‘Foreign Policy’: The end of American exceptionalism in the ‘High North’

12:42 02.07.2024 •

Russian icebreaker ‘Arctica’ and American Coast Guard ship.
Photo: laminarts

The American magazine “Foreign Policy” expresses great concern that the United States critically lags behind in the Arctic development. The question is simple - it seems, they already understand in Washington, that the situation needs to be corrected, but does America have the strength and means to catch up with Russia and other countries in the Arctic competition? The prospects are absolutely unclear now.

At Coast Guard Air Station Kodiak, the USCGC Stratton, a 418-foot national security cutter, was hemmed into port by a thin layer of ice that had formed overnight in the January cold. Named for the U.S. Coast Guard’s first female officer, Dorothy Stratton, the ship was not designed for ice; its home port is in Alameda, California. After serving missions in the Indo-Pacific, it was brought to Alaska because it was available.

Soon the sun would rise, and the ice would surely melt, the junior officers surmised from the weather decks. The commanding officer nevertheless approved the use of a local tugboat to weave in front of the cutter, breaking up the wafer-like shards of ice as the Stratton steamed away from shore and embarked toward the Bering Sea.

In the last decade, as melting ice created opportunities for fishing and extraction, the Arctic has transformed from a zone of cooperation to one of geopolitical upheaval, where Russia, China, India, and Turkey, among others, are expanding their footprints to match their global ambitions. But the United States is now playing catch-up in a region where it once held significant sway.

One of the Coast Guard’s unofficial mottos is “We do more with less.” True to form, the United States faces a serious shortage of icebreaker ships, which are critical for performing polar missions, leaving national security cutters and other vessels like the Stratton that are not ice-capable with an outsized role in the country’s scramble to compete in the high north. For the 16 days I spent aboard the Stratton this year, it was the sole Coast Guard ship operating in the Bering Sea, conducting fishery inspections aboard trawlers, training with search and rescue helicopter crews, and monitoring the Russian maritime border.

During the Cold War, the United States invested in Alaska as a crucial fixture of the country’s future. Of these investments, one of the most significant was the construction of the Dalton Highway in 1974, which paved the way for the controversial Trans-Alaska Pipeline and the U.S. entry as a major player in the global oil trade. Recognizing Alaska’s potential as a linchpin of national defense, leaders also invested heavily in the region’s security. In 1957, the United States began operating a northern network of early warning defense systems called the Distant Early Warning Line, and in 1958, it founded what became known as the North American Aerospace Defense Command.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, such exigencies seemed excessive. The north once again became a domain for partnership among Arctic countries, a period that many call “Arctic exceptionalism” — or, as the Norwegians put it, “high north, low tension.”

In a telling display in 2007, Russian divers planted their national flag on the North Pole’s seabed. Russia wasn’t alone in its heightened interest, and soon even countries without Arctic territory wanted in on the action. China expanded its icebreaker fleet and sought to fund its Polar Silk Road infrastructure projects across Scandinavia and Greenland (though those efforts were blocked by Western intervention). Even India recently drafted its first Arctic strategy, while Turkey ratified a treaty giving its citizens commercial and recreational access to Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago in the Arctic Ocean.

Russian flag in the Arctic snows.
Photo: vk.com

Over the past decade, the United States lagged behind, focusing instead on the challenges posed to its interests in the Middle East, the South China Sea, and Ukraine. Its Arctic early warning system became outdated. Infrastructure off the coast of Alaska that climatologists use to predict typhoons remained uninstalled, seen as a luxury that the state and federal governments could not afford. In 2020, an engine fire in the sole Coast Guard Arctic icebreaker nearly scuttled a plan to retrieve scientific instruments and data from vessels moored in the Arctic Ocean.  

Until recently, U.S. policymakers had little interest in reinstating lost Arctic competence. Only in the last three years — once Washington noticed the advances being made by China and Russia — have lawmakers and military leaders begun to formulate a cohesive Arctic strategy, and it shows.

The Coast Guard is the United States’ most neglected national defense asset. It is woefully under-resourced, especially in the Arctic and sub-Arctic, where systemic issues are hindering U.S. hopes of being a major power.

First and foremost is its limited icebreaker fleet. The United States has only two working icebreakers. Of these two, only one, the USCGC Healy, is primarily deployed to the Arctic; the other, the USCGC Polar Star, is deployed to Antarctica. By comparison, Russia, which has a significant Arctic Ocean shoreline, has more than 50 icebreakers, while China has two capable of Arctic missions and at least one more that will be completed by next year.

Coast Guard and defense officials have repeatedly testified before Congress that the service requires at least six polar icebreakers, three of which would be as ice-capable as the Healy, which has been in service for 27 years. The program has suffered nearly a decade of delays because of project mismanagement and a lack of funds. As one former diplomat told me, “A strategy without budget is hallucination.”

Far more than national security is at stake. The Arctic is a zone of great economic importance for the United States. The Bering Sea alone provides the United States with 60 percent of its fisheries, not to mention substantial oil and natural gas revenue. An Arctic presence is also important for achieving U.S. climate goals. Helping to reduce or eliminate emissions of carbon dioxide, methane, and black carbon in the Arctic protects carbon-storing habitats such as the tundra, forests, and coastal marshes.

As Washington pivoted away from the Arctic, Alaska and its Native communities have become more marginalized. Vincent Tutiakoff, the mayor of Unalaska, is particularly frustrated by the shift. Even though Washington made promises to grant greater access to federal resources to support Indigenous communities, it has evaded responsibility for environmental cleanup initiatives and failed to adequately address climate change.

Federal and state governments have virtually abandoned all development opportunities in Unalaska, and initiatives from fish processing plants to a geothermal energy project have been hindered by the U.S. Energy Department’s sluggish response to its Arctic Energy Office’s open call for funding opportunities. “I don’t know what they’re doing,” Tutiakoff said of state and federal agencies.

Tethered to the docks at Dutch Harbor, the weather-worn Stratton reflected the gap between the United States’ Arctic capabilities and its ambitions. Its paint was chipped by wind and waves, and a generator needed a replacement part from California. Much of the crew had never been to Alaska before. On the day the ship pulled into port, the crew milled about, gawking at a bald eagle that alighted on the bow and taking advantage of their few days in port before setting out again into hazardous conditions.


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