Comment

How should the EU assess the new U.S. Arctic Strategy?

Berk Vindevogel / Dec 2022


 

At the beginning of October, the White House released its renewed ‘National Strategy for the Arctic Region’. The release of this document builds on their recent announcement to appoint an Ambassador-at-large for the Arctic to advance the US policy in the northern polar region and adds to the release of Biden’s National Security Strategy. This commentary unpacks some aspects of this Arctic strategy and questions how the European Union (EU), which released its renewed Arctic strategy in 2021, should evaluate the U.S. strategy in light of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. An event that heavily altered Arctic politics.

To begin, the U.S. strategy acknowledges the changing conditions in the Arctic and the negative effects of the ongoing climate change. In turn, it wishes to mitigate these effects so the impact on the millions of people living in the Arctic and the ecosystems is as minimal as possible. In addition, the strategy acknowledges that these changing conditions create new economic opportunities and intensify strategic competition. Furthermore, a paragraph is dedicated to China, because of Beijing’s increased strategic interest in the Arctic. All this means that the U.S. does not deviate from the set pattern of other recent Arctic strategies.

The strategy continues with identifying four pillars spanning both domestic and international issues: Security; Climate Change and Environmental Protection; Sustainable Economic Development; and International Cooperation and Governance. Each pillar contains several strategic objectives, which will not be focal points in this commentary. Instead, this commentary asks how Brussels should assess this U.S. Strategy and what lessons it should apply to its Arctic policy.  

Focus on the science

Even though the overall ambition of the U.S. Arctic strategy is to “seek an Arctic region that is peaceful, stable, prosperous, and cooperative”, security is notably at the forefront of this renewed U.S. strategy and seems to be defined within a military logic. However, one can argue that ‘sustainable economic development’ also fits within the security framework as economic security. Nevertheless, this focus on military security is significant, but not surprising coming from the U.S. which, in recent history, has always defined itself as the global security guarantor. Furthermore, they are capable of gaining military significance in the Arctic, which is currently not the case.

On the other hand, the European Union has no possible way of fulfilling the role of a military security guarantor and shouldn’t. The EU should instead play on its strengths by advocating for the need for scientific cooperation. In my humble opinion, this should always be prioritized, since this serves a higher good, and this is where the EU can excel. Brussels shouldn’t fall into the trap of securitizing the Arctic. A narrative that has been pushed forward in recent years.

It will be difficult to not succumb to any U.S. pressure to step in line, considering most EU member states are also in NATO, but it is something the EU, in light of its Green Deal and overall ambitious climate policy should advocate for. Because, as Lewis Gordon Pugh said in 2008: “We need to save the Arctic, not because of the polar bears, and not because it is the most beautiful place in the world, but because our very survival depends on it.”.

Leave the door open for Russia

Within the U.S. Arctic strategy, it is made clear that future cooperation with Moscow is ill-favored. Even private actors are discouraged to cooperate with Russia and are recommended to use their ‘best judgment’. Despite this being an understandable position at this moment, we need to consider the impending effects of climate change. Earlier this year at a seminar organized by the Belgian Egmont Institute the message sent by scientists was clear. They urge us to work together with Russian institutions and scientists, and capitalize on their knowledge, capabilities, and reach since Russia takes up the lion’s share of the Arctic. To exclude them from any kind of cooperation seems irrational in the long run. Besides, it contradicts the U.S.’ preferred end-state of an Arctic where cooperation is the norm.

Although it seems troublesome today, the EU must leave the door open for future cooperation with Russia. This does not at all imply that we must step down from our strong critiques of the Russian invasion of Ukraine or that it must not play any part in the decision-making process in the Arctic. However, if we want to preserve the Arctic communities and ecosystems, cooperation with Russia, which is still banned from the Arctic Council, is essential. Completely side-lining Russia, and ruling out cooperation, in the Arctic will not hold. Not even “possible cooperation under certain circumstances”, as the U.S. puts it, seems feasible, since Russia is the biggest Arctic state and can massively help forward sustainable development. The EU should therefore compartmentalize and not let its foreign policy get in the way of its scientific and climate policy.

Draw up a division of labour.

The U.S. Arctic Strategy fails to outline the tasks of the different branches of the U.S. government, which are of course needed to implement this high-level strategy. It reads as a summary of the global ambitions of the U.S., which are not very new and are already clearly written in the recent national security strategy.

The European Union, famous for being a complex web of governance, should make clear how it will implement its strategy and to which institution or government body/level it will turn for what ambition. Furthermore, the EU should more clearly outline how it tends to work in harmony with the national governments. France, the Netherlands, Germany, and several other member states are in possession of an Arctic strategy and/or Arctic ambassadors. How does the EU tend to integrate these strategies? What value does the EU’s very own ambassador-at-large for the Arctic add?

In addition, Brussels must make use of private companies and European powerhouses such as DEME, Shell, Total, and many more who are already operating in the Arctic and could assist in scientific exploration or logistic assistance for example. The private sector cannot be overseen in pursuing Arctic ambitions.

With these recommendations, I hope the European Union can accurately manifest its increased interest in the Arctic. It will benefit current and future generations if the Arctic can be transformed into an arena where states and great powers can work together in the battle against climate change because the politicization and securitization of the Arctic will not lead to a comprehensive solution nor a better world.

Berk Vindevogel

Berk Vindevogel

December 2022

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