James Holmes

America Needs an Enemy in the Arctic

The Obama administration’s Arctic strategy assumes there will be tranquility. That’s wishful thinking.

On these hot days is the mad blood stirring, and beckoning the Naval Diplomat's attention to … the frosty Arctic!

Last May the Obama administration released the nation's first National Strategy for the Arctic Region. It's worth your time. For me, perusing the document confirms that the U.S. Coast Guard is the logical executor of U.S. strategy. The functions delineated in the document conform ideally to the coast guard's "para-naval" — political scientist Ken Booth's term — character as a sea service.

The strategy's framers sketch three main "lines of effort" in polar climes. They direct U.S. agencies to bolster the nation's security interests, developing the strategic wherewithal to monitor events throughout the region, upholding freedom of the seas, and providing for energy security. The document commits Washington to exercise stewardship over the region, conserving its resources, protecting the environment, and conducting scientific research. And it calls for international cooperation through forums such as the Arctic Council and the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. These are coast-guard functions par excellence, well suited to a force that exists mainly to manage events off American shores.

Is the National Strategy for the Arctic Region really a strategy, though? Sure, in a generic sense. Admiral Wylie defines strategy as a "plan of action designed in order to achieve some end; a purpose together with a system of measures for its accomplishment." The Arctic strategy is light on specific ways and means for accomplishing its goals, but it gets over Wylie's bar with perhaps a micron to spare.

It's not a strategy in the traditional sense, though. It makes little mention of the potential for international competition in the Arctic basin. It seemingly assumes away the prospect of interaction between competitors determined to get their way. Clausewitz, of course, depicts strategy as a collision of living forces, as a duel on a grand scale, or as two wrestlers constantly striving to throw each other.

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Assuming the ocean will remain tranquil also deprives the strategy of a focal point. Whether strategy demands an adversary is a long-running debate in my field. The drift of opinion seems to be: yes. That's certainly your gentle scribe's view. Even Wylie, having advanced his rather anodyne definition, spends the bulk of his book Military Strategy probing the ins and outs of martial strife.

Washington, then, should refuse to let the non-military challenges lurking in the Arctic theater obscure the likelihood of competition driven by the Thucydidean motives of fear, honor, and interest. Maybe the powers fronting on the polar sea can resolve their conflicts of interest amicably, factoring in the interests of stakeholders to the south. Maybe a navigable Arctic will remain free of the elemental passions that have impelled human actions throughout history. But let's not succumb to wishful thinking.