U.S. Strategic Interests in the Arctic

An Assessment of Current Challenges and New Opportunities for Cooperation

During the height of the Cold War, the Arctic region was considered a geostrategic and geopolitical playground for the United States and the Soviet Union, as strategic bombers and nuclear submarines crossed over and raced below the polar cap. Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the region diminished in strategic importance to the United States. Now, 20 years later, senior U.S. military and diplomatic officials have turned their attention once again to the Arctic but in a far different way than during the Cold War.

The effects of climate change have launched the Arctic Circle to the forefront of geopolitical calculations, potentially transforming the region into a commercial hub fraught both with environmental concerns and complex challenges that have direct implications for U.S. national security. According to the U.S. Department of Defense’s 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review, climate change acts as an “instability accelerant” that will play a significant role in “shaping the future security environment.” The melting of the northern polar ice has dramatically altered this once static geographic and oceanic region and is responsible for the new-found profitability and geostrategic relevance of the region. Access to oil, gas, minerals, fish, and transportation routes, formerly locked in by thick ice, are for the first time becoming accessible and viable sources of profit.

With greater accessibility to the Arctic region and its abundant resources come both new opportunities for multilateral cooperation and the potential for regional competition and dispute, particularly conflicting territorial claims and managing maritime resources. Protracted disagreement among the Arctic littoral states could cause individual Arctic nations to become increasingly assertive in their resource and territorial claims, which has the potential to lead to the militarization of the Arctic. Although this scenario would appear to be unlikely, it is critical to articulate U.S. strategic interests in the Arctic region and develop a plan of action to ensure U.S. leadership in this evolving region to both anticipate challenges and offer multilateral and transparent resolution to these challenges. This report will identify the most pressing U.S. interests in the Arctic region; describe the United States’ current policy and engagement in the Arctic region; analyze the current Arctic institutional construct and its relevance to future challenges; assess the diplomatic and security postures of the other Arctic littoral states; and finally, provide both short- and long-term recommendations for future U.S. policy in the Arctic.