The Arctic Sea—a New Wild West?

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The Arctic Sea—a New Wild West?

Global warming is set to bring the Arctic into play as a key strategic region for the US, China and Russia. Can a stable set of rules be crafted?

Earlier this month the Rhode Island School of Design Museum reopened several newly renovated galleries with great fanfare, offering special tours, a Renaissance choral concert, and the obligatory wine and cheese reception. Among the museum’s American holdings is a large, arresting canvas titled Arctic Sunset (1874) by William Bradford, an explorer and artist from the nearby seaport of Fairhaven, Massachusetts. The polar region captivated Bradford (1823-1892), who saw the hand of the Almighty at work there. In Arctic Sunset, titanic icebergs tower over a faraway and frail-looking—yet apparently intact—sailing vessel. In other works, ships gingerly pick their way around the margins of the ice or through barely navigable channels. Ships come to grief in some of his paintings, finding themselves icebound or aground. Bradford paints a portrait of terrible beauty, at once majestic and unforgiving.

The Arctic basin will become less terrible in the coming decades if climate scientists have it right. Indeed, the periodic retreat of polar ice would bring a new middle sea into being at the roof of the world for part of each year, with all the opportunities and dangers an effective change to world geography portends. As a consequence, managing Arctic affairs will pose a strategic challenge of a high order.

The US Navy chief oceanographer Rear Adm. David W. Titley puts an upbeat spin on matters. The Arctic Sea, declares Titley, ‘is not the Wild West. It is an ocean and we understand how to govern oceans.’ Really? Like the 19th century American West, the Arctic is a largely vacant domain where law and order are tenuous at best. And if recent years have shown anything, it’s precisely that oceans remain theatres for geopolitical competition, not to mention expanses where anarchy reigns—think piracy off Somalia or weapons proliferation in Northeast Asia—unless navies and coast guards preserve order. In a very real sense the seas are a perpetual Wild West. Governing them is a resource- and manpower-intensive chore that never ends. This will be especially true in empty northern reaches. It therefore behoves scholars and officialdom to think ahead about the strategic dynamics likely to prevail there, fashioning arrangements that suppress lawlessness while keeping the peace among Arctic powers.

To their credit, both scientists and governments have started coming to terms with this emerging reality. By 2030, according to a Scientific American report on a recent US National Academy of Sciences study, ‘ice-free periods during late summer could be long enough to create new sea lanes through the polar region. ’The academy concedes that ‘the timing, degree and consequences of future climate change’ remain uncertain while insisting that changing circumstances ‘call for action by US naval leadership in response.’ Adm. Titley estimates that ‘sometime between 2035 and 2040 there is a pretty good chance that the Arctic Ocean will be essentially ice-free for about a month’ each year. For the United States, a partly ice-free Arctic Sea means policing over 1,000 miles of northern coastline and, potentially, several hundred thousand square miles of ocean. (How Washington will negotiate the boundaries of an Arctic exclusive economic zone while remaining outside the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea remains to be seen.)

Transporting goods through the Bering Strait would shorten lengthy voyages by up to 40 percent, depending on the route. Polar shipping lanes would help shippers save on fuel and maintenance, reducing costs all around. There as elsewhere, military forces will be the keepers of maritime security. Earlier this month, accordingly, US President Barack Obama approved modifications to the US military’s Unified Command Plan, which apportions responsibilities among regional combatant commands. Formerly shared among three commands, the Arctic region now falls entirely within the US Northern Command area of responsibility. The Northern Command already bears responsibility for Alaska, the United States’ only Arctic frontier. Rationalizing bureaucratic lines of authority is a prelude to strategic effectiveness in a new theatre.

There’s ample precedent for the coming metamorphosis in geostrategy. Completed in 1869, for instance, the Suez Canal opened a nautical highway from Western Europe to India via the Mediterranean Sea, sparing Asia-bound ships the long, arduous journey around Africa and rearranging the sea lanes in short order. Historian Alfred Thayer Mahan alluded to the Suez, observing that an already ‘very marked analogy’ between the Caribbean and Mediterranean seas would be ‘still closer if a Panama canal-route ever be completed.’ In effect,the canal would modify the map of the Americas, much as the Suez had shunted important sea lines of communication (SLOCs) into the Mediterranean. Connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans reinforced the longstanding importance of the Central American Isthmus as a conduit for transoceanic trade. (Overland transhipment had been commonplace there for centuries despite the hassle of repeatedly unloading cargo from and reloading it onto different conveyances.)

Mahan chronicled the history of America’s middle sea in a Harper’s essay on ‘The Strategic Features of the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico.’ (Another geopolitical thinker, Nicholas Spykman, explicitly dubbed the Caribbean ‘America’s Mediterranean.’) Mahan was a historian on a mission. A canal across Nicaragua or Panama would ease access between the US east and west coasts and between east-coast harbours and the Far East. The United States’ ‘gateway to the Pacific’ beckoned, and the China trade with it. He also recognized that Europeans’ strategic gaze would turn to these waters once a transoceanic artery went into service. Washington must think ahead. And it must act, building up an advantageous strategic position for itself while denying important geostrategic assets to prospective adversaries like Great Britain or Imperial Germany.

Mahan made three chief points. First, the Caribbean was ‘pre-eminently the domain of sea power,’ and the United States was naturally suited to command it. The United States occupied ‘the position of pre-eminent commercial importance’ in the Gulf of Mexico by virtue of holding the mouth of the Mississippi. Second, naval supremacy was the surest way to control the Isthmus. The ‘roads which on either side converge upon the Isthmus lie wholly upon the ocean, the common possession of all nations. Control of the latter, therefore, rests either upon local control of the Isthmus itself, or, indirectly, upon control of its approaches, or upon a distinctly preponderant navy.’And third, geographic features in the Caribbean and the Gulf derived their value solely from their potential effect on these SLOCs. An island or mainland seaport’s potential impact on maritime communications depended on its proximity to the sea lanes, on its ‘inherent or acquired’ strength—that is, its defensibility—and on its ‘natural or stored’ resources. This simple yet powerful formula—position, strength, resources—can help strategists size up geographic features. In aggregate, they can help observers estimate how strategic competition may unfold in and around a body of water.

Mahan thought the US Gulf Coast was fairly well endowed with strategic seaports. Pensacola and New Orleans measured up by all three standards and represented ideal sites for navy yards. Key West lacked resources, but warships based there could exert ‘reasonable control’ of traffic through the Strait of Florida, one of the main entryways to the Caribbean. Looking outward from US shores, Cuba boasted ‘pre-eminent intrinsic advantages’as a base. It adjoined all routes to the Isthmus. It was ‘not so much an island as a continent’ separating the Caribbean from the Gulf.  It possessed abundant resources, an elongated shape, and multiple harbours that would frustrate all but the most determined blockades. An inferior navy based there could shift operations from ‘side to side,’ finding ‘refuge and supplies in either direction.’ Jamaica was next best. It occupied a central position flanking all major routes to the Isthmus. It offered a good base—but only for a nation boasting a fleet strong enough to offset its relatively small size, meagre resources, and position under the shadow of nearby Cuba. Mahan prescribed a US Navy big and powerful enough to defeat the largest contingent a hostile navy was likely to dispatch to the Western Hemisphere.

How would Mahan size up the strategic features of the Arctic Sea? A few preliminary points are worth making. First, the analogy between the Arctic and the Mediterranean, an expanse bordered by multiple great powers, is probably more exact than that between the Arctic and the Caribbean, where a single great power dwarfs numerous minor ones. Five coastal states abut the Arctic Sea, namely the United States, Canada, Russia, Denmark (via Greenland), and Norway. One, the United States, is a great naval power. Another, Russia, is a once and—perhaps—future sea power of note. Also noteworthy is that all of the Arctic states except Russia are allied under the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The NATO Arctic states dominate access from the Atlantic to the Arctic. Looking southward, Greenland, Iceland, and Scotland will likely resume their function as gatekeepers of the north. The West monitored seagoing traffic through the ‘Greenland-Iceland-United Kingdom’ gap, patrolling North Atlantic seas and skies and installing an underwater SOSUS (Sound Surveillance System) array to listen for Soviet men-of-war entering the Atlantic Ocean from northern ports like Murmansk. Western states could well renew this approach, regulating shipping through the western portal to the Arctic Sea.

Russia and the United States face each other across the Bering Strait, the eastern gateway to northern waters. This narrow sea will break with the usual geostrategic patterns. Looking around the globe, geographic chokepoints often fall under the jurisdiction of a single state—think of the Panama and Suez canals and the Bosporus and Dardanelles, which control access to the Black Sea. Two or more friendly states may adjoin it. The Strait of Malacca fits this template. Or, a power mismatch may prevail across an important waterway. For example, two middleweight European powers, Spain and the United Kingdom, hold the northern shore of the Strait of Gibraltar, while a weak North African power, Morocco, lies to the south. No conflict that imperils shipping is likely given the cross-strait disparity of power. Nor is the Strait of Hormuz, where tension is the rule, an especially close parallel to the Bering Strait. At Hormuz, an ambitious regional power, Iran, faces off against weak Arab states allied with the world’s dominant sea power, the United States. If Washington and Moscow attempt to fashion a maritime security regime across the Bering Strait, then, they must do so without much help from history.

What about conditions within the Arctic Sea itself? A few observations. First, and most obviously, cold weather will restrict transit through the polar sea to approximately one month per year. In effect the strategic geography of the Arctic Sea will metamorphose constantly as the ice advances and retreats. The strategic value of geographic positions in and around the region will fluctuate as navigable waters open and close. Second, shifting geography may make the Arctic region a region of relative calm. Bradford’s logic of an unsparing Arctic will reassert itself outside the short ice-free interval each summer. Sustained combat among surface warships would range from difficult to impossible for most of the year. Any armed conflict among the polar states would probably be brief and sporadic. The Arctic will remain mostly a domain for air and submarine warfare. Episodic clashes are conceivable as coastal states delineate their maritime jurisdictions, much as showdowns between China and its neighbours have become de rigueur in the East China Sea and the South China Sea in recent years. With regard to law enforcement, piracy would likely remain a nuisance at most. Weather patterns damp pirate attacks even in relatively friendly climes like the Indian Ocean. Whether corsairs could entrench themselves in the Arctic Sea—and whether the short season for raiding would pay off for them—remains dubious.

Third, Russia appears best positioned to exploit ice-free waters. Its historic misfortune—geography that deprived it of warm-water seaports—compelled Moscow to station fleets in inhospitable places like Murmansk and Vladivostok. It now stands to benefit from this trying past. Alone among the Arctic coastal states, Russia boasts the infrastructure to assert a serious presence to the north, not to mention long experience operating fleets in frigid surroundings. US submariners have long ventured northward—indeed, many American boats are specially hardened to break through the ice—but the Arctic remains alien territory for most of the US Navy. For instance, Russia operates six nuclear-powered icebreakers compared to the US Coast Guard’s fleet of three icebreakers—a number that will soon dwindle to two. This capabilities mismatch will impose competing demands on stagnant or declining US shipbuilding budgets. To oversimplify, the United States and its NATO partners are well entrenched along the Arctic periphery, while Russia may remain preponderant within the sea itself.

And finally, there’s China. Rear Adm. Yin Zhuo recently made headlines by claiming that no state holds sovereignty in the Arctic region. Some Western observers take Chinese commentators like Yin to task for contending that the Arctic Sea is an exceptional sea—a res nullius, or no one’s property, as lawyers call it—while simultaneously lodging expansive claims to the South China Sea. But there is a certain logic to arguments on behalf of an Arctic res nullius. Chinese claims to the South China Sea rest more on history than on an airtight interpretation of the law of the sea. The famous ‘nine-dashed line’tracing Chinese territorial claims in Southeast Asia is more a historical than a legal construct. To Chinese eyes, by contrast, the Arctic Sea has no comparable history by which to apportion sovereignty among coastal states. If that’s so, why not state Chinese interests loudly and often—helping China write the region’s history and, in the process, secure a piece of the action for itself?

Yin’s argument seems unlikely to carry the day, but China, like other seafaring states, will clearly benefit from polar shipping routes. Assuring access to the Arctic SLOCs will reaffirm Beijing’s nearobsession with geographic features closer to home. Outbound shipping from Chinese seaports would either travel coastwise routes along the Asian seaboard or exit into the Western Pacific en route to the Bering Strait. This will lend credence to maps depicting the Aleutian Islands as part of the ‘first island chain.’Indeed, some Chinese cartographers already interpret the island chain very expansively. A map in one recent Chinese translation of Mahan’s The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660-1783 traces it all the way to Alaskan shores. Chinese thinkers, accordingly, will continue paying attention to such waterways as the Taiwan Strait and the Luzon Strait while applying their analytical energies to such passages as the Tsushima Strait, which separates Japan from the Korean Peninsula while furnishing access to the Sea of Japan. Beijing will gaze along a northern vector as well as eastward toward the United States and southward toward the South China Sea and Indian Ocean.

Despite its bounty and its value as a nautical thoroughfare, a navigable Arctic Sea promises to complicate all seagoing powers’ efforts to craft policy and strategy, upholding their economic and security interests while creating a durable Arctic order. Foresight will be at a premium in world capitals.


James Holmes is an associate professor of strategy at the US Naval War College and co-author of Red Star over the Pacific, an Atlantic Monthly Best Book of 2010. The views voiced here are his alone.