Can the Arctic’s unique distinction as a zone of peace be maintained? “The Arctic Senator” explains what it will take.
BY LISA MURKOWSKI
A battle-ready flotilla of 50 warships and 40 military aircraft cruised across the North Pacific. In its path was a small fleet of American fishermen. When the flotilla’s course encroached on the U.S. fishing grounds, the flotilla aggressively directed the fishing fleet to leave the area. The fishermen, a resilient and experienced group—the “seen it all” type—were understandably shocked. Seeing no choice, they quickly fled the scene. After all, what could an unarmed collection of fishermen do in the face of such a force? When the prop mist settled, the fishermen were left wondering what they had just confronted. One even pondered whether America was being invaded.
This incident is not an anecdote from Pearl Harbor or the Aleutian Campaign. It was a Russian military operation that took place this past August in the Bering Sea. It was the largest assemblage of military resources in the region since the Cold War and included nuclear submarines equipped with cruise missiles, warships, advanced fighter jets and strategic bombers. The exercise, known as Ocean Shield, did not cause any physical harm, but this should not obscure its threat. Ocean Shield forced a U.S. Bering Sea fishing fleet to run from their fishing grounds even though they were legally operating inside the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone. The involuntary withdrawal cost the fishermen millions of dollars and also put a fissure in the armor of “Arctic exceptionalism”—the decades-old norm by which the Arctic has remained a zone of peace.
Arctic exceptionalism has long been the normative concept that prescribes the Arctic as a unique region with a set of unwritten rules, beliefs and history that has given it a level of immunity to many of the world’s geopolitical problems. Arctic states, stakeholders and citizens exist and operate in the region and with each other largely without conflict. Arctic exceptionalism has held firm since the end of the Cold War, but in the face of today’s environmental changes, it is being challenged.
With the opening of new sea routes and easier access to oil, gas and critical minerals, a “new Arctic” is forming. Many countries, including the United States, are turning to their militaries and antagonistic rhetoric to safeguard their interests in the region and make their intentions known—and this is leading many people to now question if the Arctic can, in fact, remain exceptional.
The Arctic can and must remain exceptional, but ensuring that it does will be a challenge. It will require the U.S. Congress to pay greater attention to the region. It will require our executive branch, along with businesses and corporations, to invest in infrastructure and expand connectivity. It will require us to maintain our energy independence and reverse growing mineral dependence from countries such as China. And it will require us to exercise serious and dedicated Arctic diplomacy—a capacity we will have to create.
The U.S. Foreign Service is the first line of America’s national security apparatus. Despite a budget that is no more than 3 to 5 percent the size of our defense budget, it is the State Department that is expected to set the course for our national interests abroad, to have the tough conversations, to try to find common ground. Yet in recent years it’s been the military, sometimes out of necessity and sometimes by mistake, that has assumed that role. As the late George Shultz recently wrote in this very journal, “Reliance on military threats, with little or no effort at diplomacy, is the most prominent feature of our relations with nations that we associate with anti-American sentiments and actions.” We cannot let this trend continue in the Arctic.
It will require us to exercise serious and dedicated Arctic diplomacy—a capacity we will have to create.
Every one of our military service branches has published a new Arctic strategy in the last 18 months. U.S. military operations in the High North have increased in size, scale and frequency. In Congress, I have sponsored and supported legislation to aid these strategies and operations. And I have commended the Defense Department for its renewed focus on the Arctic. Make no mistake, we need an Arctic-capable military, just as we need and expect our military to effectively operate in all regions—deserts, jungles, mountains and cities. Diplomacy works best with the backing of a strong military.
The military, however, cannot be the first tool of diplomacy, especially in the Arctic, where peace has been and still is the norm. As we build an Arctic-capable military, should we not also build an Arctic-capable diplomatic corps?
The United States is one of the only Arctic countries without an Arctic ambassador—a diplomatic post that even many non-Arctic countries have. The Arctic is not represented at the assistant secretary of State level inside the State Department, as most global regions are, but is instead represented within the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs, which has done an admirable job.
It was only in 2014 that we gained a “Special Representative for the Arctic,” appointed by President Barack Obama. This position was eliminated in 2017 only to be replaced by President Donald Trump in 2020 with the “Coordinator for the Arctic Region.” Establishing the special representative position and then the coordinator position was important for America’s Arctic advocates. That good progress continued when the consulate in Nuuk, Greenland, reopened this past summer—a positive step toward expanding our diplomatic presence in and commitment to the Arctic region.
To many countries outside the United States, though, those actions were emblematic of our government’s historic neglect of the region. They highlighted the slow and uncertain path of establishing robust and consistent American diplomatic Arctic leadership. And they did little to disprove our often-wavering commitment and piecemeal approach. Moreover, these diplomatic moves are still overshadowed by the suggestion of securitizing the Arctic rather than seeking common ground.
In 2019 I attended the Arctic Council ministerial meeting in Finland, where then–Secretary of State Mike Pompeo suggested it was time to bring security issues into the multilateral Arctic discussion. There is merit to this suggestion, because we cannot ignore that the region is becoming increasingly militarized, regardless of what we may hope or desire. However, security issues should remain off the Arctic Council’s agenda. There are appropriate platforms to discuss Arctic defense—the Munich Security Conference’s Arctic Security Round Table being one. Bringing back the Chiefs of Arctic Defense meeting is another.
Ready or not, Arctic and non-Arctic countries are coming to the Arctic, and both Arctic and non-Arctic countries know the region’s resources play a vital role in their futures.
It wasn’t the remark about security by our chief diplomat that stayed with me, however. Instead, it was when he felt the need to rebuke China for its assertion of being a “near-Arctic state.” Let me be perfectly clear: China is not an Arctic state, and declaring itself a near-Arctic state, as Mr. Pompeo correctly stated, “entitles them to exactly nothing.” But the very fact that our top diplomat needed to dissuade a non-Arctic country from being interested in the Arctic said less about China’s interest in the region than it did about how he viewed our own nation’s ability to diplomatically safeguard our own interests in that region.
Ready or not, Arctic and non-Arctic countries are coming to the Arctic, and both Arctic and non-Arctic countries know the region’s resources play a vital role in their futures. Russian President Vladimir Putin believes upward of $30 trillion of wealth exists in the region. Chinese President Xi Jinping sees benefit from Russia’s oil and gas, fuel that is shipped from Russia’s Kola Peninsula along the Northern Sea Route, through the Bering Sea, to the Chinese coast—coming to within a stone’s throw of the United States along the way. There is no question as to why the Russian military had such a large presence in the Bering Sea last summer, nor any wonder why China calls itself “near-Arctic.”
If we are meeting China and Russia at the negotiating table, then the Arctic—the region itself, what it represents and what it entails—is a front-and-center issue, not some far-off place. The United States must treat it that way. This means having Arctic-literate diplomats and statesmen, not just Arctic soldiers and sailors. To this end, I tirelessly advocate for establishing Arctic leadership and expect the current and subsequent administrations to build on what previous administrations have started. I have directly asked President Joe Biden to consider expanding America’s Arctic leadership across the executive branch, within both the State and Defense Departments, on the National Security Council and beyond.
I have asked that the Arctic Executive Steering Committee be reestablished, with additional seats for Alaska Native leadership. I recommended that a senior adviser for the Arctic report to the president’s special envoy for climate—because one cannot craft and execute actionable climate policy without considering the Arctic, and one cannot address the broad and interrelated aspects of climate without addressing the realities of resource extraction. And I have also asked the new administration to quickly appoint the first executive director of the Ted Stevens Center for Arctic Security Studies, a congressionally authorized and funded regional studies center I helped secure through legislation that promotes security cooperation in the Arctic.
I have confidence and trust in our State Department leaders to effectively represent America’s interest and values abroad. As the late Senator John McCain said: “Our values are our strength and greatest treasure. We are distinguished from other countries because we are not made from a land or tribe or particular race or creed, but from an ideal that liberty is the inalienable right of mankind and in accord with nature and nature’s Creator.” I ask that our current diplomatic leaders and Foreign Service and Civil Service officers recommit to representing our national values in the Arctic while also representing the values of a proud and true Arctic nation to the rest of the world.
The United States must be prepared to shape the contours of a future Arctic that takes into account the equities of all Arctic peoples and reflects the norms, values and interests of the United States and like-minded nations. And when our ideals differ from those of other nations, we must deflect the urge to immediately call on our tanks and troops. We must diplomatically engage in the Arctic in the same way our diplomats do so well across the rest of the world. I believe that in doing this, our diplomats will uncover the ideas and meet the people who truly make the Arctic exceptional, which in turn will allow the Arctic to remain a place of harmony and collaboration.
The Arctic can continue to be a place of peace if we only try.