Why the Talk of an ‘Artic Cold War’ Is Exaggeration

Strengthening “Arctic Triangle” relations—and relations among all Arctic, near-Arctic, and non-Arctic stakeholders more generally—requires promoting possibilities where mutual interests can be developed; ensuring international laws and institutions will continue to be respected; and maintaining a peaceful and stable environment that is attractive to investors and protects indigenous communities, writes Jeremy Tasch, Professor of Geography & Environmental Planning, Towson University

Although the US-based National Geographic magazine reached its peak North American circulation of about 12 million copies in the late 1980s, its present global circulation of approximately 6.5 million per month nonetheless secures its position as a very popular newsstand and virtual source for geographic information. The magazine aspires to deliver armchair travelers informed and accurate accounts of the wider world, of distant places that even seasoned travelers might find challenging to reach. While some of its articles may at times be tinged with sensationalism, as the public face of the National Geographic Society its mission is to promote the “power of science, exploration, education, and storytelling to change the world.” 

Consequently, it is perhaps with a mixture of “all of the above” that the magazine published two articles, one a day before Victory Day, May 8, 2019 titled “As Arctic Ice melts, a New Cold War Brews,” and the second just three months later on August 15, “A thawing Arctic is Heating up a New Cold War.” The National Geographic’s articles, however, rather than covering new ground seem instead to have echoed other news outlets’ declarations that the Arctic is the site of anticipated military confrontation:

“UK to send 800 Troops to Arctic, Cites Concerns about Russia” (Associated Press, 09/2018); 
“Russia is Building up its Arctic Military Presence and NATO Should be Worried, Says New Report” (The Independent, 09/2017);
“The Arctic: Where the U.S. and Russia Could Square Off Next” (The Atlantic, 03/2014);
“Frozen Conflict: Denmark Claims the North Pole” (The Economist, 01/2014);
“Arctic Cold War Heats Up” (The Moscow Times, 03/2012).

The Arctic as a place of contestation is popularly portrayed to have been “sparked” on August 3, 2007, when a three-man crew of the Mir-1 submersible placed a titanium Russian flag on the seafloor at the North Pole. Much of the international reaction following the global distribution of the grainy flag photograph was expressed famously by Canada’s then Foreign Minister, Peter MacKay: “This isn’t the fifteenth century. You can’t go around the world and just plant flags and say, ‘We’re claiming territory.’” 

As Russia’s government has promoted a more visible presence in the Arctic—nervously observed by international governments aware of Russia’s increased military presence in its High North—a few related critical points seem often disregarded. 

In summer 2007, while both the Mir-1 and Mir-2 submersibles were assisting a planned Russian government expedition to map the seabed, the famous flag-planting performance was funded by Frederik Paulsen, a Swedish pharmaceutical entrepreneur and the event was organized by an Australian-American group of deep-sea exploration enthusiasts. In other words, this feat, which drew the ire of Canada’s Foreign Minister and focused international media attention on a “new Cold War,” was unlikely prearranged either to perform scientific research in support of Russia’s Lomonosov territorial claims nor as a statement of territorial acquisition. 

Although Moscow has always maintained interest in its Arctic, arguably this interest is growing. A Russian naval doctrine acknowledges that the Arctic is among its priority regions, and Russia not only already possesses the world’s largest fleet of nuclear icebreakers but plans to increase its size. This is used by some Western commentators to point to Russia’s military advantage relative to the United States in the Arctic. From here, it then is a short-stretch for some commentators to note that the 2014 events concerning Russian-Ukrainian relations demonstrate Russia’s readiness to bend and at times break the rules of international conduct. 

But as have other Arctic and non-Arctic states, so too has Russia benefited from international cooperation and rules-following in the Arctic. This is not least because the complexities of operating in the Arctic’s exceptional environment demonstrates that collaboration is inherently positive. It is this “exceptional environment” that makes certain Arctic endeavors—such as search and rescue efforts, scientific research, and marine pollution response—transnational, and consequently encourages collective responses. Further, the economic development of the Arctic—a transnational region with major emerging market opportunities—is a key strategic objective of Russia. President Putin, for example, recognizes that “The Northern Sea Route as an international transport artery will rival traditional trade lanes.” Businesses require certainty and regulatory stability in order both to minimize their risks and to pursue investing in the Arctic. Uncertainties associated with an unstable political environment can lead to a reduction in investment and diminished economic interest in the Arctic—a situation both Arctic and non-Arctic stakeholders are determined to avoid. 

Although the placement on August 3, 2007 of a titanium flag on the seabed grabbed headlines, this was not the first time a flag was planted in the vicinity of the North Pole. On his third polar expedition, and his eighth and final journey to the circumpolar north—later investigated and approved by the National Geographic Society—US Commander R. E. Peary placed an American flag at a point on the ice-covered Arctic Sea, somewhere nearby the earth’s north geographical pole. To commemorate this event, Peary claims to have written a note, placed it in a glass bottle, and then hid it in an ice crevice: 

I have this day hoisted the national ensign of the United States of America at this place, which my observations indicate to be the North Polar axis of the earth, and have formally taken possession of the entire region, and adjacent, for and in the name of the President of the United States of America.

When Peary reached Indian Harbor, Newfoundland in early September 1909, he sent President Taft a telegram:

William H. Taft, President of the United States, Washington, D. C: Have honor of placing North Pole at your disposal. R. E. Peary, U. S. N.

In contrast to the media headlines generated by Artur Chilingarov’s titanium flag-planting, Peary’s attempt to do precisely what Foreign Minister MacKay was so against produced at least one attention-grabbing headline in the September 9, 1909 edition of the San Francisco Call: “Taft Does not Want Pole.” Indeed, in partial response to Peary’s generous offer, President Taft replied, “Thanks for your interesting and generous offer. I do not know exactly what I could do with it.” Of course, there is an even more recent example of the United States flirting with the possibility of buying US sovereignty further into the Arctic. Not only in 1946 did the US propose to pay Denmark $100 million to buy Greenland, but according to National Public Radio, “No Joke: Trump Really Does Want to Buy Greenland” (NPR, August 19, 2019). 

Although Greenland and Denmark made it clear to President Trump that Greenland was not an empty lot with a “For sale” sign, Trump’s fumbled attempt at a real estate deal did further highlight that the Arctic is increasingly viewed by some observers as an arena for geopolitical competition. It further drew attention to the fact that the Trump Administration has been slow to turn its attention to the Arctic region. Consequently, the Department of Defense and the Navy each recently issued Arctic strategy documents. And not only did the Coast Guard produce its own Arctic strategy document, but to augment its two operational polar icebreakers, the US Senate finally approved in summer 2019—after a two-decade delay—the Coast Guard’s request for funding to acquire the first of three planned new polar icebreakers. Although the acquisition of new icebreakers is clearly intended to defend and protect US interests in the Arctic, it is critical to note that the Coast Guard’s icebreakers are deliberately called “polar” because they operate in both the Arctic and Antarctic. Further, a significant proportion of icebreaker activities are conducted in support of the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) research activities in both polar regions. Thus, it is problematic to distinguish actual new White House policies from existing nor to identify statements made by President Trump concerning the Arctic. Perhaps the clearest—if unrevealing—statement offered by Trump on the Arctic was delivered after his meeting with the Finnish president on April 23, 2018: “Both leaders affirmed that it is essential to increase security in the Arctic.” 

Although the Arctic has not been a high priority for the current president, as in other international policy domains his administration has nonetheless applied an uncooperative “America First” approach to interactions with both allies and competitors. Such an unnuanced strategy to international relations has led to uneven results and has even caused uneasiness between the United States and Canada, its principal Arctic partner. Although former Vice President Biden, Trump’s democratic rival in the approaching November 2020 presidential election, has offered sharp criticism of President Trump’s “America First” approach, he has not yet clearly outlined how his administration would work with Arctic state and non-state stakeholders. What is known, however, is that the major global challenge of climate change can only be solved if countries cooperate with each other and reject isolationism. What is also clear is that should Biden’s bid to become America’s 46th president be successful, his foreign policy priorities would include re-building trust and unity among US partners while pursuing cooperation with its perceived rivals on issues where interests converge, which notably includes climate change. Indeed, Biden was among the first US politicians to propose a climate change bill in the Senate: More than three decades ago, Biden introduced the Global Climate Protection Act of 1986. More recently, Biden spoke in January 2020 on the importance of protecting the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from oil and gas drilling and development—a clear contrast with Trump’s attempts to encourage more fossil fuel production in Alaska. 

The increasing economic and strategic importance of the circumpolar north requires more attention from US federal policymakers. The Trump administration’s neglect of Arctic policy has implications beyond—but obviously including—the extended Arctic region. As provocatively expressed in the Valdai Discussion Club’s June 10, 2020 concept paper, “The ‘Arctic triangle’ is emerging, consisting of the USA, Russia and China, whose capabilities, ambitions and diplomatic potential will determine the future development of the Arctic region.” Strengthening “Arctic Triangle” relations—and relations among all Arctic, near-Arctic, and non-Arctic stakeholders more generally—requires promoting possibilities where mutual interests can be developed; ensuring international laws and institutions will continue to be respected; and maintaining a peaceful and stable environment that is attractive to investors and protects indigenous communities. Despite disagreements over NATO’s potential role in the Arctic, the inclusion of non-Arctic states in Arctic governance, and the place of indigenous peoples in circumpolar decision making, both Russia and China maintain respect for regional governance structures and international institutions, in particular the Arctic Council. Whether through Trump’s benign neglect, or President Biden’s application of Obama era Arctic policies—and despite the National Geographic and other news media’s continued call for an “Arctic Cold War”—the United States will also continue to respect regional governance structures and international institutions, and to pursue cooperation in the Arctic.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.