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Winter Skies, Frozen Seas and Northern Shores IX: United States of America (part 1)

The Flight of the Arctic Eagle

The wind roars and the snow flurries from the frozen soil as if awakened from a long dream under the Northern Lights. A red maple leaf flutters in the wind between the Vikings, who look on in fear as a brown bear appears from the pine forest along with all the creatures of the Ragnarök. Fear gives way to astonishment, and perhaps relief as well, as on the winds an eagle suddenly appears to face off the bear. The maple leaf darts towards it, and the Viking warriors realise that the leaf has been wise. Perhaps the eagle is the answer to defeat the Bear, bringer of the Ragnarök, and set the peace once and for all in the Northern Lands and Seas. But that, they realise, depends on the resolution of the eagle.

The United States is the only nation that can truly deter Russia and also control the presence of other nations in the Arctic for a number of reasons. Firstly, the United States is the greatest partner and ally of some of the reviewed nations and it is the leading nation of NATO. This means that the United States has been the main guarantor of Europe’s security, including the Arctic[i], since 1945, as well as that any move by Russia will not only contest Europe’s interests but also those of the United States [ii]. In the light of the current events where Russia is securing its interests via military power while colliding or challenging Western interests, the Arctic is again a new area where the United States (and NATO) have to act in order to secure the northern flank of Europe against the renewed Russian threat. Thirdly, the United States is the only nation with the strategic assets (and power) needed to deter Russia and secure the Arctic.

Any action that the United States takes in the Arctic region can determine the outcome of any event in the region but unfortunately it seems that the country has little interest in the area. This is not a surprise at all due to the fact that the current Obama administration simply does not have a clear foreign policy strategy; the Arctic is simply falling victim to the president’s lack of vision and negligence in strategic matters. It is an attitude and a short-sighted political view that is putting not only the USA at severe risk but also Scandinavian nations and Europe as a whole. Worse still, the economic interests of the United States in the Arctic region might not be fully protected at all. This is a particularly dangerous aspect now that the competition for power and resources between the Great Powers is resuming after a deceptive decade of unipolarity and liberal assumption of a stable and peaceful world where diplomacy, cooperation and institutions would be the road onwards[iii].

But before proceeding with the criticisms and pointing out the economic and strategic interests of the United States in the Arctic, let us review first the policies and strategies that had defined the ways to meet those objectives and strategic interests.

The policies and strategies

Generally speaking, the United States has been slow to react to the current changes in the Arctic, according to Perry & Andersen (2012). Different factors might provide an explanation: from the focusing of the Bush administration on the War on Terror to the mentioned lack of strategic clarity of the current administration and its undeniable retreat from the international arena. The first strategy and policy regarding the Arctic, was, however, introduced on January 2009 by the Bush administration. This document recognizes the United States as an Arctic Nation due to Alaska, an important strategic territory, that has the following objectives in the area: first, to fulfil national and homeland security needs in the area; second, to protect the biological resources and the environment; third, to secure sustainable development; fourth, to strengthen cooperation via the institutions working in the region[iv]; fifth, to include the local native people’s voice in decision making matters; and sixth, to enhance the scientific monitoring of environmental issues (The White House, 2009).

The thematic areas covered by this strategy were: International governance (or international cooperation); extended continental shelf and boundaries issues (or to define the areas under US sovereignty and where it can exploit the resources within); international scientific cooperation (environmental research); maritime transportation (secure international commerce in the Arctic waters); economic issues and energetic resources; and environmental protection and conservation of natural resources (The White House, 2009).

A new Strategy came in 2013 under the current Obama administration which has three main frameworks. The first of them is the advance in security interest by enabling naval and air assets to operate on the waters and in the airspace of the Arctic region to support commerce, obtain awareness of activities and evolving Arctic infrastructure and capabilities. This in order to support commerce and scientific activities to the national defence itself. The second framework is to exert an Arctic stewardship by protecting the Arctic, its environment and also to promote research in order to understand the region. The third framework is designed to strengthen international cooperation (The White House, 2013).

There are four main principles that guide the actions to be taken within these frameworks. The first is a promise to safeguard peace and stability in the region, by aiming at preserving the Arctic as a conflict-free area while supporting the free transit and promoting a peaceful resolution of conflicts (The United States Presidency, 2013). This in particular is an aspect to be criticized in the light of the recent actions of Russia and the consequences of the Obama’s foreign policies, not to mention the potential negative impact that are waiting their turn to manifest (this wishful and idealistic approach at least in the Arctic, as a start). The second is the utilization of the best available information to take decisions, by solid scientific knowledge. The third is the pursuit of innovative arrangements to develop, resource and manage capabilities aimed at the meeting of the objectives. The fourth is the intention to consult and coordinate with the Alaskan Native populations (The White House, 2013).

In the security area there are two policies and strategies that are to be reviewed: the Department of Defense Arctic Strategy and the United States Navy Arctic Roadmap for 2014 to 2030.

The first has a similar approach to the Obama Presidency’s strategy: a secure and stable region where US interests and national homeland are protected and secured and where cooperation is the common dynamic when solving disputes. As for objectives, it has two: to ensure security, support safety and promote defence cooperation and the preparation for different challenges and contingencies. As key actions there are the exertion of sovereignty and protection of the homeland; engaging both public and private sector to improve awareness; preservation of freedom of the seas; evolving Arctic capabilities according to the ongoing conditions; supporting existing agreements and looking for new ones; providing support to civilian authorities; partnering with other institutions and agencies to support both human and environmental safety; and supporting the Arctic Council and similar organisations to ensure cooperation and the rule of law (Department of Defense, 2013).

However this strategy has two potential challenges for these objectives. The first is the possibility of inaccuracies in the projections and that fiscal constraints might block the pace of many Arctic capabilities constructions (Department of Defense, 2013). But if this strategy makes good on recognizing possible risks to its objectives and activities, it still fails in recognising at least in the first instance, the real problem.

The biggest challenge is not inaccurate projections causing problems for resources and potential economic activities but the fact that assessing the Arctic as a stable scenario with cooperation as the main activity is an incorrect assumption. The recent events in Ukraine and Crimea and the fact that emergent or re-emergent powers are choosing other paths, should set alarm bells ringing for the United States and push the nation to increase its Arctic military assets in a similar way to Canada, Norway and Denmark, instead of relying on an assessment that relies on a wishful and confident stance without taking into account the real strategic reality; a reality that might involve military units and tension.

The second strategy in the security sphere, the United States Navy Arctic Roadmap for 2014 to 2030, recognizes the strategic and security implications for the country as a result of the opening of the Arctic Ocean, while manifesting itself to be on the way to prepare and address those new implications, ranging from terrorist threats to securing early warning system located at the area (NORAD). The Bering Strait is assessed as an important element since it allows the Russian Fleet to connect its European fleet with its Asia-Pacific fleet, and also because of its potential to become a high-traffic commercial route. Thus, as a general objective, the US Navy seeks to ensure its preparedness to operate in the area to promote stability and protect the national interests. Under the 2010 National Security Strategy frameworks and the 2013 Arctic strategy, the US Navy will base its actions on the following frameworks given by the aforementioned documents: first, to achieve security of the United States, its citizens, allies and partners; second, to support an international order led by the US that promotes peace, security and cooperation; third, to advance the interests of the US; and fourth, to strengthen international cooperation (United States Navy, Chief of Naval Operations, 2014)[v].

However, the core “Arctic” objectives of the US Navy differ, which include the securing of US sovereignty, providing homeland defence and ready naval forces to react to any crisis as well as preserving the freedom of the seas and promoting partnerships within the US government and with US allies abroad[vi]. To do so the strategy is divided into near-term, mid-term and far-term operations. In the near-term, defined as 2014 – to 2020, the US Navy will keep its provision of capability and presence with a focus on open waters, while training its personnel in Arctic operations and undertaking scientific expeditions under an environment of co-operation with allies. In the mid-term, defined as 2020 – 2030, regional exercises will take place with partners while operating in the then ice-free open waters of the Arctic and there will be a pursuit of a full-time Arctic presence. In the far-term, defined as 2030 onwards, the US Navy aims at supporting more sustained operations in the area framed within the aforementioned key actions and objectives.

The problems and drawbacks of these policies will be analysed in depth in a later part, but in the next article of the series the strategic interests that should drive the United States into the Arctic area will be reviewed in order to explain why the Arctic matters for the country and why, after all, it is an area that has to be on the priority list of the policymakers of Washington (and the Pentagon), especially in the light of recent Chinese and Russian activities, not to mention the strategic dilemmas faced its Arctic and European allies.


Department of Defense (2013). Arctic Strategy. Washington DC; USA.

Perry, C. M; & Andersen, B (2012). Chapter 3. The Arctic Five: Priorities, Policies, & Programs. The United States. In: New Strategic Dynamics in the Arctic Region: Implications for National Security and Cooperation (pp. 98 – 131). Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis.

The United States Navy, Chief of Naval Operation (2014). The United States Navy Arctic Roadmap for 2014 to 2030. Washington DC; USA.

The White House (2009). National Security Presidential Directive and Homeland Security Presidential Directive. Retrieved from: on 19.06.2014.

The White House (2013). National Strategy for the Arctic Region. Washington DC; USA.

[i] By “Europe” it must be understood that the author means not only the countries within the continental mass but the European Union as a whole.

[ii] Hurting European interests is at some point a way to hurt American interests as well.

[iii] The United States also fell victim of the wishful approach that followed the end of the Cold War.

[iv] A surprising statement coming from an administration known for its voice against cooperation and multilateralism.

[v] The other actions are based in the objectives of the reviewed strategies.

[vi] The key actions to do so are: Maritime security, Sea Control, Power Projection, Freedom of Navigation, Search and Rescue, and Disaster Response/Defense Support of Civil Authorities (United States Navy, Chief of Naval Operations, 2014, pp. 17 – 18).

Cover image ‘USS Connecticut surfaces through the ice during exercise.’ by Official U.S. Navy Page


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