Cooperation and competition in a changing Arctic region.
Lessons from Antiquity
Thousands of years ago, an ancient people struck out across the Mediterranean Sea in search of new commodities, trade opportunities, and improved prosperity. These people, known today as the Phoenicians, established trade routes throughout the Mediterranean. Phoenician trade outposts developed into cities and city-states, forging the way for new civilizations like the powerful Carthaginian Empire.
As a modern society, we would do well to study and learn from this history as we face the opening of the Arctic Ocean in the High North.
This period of exploration and expansion connected people and cultures, furthering the exchange of goods and advancing knowledge across the region. It also paved the way for competition and conflict as the Greeks, Romans, and other ancient cultures jockeyed for influence in the Mediterranean basin. For hundreds of years, territorial conflicts raged and warfare defined the era.
As a modern society, we would do well to study and learn from this history as we face the opening of the Arctic Ocean in the High North. The Arctic has warmed nearly 5° Fahrenheit since the mid-1960s, three times faster than the global average. While melting sea ice opens northern shipping lanes and increases access to new resources, it also increases the potential for territorial disputes and greater militarization in the region. Indeed, Russia has invested billions of dollars in military infrastructure along its northern flank. As much as Americans want to tread lightly and responsibly in this vulnerable part of the world, we must be mindful that our adversaries are moving in aggressively—without sufficient concern for environmental impacts or the aspiration of Arctic nations to maintain a “zone of peace” where neighbors seek to work together.
Receding ice in the summer months along both the Northwest Passage and Northern Sea Route positions Portland, Maine as the first major port of entry on the east coast of the United States.
Therefore, as we grapple with the Arctic’s changing climate and work to mitigate its harmful effects, the U.S. must continue to engage with the Arctic community to ensure that the spirit of cooperation that has defined the region for decades remains intact. What we are witnessing unfold is largely unprecedented in modern history—the creation of a new ocean. How we navigate this changing landscape, protect the people and cultures in the region, and engage in competition and cooperation, could define the Arctic region for generations to come.
Maine and the Arctic
My interest in the Arctic stems from Maine’s history. Archeological artifacts found in Maine and dating back thousands of years provide historical evidence of trade routes connecting the Maine Wabanaki people and Indigenous people in Labrador. More recently, Maine fishermen sailed north to the Maritimes in search of cod during the 19th century. Perhaps most famously, Admiral Robert Peary, a graduate of Bowdoin College in my hometown of Brunswick, Maine, laid claim to the discovery of the North Pole in 1909 following his expedition with Matthew Henson, the first African-American Arctic explorer, and a group of Inuit guides. Since Peary and Henson’s expedition, researchers from Maine’s colleges and universities have continued exploring and studying the High North. Our state has, and will, continue to benefit from the economic and academic connections forged with the Arctic nations, industries, and institutions.
Maine’s geographic location establishes the state as a strategic transportation node between the eastern seaboard and new Arctic trade routes. Receding ice in the summer months along both the Northwest Passage and Northern Sea Route positions Portland, Maine as the first major port of entry on the east coast of the United States. Maine leaders and businesses are reviewing long-term prospects and responsibilities and shoring up our state’s relationships with the Arctic. Iceland’s oldest shipping company, Eimskip, relocated to Portland in 2013, making Maine as closely linked to Scandinavia and Northern Europe as it is to the mid-Atlantic. The Maine International Trade Center established an office to develop Maine’s engagement in Arctic issues that same year. In the intervening nine years, we signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Finland to leverage resources and share best practices to strengthen our forest products industries; the University of New England launched UNE NORTH to help cement the next generation of leaders in the North Atlantic and Arctic regions; and Norwegian-based company Nordic Aquafarms is advancing a $500 million aquaculture project in Belfast, Maine. These are just a few of the exciting projects currently underway in Maine.
Maine also offers strategic significance for our national defense. Bangor, Maine is home to the Air National Guard’s 101st Air Refueling Wing (101st ARW), which sits near some of the most commonly trafficked Trans-Atlantic refueling tracks. The 101st ARW has cold weather experience and if called upon, is capable of supporting operations in the Arctic. As the nation considers the implications of receding Arctic sea ice, concerns arise regarding an increasingly aggressive Russia and rising tensions with China. The Northeastern United States, Alaska, and Pacific Northwest are clear strategic and tactical basing and logistics support elements for U.S. military forces. Continuing to invest in the 101st ARW will be critical to the National Defense Strategy and Air Force Arctic Strategy moving forward. Beyond its geographic location, Maine’s strategic significance also lies in its established connections with Arctic nations and the Arctic economy. The U.S. Navy’s Strategic Blueprint for the Arctic, published in January 2021, recognized Maine’s “bold steps to advance their Arctic connection” as an example of how the Department of the Navy can work to strengthen its public-private partnerships and advance its Arctic priorities.
As tensions run high in other parts of the world—particularly in Ukraine—U.S. policymakers will need to decide if Russia’s aggression merits a response that impacts their interests and strategic objectives in the Arctic.
Cooperation and Competition in the High North
In the past 50 years, the High North has benefited significantly from a unique model of cooperation among the Arctic States. Nowhere is this more apparent than with the Arctic Council, which is bound by the 1996 Ottawa Declaration to exclude matters related to military security. Arctic Council decisions require a consensus among the eight Arctic States and often focus on topics such as Indigenous rights, economic development, and environmental stewardship.
Currently, the Russian Federation holds the Arctic Council chairmanship, which rotates leadership every two years. For now, Russia appears to be acting in good faith as Arctic Council chair, despite its malign actions elsewhere. As tensions run high in other parts of the world—particularly in Ukraine—U.S. policymakers, in concert with our allies and partners, will need to decide if Russia’s aggression merits a response that impacts their interests and strategic objectives in the Arctic. After all, Russia generates ~10% of its GDP in the Arctic Circle. While I believe the U.S. should continue to work alongside all Arctic nations—including Russia—to support a “High North, Low Tensions” model of diplomacy, I also believe we should not rule out more severe policies should Russia invade Ukraine.
With this in mind, the Department of State should establish an Assistant Secretary of Arctic Affairs to lead U.S. diplomatic efforts in the Arctic and ensure clear communication between nations. Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and I have introduced the Arctic Diplomacy Act that establishes such a position. At present, the U.S. is the only Arctic nation without Arctic-specific leadership at the ambassador level or higher. The old saying goes, “where you sit, is where you stand,” and not having a formal seat at the diplomatic table with a Senate-confirmed official means we have less standing in the region. As the security environment in the region evolves, so must our leadership. We need a high-level official to advance and protect America’s Arctic interests.
While the U.S. should continue to engage in and foster cooperation in the High North—through the Arctic Council and other existing fora—we must also recognize that the Arctic reflects the growth of global strategic competition. China declared itself a “near-Arctic State” in 2018 and identified the “Polar Silk Road” as a central transportation corridor for the Belt and Road Initiative. India has also begun investing in efforts to establish a presence for their goals in the High North. Likewise, Russia has been hard at work refurbishing old Soviet bases and building new deepwater ports.
To counter potential threats and achieve our national objectives in the Arctic, the U.S. desperately needs to increase its icebreaker fleet. The operational U.S. polar icebreaking fleet currently consists of one heavy polar icebreaker, the 45-year old Polar Star, and one medium polar icebreaker, Healy. The Coast Guard is working to build three more heavy polar icebreakers in the next five years, and wants to build three more, but this pales in comparison to the approximately 50 ships in Russia’s icebreaker fleet. Keep in mind, our small U.S. icebreaker fleet also services outposts in Antarctica, so the ability to maintain a presence for security while also supporting research missions at both poles is a logistical challenge and potential threat to national security in the region. Last year, the Polar Star completed a once-in-forty year patrol of the Arctic, asserting U.S. sovereignty and supporting valuable research projects.
We must not allow the Arctic to go the way of the South China Sea, where freedom of navigation operations become necessary to emphasize international law.
Adding to the competition in the High North is the troubling growth of icebreaker fleets from non-Arctic States such as China, who has six icebreakers, and India, who is also making strategic investments in vessels. If the U.S. wants to be a leader on top of the world, we must invest in more icebreakers. These assets will serve not just as a maritime capability, but also as a valuable piece of our economic infrastructure in the region.
Increasing our icebreaker fleet and focusing more resources in the region will help preserve freedom of navigation through the Northwest Passage and the Arctic more broadly. We must not allow the Arctic to go the way of the South China Sea, where freedom of navigation operations become necessary to emphasize international law. That is why the United States must accede to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Joining UNCLOS would improve our ability to protect our interests in the Arctic—particularly in relation to navigation rights and the continental shelf—and strengthen our position to urge other Arctic faring nations to respect the international rule of law.
North to the Future
The opening of the Arctic Ocean offers opportunities—and challenges—for Maine, the U.S., and the broader international community. The United States must reaffirm and assert its role as an Arctic leader. If this were a race to the pole, America would essentially be standing still while several countries were advancing in leaps and bounds. It is vital to our nation’s prosperity to ensure peaceful and responsible conduct in this resource-rich region. We are already being surpassed by other nations, even those whose borders do not touch the Arctic. We are missing opportunities and overlooking threats right in our front yard. We must take deliberate action to bolster U.S. and partner presence in the Arctic. Most importantly, we as a nation have a responsibility to learn from history and examine the geography so we can cooperate where possible and compete when necessary. Our future and the next frontier are right in front of us.
Senator Angus King was sworn in as Maine’s first Independent United States Senator in 2013. Senator King is a member of the Armed Services Committee, the Select Committee on Intelligence, the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, and the Committee on Rules and Administration.
Cover photo: Senator King surveys icebergs off the Western coast of Greenland, courtesy office of Senator King.