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The catastrophe that is climate change in the 21st century has exposed humanity for perhaps its most costly sin; its insatiable appetite for resources. The desire to control the earth’s incidental gifts to industry–precious metals, crops, lumber, livestock, and most prominently, fossil fuels–has nurtured foreign policy since its conceptual birth.
One could argue that practically all foreign policy is rooted in control over resources, and if you’re thinking resource-centric foreign policy is a thing of the past, do I have news for you.
Because of the accelerated melting of sea ice in the Arctic, resources that have historically been inaccessible to the greed of the mining and fossil fuel industries are now becoming accessible. According to The Arctic Council’s website, something to the tune of 13% of the world’s oil reserves lay beneath the Arctic’s frozen seas and approximately 22% across the entire region.
The melting of Arctic sea ice as a result of global warming means that the very industries responsible for the melting ice are now looking to exploit the opportunities laid bare by their practices. In other words, the destruction of the earth by industrial capitalism’s insatiable appetite for resources has given industrial capitalism more opportunities for the destruction of the earth. How resourceful ;).
To be fair, many of the usual suspects in the business of resource exploitation have mostly avoided contracts in the Arctic due to the controversy that would rightly follow. For example, in the latest auction for drilling contracts in the American-controlled Arctic, the state-owned Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority was the sole bidder, as many of the American oil and gas giants that you would expect to be waiting in line were nowhere to be found. ***However, Russian and Chinese pursuits of fossil-fuels and other environmentally costly practices aren’t waiting up for their American counterparts.
For a more comprehensive list of Chinese and Russian economic endeavors in the Arctic, check out this article from The Diplomat.
***Aside from access to the Arctic’s natural resources, the rapid decrease in sea ice is slowly but surely exposing new trade routes across the earth’s icy northern corridor. Access to these freshly-carved trade routes has attracted Russia, and to a larger degree, China as both countries suffer under US economic sanctions and other trade-related hindrances. So, control over these new trade routes is paramount to their overarching goal of countering US influence over the global economic system.
***(move up toward usual suspects P?) While the lack of interest during this latest auction for drilling contracts shows signs of hope, the melting of the Arctic sea ice is not solely an economic issue, but one of even greater geostrategic signicance. Countries like Russia and China are already flexing their supremacy over the US in the region, and are licking their chops at the prospect of open trade routes free from US control.
From this map of the area, it’s clear that Russia is the top dog in the Arctic. Historically, Russia has seen the entirety of the Arctic as within its borders, so the increased accessibility to the region is a welcomed invitation for ‘domestic’ exploration and development.
In typical neo-Cold War fashion, the US sees Russian expansion in the Arctic as a threat to their interests. Why does the US feel threatened by this? Because of the Arctic’s “strategic signicance.” What does this mean? To the US foreign policy establishment, a stronger Russia (and China, but we’ll get to that later) means a weaker, more exposed US.
So, the US military would be remiss to not invest billions in pursuit of an Arctic fleet to rival that of Russia, right? This, my friends, is the mindset that has led to the ballooning of the largest military budget in the world, largely at the expense of education, infrastructure, healthcare, and other social services.
Russia’s Arctic fleet looks like something out of a Michael Bay movie. The Northern Fleet, as it is formally known, has the works: nuclear missiles, nuclear submarines, fighter jets, and, probably most Michael Bay-esque, 13 nuclear-powered icebreakers, in addition to 40 other regular icebreakers.
A Russian nuclear-powered icebreaker? For sure a Decepticon…
Remember when Trump wanted to buy Greenland? That was an attempt to establish a more formal US claim to the Arctic in the face of Russian and Chinese commercial expansion. While the US does have one air base in Greenland, its military presence in the Arctic Circle is minuscule compared to that of Russia.
So, similar to the missile gap of 1960 (except for real this time), there is an icebreaker gap, which speaks to the larger phenomenon of Russian military supremacy in the Arctic. So, again just like during the missile gap, the US is now playing catch-up to Russia’s Arctic-compatible military. This just means that the US is using all of this as an excuse to maintain the ridiculously large budget that they are already allowed.
The most recent spending bill included funding for the US military’s newfound desire to make their presence known in the Arctic. Included in the bill is a new icebreaker for the US Coast Guard, in addition to a new US Army strategy titled “Regaining Arctic Dominance.”
In the words of His Monstrousness, Mike Pompeo, “We are a little late. That’s alright, I’ve been late to parties before and had a great time. We’ll succeed.”
Party, in this context, is in reference to the build-up of Russian military presence in the Arctic. “Great time,” in this context, is in reference to that time Pompeo showed up late to the annual lizard mixer. Pompeo, always the clever one, believes that US success in the region requires military brinkmanship and huge spending bills so that we can have our own Michael Bay-esque equipment.
This argument, wherein the US has some kind of innate obligation to outspend any other country’s military to not appear weak, is rooted in an antiquated view of foreign policy that has plagued us for generations.
This cob-web covered broken record of delusion and fear lays at the core of many of the United States’ foreign policy blunders since the early 19th century, with the Arctic expansion being only the most recent example. The new Space Force is another example of this, but I’ll save that rant for another week.
If China’s an Arctic state, then I’m 6’1.
In China’s 2018 publication of its “Arctic Policy,” the Chinese government describes China as “a near Arctic state.” This would seem like something that would be controversial, but because of the increasingly strong relationship between China and many of the Arctic states, it was granted observer status to the Arctic Council, the intergovernmental body aimed at coordinating mostly climate-related policy in the region.
Russia, the most powerful Arctic state, has allowed China to establish some commercial interests alongside its well-established network of Soviet-era military bases and energy-related endeavors. Due to China’s world-leading appetite for resources, and Russia’s world-leading access to resources, the relationship between the two makes sense, at least on the surface.
More hawkish policymakers in the US foreign policy establishment view the relationship between the two powers as a growing threat to the international order, which is just code for US hegemony. A more thorough exploration of this relationship in the context of the Arctic is given by this article from Foreign Policy magazine.
In summation, this mainly business-oriented relationship crystallized following Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, when sanctions on Western engagement with the Russian energy industry left it thirsty for investment. China, being the world’s largest consumer of fossil fuels, stepped up to the plate and began financing many of its energy-related activities in the Arctic and elsewhere.
China’s interests in the Arctic are purely commercial, meaning they have zero military bases – despite what China-hawks like Pompeo will say about the growing “threat” of a Chinese presence in the region. In 2019, Pompeo gave a speech at the Arctic Council, the climate-centered agency, warning China and Russia of aggressive behavior, while also discussing the “new economic opportunities” that the melting Arctic could provide. And the cherry on top, Pompeo “objected to any mention of the Paris Accords” in the formal text of the meeting.
As part of China’s greater foreign policy mission, known as the One Belt One Road initiative (OBOR), the melting of the Arctic sea ice presents an opportunity for China to oversee two new trade routes connecting Asia to Europe. “The Polar Silk Road” is the Arctic-focused section of its OBOR policy, that aims to further establish China as a global economic powerhouse.
The Parting of the Seas
According to the Arctic Council’s projections, the Arctic Ocean will be completely free of sea ice by the summer of 2040. With sea ice rapidly declining, trade across the two major routes of the Arctic–the Northern Sea Route and the Northwest Passage–would be much more viable options for the flow of resources from Asia to Europe.
For instance, exports leaving from Tokyo would take approximately 25 days to get to Amsterdam through the traditional route through the Suez Canal. If those same exports took the Northern Sea Route along the coast of Russia, the trip would only take 18 days. And we all know what risks are posed by taking the Suez Canal ;).
While this new opportunity for geopolitical struggle amid the catastrophe of global warming is heartbreaking in so many ways, there is a truly significant silver lining.
The shadowy world of the American fossil fuel industry is majorly responsible for this instance of climate-related disaster, along with many, many others, but there was not a single bid by Exxon or Chevron on the offshore drilling contracts ordered by Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority. And, on top of that, JP Morgan Chase halted its financing of fossil fuel-related investments in the Arctic as of February 2020.
The pessimist in me would say that the exploitation of fossil fuel reserves within the Arctic is horrible, regardless of what flag the ship bears. But, let’s just call it a minor W that our demons are staying home, for once.
Nonetheless, the resource-rich Arctic will be getting only more popular for the fossil fuel industry as the earth’s climate continues to heat up. If the US can resist its addiction to military build-up in the face of foreign policy challenges, a climate-focused shift in the tone of our relations with Russia and China, with the Arctic at the center, could pave the way for a less hostile, more beneficial future for the entire global community.
NPR: After Decades-Long Push, It’s Not Clear Who Will Bid In Arctic Refuge Oil Lease Sale
Foreign Policy: There is no Arctic Axis
War on the Rocks: THE ICEBREAKER GAP DOESN’T MEAN AMERICA IS LOSING IN THE ARCTIC
Potential for conflict in the Arctic: The New Cold War? Other sources hyperlinked throughout text 🙂