The New US Arctic Strategy. Welcome back, America!
On 7 October 2022, the US released its National Strategy for the Arctic Region, a welcome, important new policy. It marks a strong and clarifying shift in the US’s focus in the Arctic over recent years.
The New US Arctic Strategy. Welcome back, America!
On 7 October 2022, the US released its National Strategy for the Arctic Region, a welcome, important new policy. It marks a strong and clarifying shift in the US’s focus in the Arctic over recent years. Without exaggeration, one can say:” The US is back in the Arctic!”
The new strategy addresses major challenges that the Arctic has been increasingly facing since the US Arctic strategy of 2013. It provides for greater involvement of the Alaska Native Peoples, more international cooperation with US allies and partners, and it must be seen in the context of the current turbulent geopolitical context.
The new Arctic strategy brings new, or at least renewed, impetus to the US’s involvement in the Arctic file. “Renewed”, because there have been continuing US efforts to address the importance and challenges of the Arctic. But, especially over recent years, people often questioned whether the US actually did have an Arctic strategy. Despite impressive efforts from politicians in the region, especially from Senator Murkowski of Alaska, to provide visibility to the American High North, the Arctic was at the time not high on the US federal agenda. And when it did reach the news, it rather distressed the Arctic community.
Former President Trump refocused US Arctic policy, limiting it mainly to national security, and oil and gas development. He favored oil drilling in Alaska. The US upset the Arctic Council Ministerial in 2019  by preventing it from adopting a final Declaration because of its reference to climate change. State Secretary Pompeo stunned Arctic stakeholders with the US’s very aggressive stand towards Russia and China, using unusual confrontational language at such gatherings, normally marked by a positive Arctic spirit.
Under the Trump Administration, US reputation as an Arctic State reached exceptionally low levels. As expressed at the time by Dr. Victoria Hermann: “With no strong fleet of icebreakers, no Arctic Ambassador, and no climate change policy, America is arguably the weakest circumpolar nation”.
During the same period, there was the very interesting phenomenon, unique to the US, of the notably very active stand of the US defence sector on the Arctic. The US military apparently understood years ago that the Arctic is changing and embraced it. They wanted to understand the changes happening and to be prepared to operate in the Arctic. The Department of Defense’s Arctic Strategy was launched, focusing on national security, protecting the US interests in the North and projecting military strength, while acknowledging the implications of climate change. In January 2021, the US Army Arctic Strategy was launched, entitled: “Regaining dominance in the Arctic”, and it aimed to increase the US Army’s ability to operate in extreme cold weather.
Then, in October 2022, in line with President Bidens’s policy priorities, a long expected new US Arctic Strategy was launched, based on the President’s wish to have science-based driven policies. It does not deny the realities of climate change – on the contrary. It promotes clean energy, bans offshore drilling in the Arctic, and – due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and consequent geopolitical developments – it has put security on top of its Arctic policy.
The Biden Administration brought back key-institutions, such as the Arctic Executive Steering Committee and revitalized the US Arctic Research Commission (USARC). Also, it is interesting to note that the new US Arctic Strategy was led by the National Security Council (NSC)
The new strategy states from the outset that “the US seeks an Arctic region that is peaceful, stable, prosperous, and cooperative”. Some wondered why the US would make such a statement knowing that “Arctic exceptionalism” no longer exists. But this is not relevant. Indeed, Arctic exceptionalism already stopped existing since 2014, when conflicts outside the Arctic affected the region. And despite the increased risk of tension and even risks of conflict in the Arctic, we believe that it remains important and is in the interest of all, to strive for a safe, stable, sustainable, peaceful, and prosperous Arctic. This is exactly the overall objective of the EU updated Arctic policy of October 2021 .
The new US Arctic Strategy is based on four mutually reinforcing pillars: Pillar 1 – Security; Pillar 2 – Climate Change & Environmental Protection; Pillar 3 – Sustainable Economic Development; and Pillar 4 – International Cooperation and Governance.
Some elements to be highlighted:
Security. The strategy states that it is “our highest priority to protect the American people and our sovereign territory and rights”. To this end, within its territory, the US intends enhancing the capabilities required to defend US interests in the Arctic, an area in which it was clearly lagging. It mainly concerns building the necessary infrastructure and strengthening civilian and military capabilities in its high North, such as expanding the US Coast Guard icebreaker fleet. Externally, which is certainly important for Europeans, the US wants to maximise coordination and cooperation with Arctic Allies and partners, to enhance shared security, including to deter Russian aggression in the Arctic.
Climate Change & Environmental Protection. The new strategy addresses the climate crisis with greater urgency. Again, it has a strong internal US focus, in supporting Alaskan communities to build resilience to the impacts of climate change and considering also traditional knowledge in support of science-based decisions. At the same time, the US wants to reduce emissions from the Arctic as part of broader global mitigation efforts and pursue multilateral initiatives to conserve Arctic ecosystems. Also in this case, the external aspect reinforces the internal aspects of the policy.
Sustainable Economic Development. In using the new economic opportunities offered by the warming of the Arctic, the US wants to support economic development, provided it is done in a sustainable way, and improve livelihoods in Alaska by investing in the much-needed infrastructure and improve access to reliable and accessible services for Native communities. It is interesting that the strategy focusses on the transition from fossil fuels towards renewable energy, and that the US clearly wants to expand new emerging economic sectors, such as critical minerals. To increase “responsible Arctic investment”, the US intends to work with its allies and partners in the broader Arctic region. Thus, an opportunity for Europeans.
International Cooperation and Governance. The US continues to sustain institutions for Arctic cooperation, including the Arctic Council that it still considers as fundamental and a premier forum of discussion, but that it seems to downplay its role in the current circumstances. Some even went so far as saying: “It is safe to assume that the US government no longer views the Council as a preferred platform for the conduct of high table diplomacy”, which might not be entirely correct.
However, maybe this position corresponds much more with reality, even before the Arctic Council paused its cooperation with Russia, by recognizing the constructive role of other fora for the Arctic. Indeed, the future of Arctic governance should embrace platforms of Arctic dialogue and cooperation that are “inclusive”, open to all those who can contribute towards addressing the challenges that the Arctic and its people are facing. In this regard, the role of non-Arctic states in regional governance should not be underestimated, on the contrary.
In general, one can say that these four pillars, which concur very much with the EU’s Arctic policy, are the basics of any decent Arctic policy. Hence, it is no surprise that these elementary components are reflected in multiple Arctic policies from Arctic or non-Arctic states. It probably will also be reflected in a potential Belgium Arctic strategy. Where individual states such as Belgium can make a difference in achieving these basic objectives is by adding specific added value, particularly expertise and experience, that they can bring to the table.
Dr Mike Sfraga, Chair of the US Arctic Research Commission, who visited the Egmont Institute on 28 November 2022, qualified the strategy as follows: “The updated US National Strategy for the Arctic Region provides a purposeful and insightful roadmap to both advance and communicate the nation’s interests in the region. It also offers a practical and aspirational vision for the country’s role in creating, with like-minded nations and partners, a peaceful, stable, and prosperous Arctic – for both Arctic and non-Arctic nations.”
A final comment. It might be useful to read the new US Arctic Strategy in conjunction with the new US National Security Strategy, also launched in October 2022. It enumerates the US security strategy per region, referring to the Arctic as “Maintaining a peaceful Arctic”, reiterating strong language related to Russia and China.
In conclusion, the new well-balanced, comprehensive US Arctic strategy strikes the right priorities. Security might be on top of their agenda, but at the same time, the US aims to also sharpen its focus on climate change, on expanding US economic opportunities in a sustainable way, and upholding international law, rules, norms and standards across Arctic countries. The new strategy puts a specific emphasis on Indigenous leadership in the Arctic, which has been qualified as a “pretty significant evolution” and “a notable shift that reflects the growing awareness of the need for meaningful partnerships with Arctic people.”
So, increased cooperation at home, but also new and particularly welcoming, is the US strategy for strengthening relations outside US borders, including more cooperation and support of US allies in the European Arctic. This new strategy will enable increased cooperation between like-minded. Europeans should also use this unique opportunity to intensify transatlantic relations in this unique field of strategic importance, the Arctic.
Welcome back, America!
 Arctic Council Ministerial, Rovaniemi, Finland May 2019.
 Dr Victoria Hermann, President and Managing Director of the Arctic Institute, 2016-2021.
 Report to Congress. Department of Defense Arctic Strategy. June 2019. Objective of this strategy: “An Arctic that is secure and stable region, in which US national interests are safeguarded”.
 Arctic exceptionalism means that the Arctic is an exceptional zone of peace, immune to conflicts outside the region, and based exclusively on cooperation, in contrast to confrontation.
 Russia blocked the EU becoming an Observer of the Arctic Council after the EU issued restrictive measures following the Russian invasion of Crimea.
 Joint Communication of the European Commission and the European External Action Service, an updated EU Arctic Policy of October 2021.
 Press release by the Arctic Institute, 17 October 2022, reacting to the new US National Strategy for the Arctic.
 National Security Strategy, 12 October 2022.
 Dr Rebecca Pincus, Director of the Polar Institute of the Wilson Center, October 2022
(Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)