Por: Álvaro Castillo

Presidente y Fundador de ESPACIOH

Licenciado en Ciencias Políticas-Salve Regina University

Estudiante de Maestría en Seguridad Global y Estudios Estratégicos-Johns Hopkins University

Today the Arctic represents a great power competition zone due to its geopolitical importance and vast natural resources. There is a global conquest ambition between great power states, such as Russia, China, and the United States, to access Arctic territory due to the military and economic advantages it encloses. From a national security perspective, the Arctic's importance lies in its “geographical proximity between the United States and the USSR (now Russia) – ballistic missiles could easily strike the enemy by flying over the Arctic” (Saxena, 2020). From a commercial point of view, the Arctic contains vast oil reserves and potential shipping lanes that can be explored as polar ice caps are rapidly melting as a result of climate change. Theoretical models explain how the use of military power can serve different purposes; in the Arctic rivalry, states seek a security and economic objective.

Military and political tactics must be employed in the Arctic to settle contentions between the ascending Russian and Chinese convergence against America. Historically, Russia has maintained a strong presence in the Arctic and the U.S. wants to catch up with neglected military operations in this glacial region, while China declares it has legitimate claims to this territory. The ongoing trade war between the U.S. and China will only exacerbate the Arctic conflict. Additionally, America is in a disadvantaged position regarding the Arctic competition as Russia and China seek to undermine the American hegemony. As a Revisionist nation, Russia will never relinquish its advances in this region; “Russia is strengthening its military and commercial presence in the Arctic by developing new military and naval bases, refurbishing the old ones, and expanding its already populated fleet of Nuclear-powered icebreakers and submarines” (Saxena, 2020). The interaction between the U.S. and Russia in the Arctic can recreate a Cold War scenario. Furthermore, China is even offering strategic investments in Finland, Iceland, and Greenland to spread its influence in the Arctic. Coercive measures are very likely to be adopted through deterrence in the region as red lines will be communicated. Nevertheless, destructive power must be avoided, and diplomatic cooperation must be explored in the Arctic through strategic alliances.

Great power competition in the Arctic is an imminent threat to international security. There are diverse challenges within the Arctic region, such as climate change, contested oil and gas explorations, nuclear missile programs and submarines, and the international maritime legal disputes for the dominion of future commercial transpolar sea routes. Out of all those obstacles, the nuclearization of the Arctic is perhaps the deadliest peril for mankind. Countries like Russia, the United States, Canada, Denmark, Norway, and even China, are claiming sovereignty in the Arctic. Thus, there is only one way of solving these disputes without escalating military tensions, which relies on in the use of multilateral institutions and diplomacy. Just as a reference, the “The Russian Ministry of Natural Resources calculates that the territory claimed by Moscow could contain as much as 586 billion barrels of oil--although these deposits are unproven. By comparison, all of Saudi Arabia's current proven oil reserves--which admittedly exclude unexplored and speculative resources--amount to only 260 billion barrels” (Borgerson, 2008). The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) should be updated to become a critical legal bedrock for the future of the Arctic, with the support of the Commission on the Limits on the Continental Shelf. Today, there is a legal void regarding Arctic sea governance, as these waterways were not supposed to become commercial shipping lanes so soon, yet climate change accelerated this process. The Arctic is under great threat; “Between 2004 and 2005, the Arctic lost 14 percent of its perennial ice--the dense, thick ice that is the main obstacle to shipping. In the last 23 years, 41 percent of this hard, multiyear ice has vanished” (Borgerson, 2008). Additionally, commercial routes and ships, along with oil exploration, will rapidly pollute the Arctic. Clearly, Arctic expansionism must be a topic in the center stage of multilateral institutions and international fora, not only because of the environmental risks it encloses but also for the security perils it embodies.

Today, Russia is not only the country with the strongest influence in the Arctic but also the most dangerous actor in this region. The United States has significantly neglected the Arctic region for too long, ignoring the crucial geopolitical importance of this zone. America does not even have the necessary tools to exert enough influence in the region. According to Scott Borgerson and his Foreign Affairs article titled The Economic and Security Implications of Global Warming, The United States only has one active icebreaker that was built more than ten years ago whereas Russia has 18 icebreakers. Arctic exploration, along with its coastal and continental shelf delimitation, is by itself an expensive odyssey; “The process of delimitation is time-consuming and expensive for state parties (ranging from $5 to 50 million in costs depending on the data collection exercise involved)” (Dodds, 2010, p. 67). Furthermore, there are different competing claims to arctic dominance due to its commercial potential as polar ice caps continue to melt and free the rich oil and gas resources lying under these waters, hence discovering potential sources of energy that can be exploited in different ways. The United States weakened leadership in the Artic is worrisome, especially for an established hegemon who should, in theory, be extremely concerned about Russia's nuclear-powered icebreakers and overall military expansionism in this polar zone. The Artic will become navigable due to global warming, with yearlong commercial lanes and only seasonal ice, as it happens today in a Baltic Sea that used to be covered with ice. Arctic shipping shortcuts will be far more important than the Suez Canal, the Panama Canal, the Strait of Hormuz, and the Strait of Malacca, just to name a few vital hubs for maritime commerce. These factors alone, and the potential profits worth trillions of dollars, should be sufficient motive for Washington to pay closer attention to Arctic Expansionism. The ice-free Arctic will represent vast opportunities for global commerce, and humanity overall, that need to be administered in a responsible, inclusive, and fair manner with the aid of multilateral institutions. Otherwise, the Arctic will soon become an anarchic battle zone fertile enough to trigger World War III. World leaders, especially in great power states and in the United Nations, still have time to diplomatically avoid an international catastrophe before it is too late.

Political leaders will employ diplomatic tactics, based on climate change concerns and geographic vicinity, to justify their presence in the Arctic with the support of neighboring allies. Russia has a long-lasting presence in the Arctic, China wants to gain stronger military leverage in the region, and the U.S. will use soft power to justify its intervention in the area for collective peace and rising environmental deterioration. The motives of war are crucial according to the constructivist paradigm, as ideas shape popular opinion. Military conflicts are highly influenced by values, political rhetoric, and public perception; the goal is to “material and moral advantages such that a battle is won before it is fought” (Echevarria, 2017, p. 2). The United States´ national interest in the Arctic could be better positioned through environmental and security alliances. Canada, Britain, the Nordic and Baltic nations can assist the U.S. in the quest to dominate this region.


Antulio Echevarria II, Military Strategy: A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), Chapter 1 “What is Military Strategy?”

Klaus Dodds, Flag planting and finger pointing: The Law of the Sea, the Arctic and the political geographies of the outer continental shelf, Political Geography, Volume 29, Issue 2, February 2010.

Saxena, A. (2020, October 22). The Return of Great Power Competition to the Arctic. Retrieved October 22, 2020, from https://www.thearcticinstitute.org/return-great-power-competition-arctic/

Scott Borgerson. “Arctic Meltdown: The Economic and Security Implications of Global Warming.” Foreign Affairs. (March/April 2008)

Thomas Schelling, “Arms and Influence,” in Strategic Studies: A Reader, Second Edition, Thomas G. Mahnken and Joseph A. Maiolo eds. (New York: Routledge, 2014).

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