High North or High Tension?

How to head off war in the last frontier on Earth.

U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Charly Hengen
U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Charly Hengen

Canadian General Walt Natynczyk, the former chief of Canada’s armed forces, was once asked what his response would be if the Canadian Arctic was ever invaded. With a very slight twinkle in his eye he said, “If someone was foolish enough to attack us in the High North, my first duty would be search and rescue.”

Good humor aside, the general’s point is reasonably well taken. The likelihood of a conventional offensive military operation in the Arctic is very low, despite some commentators’ overheated rhetoric. While there are many diplomatic and ecological challenges, the odds are good that the international community will eventually find its way to a true zone of cooperation around the Arctic Circle and manage to avoid turning the region — the last frontier on Earth — into a zone of needless conflict. But there are issues that must be addressed as competition rises in the High North if we are to avoid high tension.

The risks are fairly well known. There is a steady reduction in the year-round Arctic ice formations resulting from global warming — a 40 percent reduction in ice over the past 30 years. This means that hydrocarbon and mineral resources (billions of barrels of oil, much of the world’s undiscovered gas, and a trillion dollars of deep seabed minerals) will be more exposed, that Arctic shipping will increase (a million tons last year), and that tourism will increase (a million visitors last year alone), especially in the summer months. This will present potential problems from oil spills, dangers to wildlife, search and rescue for commercial shipping and tourist boats, and open zones of maneuver for the navies of the Arctic nations to interact.

While the U.N. Law of the Sea Treaty establishes certain legal norms, there is not universal agreement on borders and there has been some difficulty resolving such disputes. Russia and Norway did settle one long-standing conflict recently, but there are other disputes involving Russia, Canada, and Denmark. The potential to eventually mine the deep seabed in the High North, along with oil and gas finds, will undoubtedly create further disagreements and disputes. All of this will affect indigenous communities in the various Arctic “front line” states. While the nascent Arctic Council is a good beginning as an international organization, its membership is under some dispute as other nations that don’t have any “real estate” in the Arctic itself, such as China, clamor for a seat at the table.

The recent rise in tension in Russia’s relationship with the other Arctic front-line states — all of which happen to be in NATO — doesn’t help. The United States, Canada, Norway, Denmark/Greenland, and Iceland are not seeing eye-to-eye with Russia at the moment on a basket of issues, from the occupation of Georgia, to NATO missile defense systems, to how to handle Syria. That has a tendency to bleed over into dealings in other zones, reducing the propensity to cooperate.

So how can the United States chart a course toward what the Canadians like to call a policy of “High North, Low Tension”?

First, the United States needs to be better prepared to operate up north. We have only two Coast Guard icebreakers, Healy and Polar Star, neither in first-class shape. Other nations are doing a far better job building the ships and associated aircraft and systems to operate in extreme conditions — Russia alone has dozens of icebreakers, and the Chinese have more than we do. We should invest more in such ships so that we can conduct year-round search and rescue, navigational charting, research and development, and environmental response. While these ships are expensive at $860 million, their utility is unquestionable given increasing ice openings. This is laid out in the U.S. Coast Guard’s recently published Arctic strategy. In addition, the U.S. government must encourage interagency teamwork in the High North — increased capabilities will require far more than just the Coast Guard’s limited resources and attention.

Second, we need to double down on international cooperation via the Arctic Council. Currently a small-scale international organization, it must be nurtured and resourced. Ratification of the U.N. Law of the Sea Treaty, a perennial topic in American foreign policy, would also increase U.S. influence in the Arctic. For the United States, working closely with Canada in particular and our NATO partners in the Arctic generally makes good sense and would reduce costs to individual nations. We should use the Arctic Council to ensure that each nation’s military movements, intentions, and patterns of operation are fully understood — thus reducing the prospect of inadvertent tension. There are also important so-called “Track II” projects, like the rapidly growing annual conference sponsored by, a loose confederation of experts in the region who met in Iceland last week.

Third, we need to work as closely as we can with Russia in the Arctic. Although we will inevitably have disagreements over other topics, it is possible the High North could be a zone of cooperation with the Russian Federation. We have shown the ability to work together in Afghanistan, on counternarcotics and counterterrorism, in combating piracy, and in strategic arms control and reductions. We should do what we can — working with NATO allies — to make it so.

Fourth, the United States should invest a reasonable amount in the sensors and technology to map and track the Arctic — satellites, reconnaissance flights, and undersea monitoring. Tied to this are investments in technologies that enable safe operations and monitor the environment — from magnetic fields to seismic activity to water column temperatures to wildlife migrations. All of this must be done in an ecologically responsible manner, of course. DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, has a significant potential role here.

Nearly 100 years ago, American Rear Admiral and Medal of Honor recipient Richard E. Byrd said of the opposite pole that he was hopeful that “Antarctica, in its symbolic robe of white, will shine forth as a continent of peace.” If we are to create a similar zone of peace in the High North, we have some work to do.

 Twitter: @stavridisj

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