurasia’s interior lines. Mackinder’s geospatial analysis would be complete. But at the same time, climate change would transform the northern tier of the Heartland into an arctic rimland — letting a dominant sea power project influence directly into the Heartland for the first time. Moscow could radiate power outward — but it would have to defend against sea powers arrayed along its Arctic flank. The argument between Spykman and Mackinder would resume. Spykman believed the rimlands offered the key to the Heartland, whereas Mackinder insisted on the primacy of land power in Eurasia. Would land or sea power triumph once rimlands came to enclose all of the Heartland?
This question could well be put to the test. The logic that drove great-power competition in the Mediterranean Sea for many centuries could well take hold in the polar Mediterranean. Like the Mediterranean, the Arctic Ocean is ringed by strong seafaring nations, including Russia and five NATO allies. This stands in stark contrast to the Caribbean Sea, and to that other inland sea that has dominated headlines of late, the South China Sea. Each expanse is home to a single strong power that overshadows many lesser ones.
Depending on how relations between Moscow and the West unfold, furthermore, the future could see a resurgence of Cold War-style naval competition. Think back. The U.S. Maritime Strategy of the 1980s called on aircraft-carrier task forces to steam into Soviet waters to assault the Soviet Navy in its "bastions," or defended home waters. Horizontal escalation, believed the strategy’s framers, would relieve NATO ground forces fighting in Central Europe. Climate change would expand the scope for similar horizontal escalation along the rimlands — a strategy that might gladden Spykman’s heart. At the same time, relatively free mobility along the northern tier would allow the Russian Navy to combine fleets more readily — curtailing the isolation of its Pacific Fleet at a time when Moscow again covets influence in the Far East.
How the ensuing struggle for maritime influence would unfold is anyone’s guess. Spykman concluded his survey of Eurasian geography with a play on Mackinder’s dictum that whoever controlled the Heartland controlled Eurasia, and thence the world. Spykman’s rejoinder: "Whoever controls the rimland rules Eurasia; who rules Eurasia controls the destinies of the world." Climate change could vindicate his proverb. Seagoing states should plan ahead to exploit the economic benefits of an ice-free Arctic. Coast guards should ready themselves for police duty in northern waters. But it also befits navies to ponder strategy for this brave new world in the making.