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Global Warming Heightens Arctic Stakes

By Keith Kloor

Last month, a story in Forbes headlined, "U.S. Navy scrambles for piece of Arctic pie," highlighted what is perhaps the most explicit test case for climate change and geopolitics. As Forbes reported:

The U.S. Navy is staging the aquatic-equivalent of a dog-and-pony show in the Arctic Ocean this month with a small fleet of nuclear-powered submarines. The military exercises are designed to bolster U.S. claims on emerging — and likely lucrative — commercial opportunities in the region, which have attracted intense interest in recent years as global warming accelerates what appears to be the permanent loss of sea ice in the Arctic.

For some quick background, here's what the Center for a New American Security wrote in a report last April:

Reductions in Arctic summer sea ice have created new opportunities for access to maritime trade routes and sea lines of communication, and potential access to vast supplies of zinc, nickel, palladium, precious stones and other various minerals, as well as oil and natural gas under the ocean with an estimated value of 1.2 trillion dollars.  

Political map of the countries bordering the Arctic. Credit: University of Texas.

There's a relevant backstory that is important to know. In 2007, Russian explorers planted their country's flag on the Arctic floor under the North Pole. As the BBC reported then, "Russia's claim to a vast swathe of territory in the Arctic, thought to contain oil, gas and mineral reserves, has been challenged by several other powers, including the US."

My favorite quote in that story is from then-Canadian Foreign Minister Peter MacKay, who said, "This isn't the 15th Century.You can't go around the world and just plant flags and say 'We're claiming this territory'."

Maybe not, but in case the message wasn't received loud enough, the Kremlin warned two years later in a national security document:

In a competition for resources it cannot be ruled out that military force could be used to resolve emerging problems that would destroy the balance of forces near the borders of Russia and her allies.

This global warming = Arctic geopolitical hot spot narrative was echoed by scholars. In a March 2009 essay in the journal Foreign Affairs, entitled, "The Great Game moves North," Scott Borgerson wrote that, "The next few years will be critical in determining whether the region's long-term future will be one of international harmony and the rule of law, or a Hobbesian free-for-all."

It's been several years since Borgerson published that essay, so to paraphrase one of Ed Koch's favorite quips, How we Doing? Is the Arctic heating up not just literally but also politically and militarily? Are western nations working cooperatively to balance out their competing Arctic interests or they preparing for that "Hobbesian for-for-all"? 

My sense, after querying environmental security experts, is that the geopolitics of the Arctic lie somewhere in the middle of these two poles. I'll delve more deeply into this in a future post, laying out the various pathways that might lead to international cooperation or conflict.

Meanwhile, Geoffrey Dabelko, the director of the environmental change and security program at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars, summarized the current state of affairs, when he said to me via email:

The institutions are there in the Arctic to navigate peacefully the inevitable disputes, squabbles, and competition around new transport routes, new access to resources, and new borders (or newly relevant ones) engendered by climate change. They have to be prioritized and given a chance to work rather than jumping to the overheated rhetoric that followed the Russian flag planting stunt. And there are difficult questions about who has standing in such forums: litoral states or all states. But ironically, that very stunt made it much easier to get greater attention for the changing Arctic where it was previously garnering little notice. 

I'm guessing that we'll still see plenty of posturing — both rhetorically and militarily — as the the Arctic sea ice continues to melt. But Dabelko thinks that the U.S. and Russia (and presumably the other Arctic states) will be able navigate the turbulent waters ahead:

Our political institutions should be up to negotiating these high stakes economic and political changes to avoid more overtly conflictual outcomes. Of course heading off conflict as a result of climate change is significantly easier than heading off climate change itself. On the latter, our political institutions are obviously failing.


By Chad Briggs
on April 15th, 2011

I agree with Geoff, that current geopolitical institutions can handle the challenges of conflicts over sovereignty and territory. Much of that discussion is overheated, and one need only look at how effectively Norway has been able to negotiate with Russia to understand that even small states can hold their own. There is still some denial (especially in Europe) of the role China will play in the region, but the more troubling concerns are functional/operational. Responsibilities like maritime and aerospace patrol, search and rescue, and environmental monitoring/cleanup are orders of magnitude more difficult in the Arctic than elsewhere. It’s also expensive, and countries like Canada, Denmark and the US aren’t really investing in those capabilities. It’s not so much a geopolitical question for militaries, as it is lack of infrastructure and extreme operating conditions.

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By Chad Briggs
on April 15th, 2011

Thanks for the compliment, Keith.

The popular media discussions of environmental security are often disconnected from the research community, or military concerns (I guess I deal with both). In the 1990s there were influential pieces in the Atlantic Monthly addressing Africa (notably Robert Kaplan’s The Coming Anarchy), which were far more gloom-and-doom than what most researchers were discussing. I think works like that did influence policy, at least insofar as it reinforced beliefs in the Clinton administration that it was too difficult to intervene in sub-Saharan Africa.

As for the Arctic, I would guess that it’s a response to surprising and highly visible physical changes in the region, especially melting of the Greenland ice sheet and Arctic sea ice. Add to that an older narrative of Cold War containment, and people may assume that the Russians are trying to claim territory. I think the real story is much more complicated, and people like Katarzyna Zysk do a good job of trying to explain it (look up her 2010 JFQ article).

As to whether that influences policy, it’s hard to say. In Canada it influences politics, less so substantive policy changes, while the US has been surprisingly silent on the issue (there are perhaps too many domestic issues to deal with, and northern Alaska isn’t considered domestic enough). The US Navy and Canadian Air Force have done some of the best work on the subject this side of the Atlantic, and as I said, their concerns are very practical. Behind the scenes, the North Atlantic Coast Guard Forum has been working away at enormous challenges to their missions (

We’re going to focus on this issues increasingly in USAF, though as I wrote, most of the concerns center on just how difficult it is to operate in that environment and over those distances (unless one has a nuclear sub). And the emerging risks come more from accidents than deliberate actions. Just imagine a Deepwater Horizon incident in the Far North, where no rescue or cleanup is possible.

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By Geoff Dabelko (Washington)
on April 16th, 2011


Who has standing in negotiating agreements regarding the Arctic is a very interesting question? Is it regional players or wider, treating it as a commons and something more like global environmental agreements?  Hopefully some of the UNCLOS experts can weigh in.  Interesting that from a US military perspective, the official position from the Navy is the U.S. Senate should ratify the Law of the Sea so the US is in the room and party to the treaty when the rules are being negotiated.  We are still on the outside looking in because the stars can’t align perfectly to get it through the Senate (another interesting and sickening story of how our institutions aren’t up to pursuing our national interests because achieving them means working through cooperative multilateral institutions).

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By Jonathan Gilligan
on April 16th, 2011

It’s worth noting that as long as the US refuses to ratify the Convention on the Law of the Sea, we’re legally excluded from the formal mechanisms for negotiating claims of territory and mineral rights on the Arctic sea floor and to resolve disputes over passage rights.  The US Navy has been badly frustrated by the constraints imposed on it around the world (not only in the Arctic) by our failure to ratify CLOS, and the opening of the Arctic Ocean only exacerbates this.

And while Chad Bridges has confidence in the ability of less structured diplomacy to manage conflicts, I do worry when stunts lead to sabre-rattling, as with the Russian bomber overflights that followed the flag-planting. When they shade into military threats, stunts have the potential to go awry too fast for diplomacy to correct (c.f., Guns of August and Missiles of October). At the same time, I agree with Dabelko that the attention Arctic melting has brought to CLOS and related matters is a real benefit.

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