Politics of the Arctic, Explained

Once dismissed as a desolate wasteland, the northernmost region of Earth known as the Arctic has garnered increased attention over the past century.  Within three decades, the effects of global warming have shrunken the mass of the Arctic Ocean’s summer ice by half. The melting of the Arctic undeniably presents environmental catastrophe for the international community. However, for a few key players, it also represents newfound political and economic opportunity. 

History of Arctic Politics

Recognition of the Arctic’s strategic value rose during the Cold War when the Arctic became a new theater for the standoff between the United States and Soviet Union. Between the end of the Second World War and its collapse in 1991, the Soviet government relocated millions of people to work in Russia’s Arctic territory, with a focus on strengthening its industrial capacity and infrastructure in the region. Similarly, the U.S. considered the Arctic an important geopolitical battleground, exercising military presence in the form of nuclear submarines. 

With the end of the Cold War, Russia’s decline in industrial might, and subsequent mass emigration of workers out of the region, the strategic importance of the Arctic temporarily diminished after 1991. 

The Arctic’s Re-Emergence 

In recent years, the ramifications of climate change have re-thrust the Arctic into the spotlight. Valuable and highly profitable resources previously locked in by thick ice, such as oil, gas, and minerals, have now become accessible. New transportation routes opening due to melting ice have also sparked international interest, potentially allowing for shorter navigation periods and more efficient trading between the Pacific and Atlantic. These prospects may transform the Arctic into a hub of commercial activity. 

Photo by Jean-Christophe André from Pexels

Arctic States and Other Key Players 

More than 4 million people live north of the Arctic circle in eight countries known as Arctic States: Russia, the United States, Canada, Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, and Finland. Despite having formed the Arctic Council, a forum for “promoting cooperation, coordination, and interaction among the Arctic states” in 1996, these nations still largely have different regional aims. 

Russia: With nearly half of the Arctic population living within its borders and the longest Arctic coastline out of the Council nations, Russia has a significant presence in the region. In addition to working to deter American influence and build its own position of power in the Arctic, Russia has invested vast amounts of resources to develop its Arctic territory in recent years. 

United States: George W. Bush and subsequent presidents’ stances regarding the Arctic emphasize “asserting a more active and influential national presence to protect its Arctic interests and to project sea power throughout the region.” However, without a significant investment in Arctic capabilities and infrastructure, the U.S. currently uses the region as a strategic position for its missile and surveillance defense technologies.  

China: Though about 900 miles away from the Arctic circle at its closest point, China declared itself a “near-Arctic” state in 2018 as part of its Arctic policy. With Beijing continuing to project its influence on the world stage, China aims to heighten its activity in the Arctic by building a “Polar Silk Road”, a network of trade routes through the Arctic to expedite global shipping delivery. For the time-being, though, China has been largely excluded from regional politics in the Arctic.  

The Role of the Arctic Today

Do current Arctic politics center solely around a scramble for the region’s abundant resources? Not exactly. Arctic nations have generally shown preference for a steady political environment where they can maintain regional dominance, which would be undermined by conflicts over natural resources. Nonetheless, the Arctic will continue to remain an area of great strategic importance to all actors. Not only is the current regional balance of power threatened by Russia’s aggressive build-up in Arctic military capabilities, but also by China’s emerging Arctic ambitions in recent years. Coupled with an alarming rate of climate change and its vital role in global trade interests, the Arctic could become a hotbed for competing national stakes.  

Oliver Gao is a freshman majoring in International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. He is from Vancouver, Canada. 

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