James Holmes

The New Great Game: The Arctic Ocean

The warming of the Arctic could change several nations’ geostrategic calculations.

The Naval Diplomat turned coat again last week, with a Foreign Policy essay exploring the strategic implications of a navigable Arctic Ocean. A former chief climatologist of the U.S. Navy forecasts that the northern ocean, in effect an inland sea, will be ice-free for around a month annually within a few decades. If so, that will open up new vistas for commerce and geopolitical competition—for part of each year, at any rate. Climate change could partially liberate Russia from its eternal quest for year-round access to the sea, granting the Russian Navy new strategic mobility. The downside from Moscow’s standpoint: Russia’s northern frontier would be exposed a new to power projection from the sea.

Writing at midcentury, Yale scholar Nicholas Spykman recalled that British maritime supremacy once rested on the Royal Navy’s dominance of the marginal and inland seas swaddling the Eurasian continent. For its part, the United States concentrated on preventing a would-be hegemon from gaining control of the “rimlands” of Western Europe or East Asia—and thereby obtaining a platform from which to menace the Western Hemisphere. U.S. foreign policy and strategy have already taken on British overtones in recent years. The United States’ global standing has come to depend on maritime encirclement of Eurasia, just as British mastery depended on it a century ago.

Indeed, the 2007 U.S. Maritime Strategy designates the Indian Ocean as one focal point for U.S. nautical endeavor, the other being the Western Pacific. Washington evidently—and reasonably—considers the Atlantic Ocean a safe expanse. No longer is there much prospect of a domineering power’s wresting away control of Western Europe. Hence the southward swivel of America’s strategic eye of Sauron. But what about a navigable Arctic Ocean? New seaways there would add a northern vector to U.S. strategic calculations, supplementing the southern vector pointing at South Asia. The rimlands would ring all of Eurasia for the first time rather than providing Russia with an impassable rear area. The continent’s entire circumference would be in play.

There’s a lot to ponder here. American thinking about the rimlands will exhibit a north-south as well as its traditional east-west character should northern sea lanes open regularly and predictably. And then there’s the interactive dimension. Clausewitz likens international conflict to wrestlers grappling for strategic advantage. True, the wrestlers might have to don parkas lest they incur frostbite. But the Arctic could become yet another arena for the great game.