On his third day in office in 2009, President Barack Obama joked about sending then Vice President Joe Biden to Antarctica, on “an important and special mission” that could “take up to four years.” Yet, as President Joe Biden was sworn into office last week as the forty-sixth president of the United States, Antarctica is no longer a laughing matter. Just last week outgoing US National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien warned Biden about China’s evolving geostrategic ambition in Antarctica and encouraged vigilance. But the former national security advisor is not the only one concerned about rising Chinese influence in the southern hemisphere. Australia, too, has taken note of Beijing’s steady Antarctic creep and the implications of such for security interests down under.
The geostrategic significance of Antarctica is not the only polar issue that Biden will face during his presidency. The Arctic, too, has become a region of evolving great power politics and competition, as evidenced by the barrage of Arctic strategies pumped out by US services of late. As Biden assumes his position behind the Resolute desk, each region presents both opportunity and challenge with significant implications for US global leadership and relations with partners and allies. Biden needs to approach the polar regions as among the most important security challenges of his administration.
Biden’s Polar Security Agenda
Indeed, Obama administration materials may help us discern Biden’s early approach to the polar regions. The 2010 National Security Strategy offered one cursory reference in the entirety of its fifty-two pages to meeting national security needs within the context of what it describes “Arctic interests.” Overall, in the early days of the Obama administration, the polar regions were relegated to the punch line in a joke and on the periphery of the strategic dialogue.
Over a decade on, given the 2021 geostrategic environment, the polar regions exist in a very different context for the Biden administration. The time is now to craft a serious polar agenda, akin to the Chinese and Russian polar great power strategies. If Biden’s United States seeks a leadership role in the polar zones, policies will need to be grounded in the reality that the Arctic and Antarctica are key fronts in twenty-first-century great power competition. But the two regions respond slightly different to system pressures. This comes down to the fact that the Arctic is a maritime theatre and the Antarctic is fundamentally a land-basing strategic issue. Of course, the polar prizes—like Antarctic resources and Arctic trade routes—tend to compel interest in both theatres.
If Biden’s spring 2020 Foreign Affairs essay is any indication of where his foreign policy priorities lie, it seems the polar regions do not feature prominently on his strategic radar. But they should. As he outlined his promise to put the United States “back at the head of the table,” Biden referred to climate change as an “existential threat” at the top of the US national security priority list. Ironically though, he failed to mention either pole—both of which are bellwethers of climate change—within the scope of his future policy priorities. Biden’s essay is riddled with references to competitors and adversaries, but vacant of references to the geographic areas they increasingly operate in. The polar regions are contested commons with increasingly fractious geopolitical dynamics at play.
On his first day as president and in the context of a renewed US commitment to climate change mitigation, Biden rejoined the United States in the Paris Agreement and temporarily halted resource extraction in the Alaskan Arctic, a move that may serve as a precursor to additional bans on offshore drilling in the Arctic. Two days later, Biden spoke to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and discussed US-Canadian Arctic defense cooperation and commitments to action on climate change. Beyond Canada, Biden sees Washington and Beijing as aligned in their commitment to reverse the effects of climate change and thus couches China as a potential environmental policy partner. Further signaling his commitment to the climate crisis, Biden has taken steps to name John Kerry as the first ever special presidential envoy for climate. Kerry’s appointment to the climate envoy position is intriguing for polar watchers. A long-time climate advocate and the only former top US diplomat who has logged a visit to the southernmost continent, his counsel will likely extend beyond environmental factors and into the geopolitical realm—making his a necessary voice to orient Biden to the evolving polar security conversation, especially since we have no basis to discern Biden’s perspective on the matter.
Even though he tweeted about a “climate crisis” and “extreme ice loss” in Antarctica during last year’s campaign, Biden’s stance on Antarctic geopolitics is anyone’s guess. Will Biden heed Robert O’Brien’s warning about Chinese challenges to the Antarctic Treaty System? Will he seek to galvanize relations with Australia, as the most valuable US strategic partner in the southern hemisphere, in an attempt to balance against China’s influence and expansion in the South Pacific, Indian, and Southern Oceans? Of course, seeking to engage Australia in the Antarctic geopolitical context might open a can of worms since the United States does not acknowledge Canberra’s 42 percent territorial claim to Antarctica. Will this finally change under a Biden administration? What does Biden think of the Arctic’s geopolitical future, especially as it pertains to US-Russian relations? Virtually all of Biden’s public commentary relevant to the polar regions discusses them in the context of climate change. Despite the inextricable links between climate change and security, Biden’s policy rhetoric is heavy on the former and light on the latter. This matters.
What Should Biden Do?
The tales of polar geostrategic and geopolitical significance are well known: the Arctic contains one quarter of the world’s natural resources; as it warms and some ice melts, the region is reshaping and reframing geopolitical power dynamics among China, Russia, the United States, and the web of Western allies and partners in the process. As the largest Arctic territorial state and thus the largest benefactor of the Arctic opening, Russia sees opportunity to elevate its status on the global ladder as Arctic interests mature. Likewise, China sees opportunity in the Arctic and is pursuing increased economic and commercial presence in the region via infrastructure deals with Arctic states. The United States, in response to the perceived threat of increased Russian militarization (touted by Moscow as defensive security measures given vast economic interests in the area) and evolving Chinese commercial presence, has committed to reorienting military forces north in an effort to bolster its homeland defense posture. Despite all of this and for now, the “high north, low tension” moniker remains an accurate description of Arctic geopolitical affairs. Though the appetite from Arctic-rim powers for Arctic conflict remains low, as the military capabilities in the region broaden, so does the potential for sharpened tensions. Among the many challenges here—but one that also presents opportunity—is the lack of a dedicated forum for Arctic military, defense, and security dialogue. This is the first initiative the Biden administration must champion in the Arctic: an Arctic security and defense forum. A forum along these lines might be touted by Russia during its chairmanship of the Arctic Council, which kicks off for two years in May. In an age of dwindling common interests, this is one avenue which presents an opportunity for US-Russia ties to warm.
Despite espousing the virtues of liberalism, Biden’s foreign policy promise to “get tough with China” and reframe the United States as an attractive trade competitor to Beijing will not do anything to improve relations between the two powers . Likewise, Biden’s insistence that the United States expand NATO commitments to counter Russian aggression—which may result in a more northward NATO orientation—will do more to grow the broader security dilemma than it will to enhance US and allied interests in the Arctic. By way of international law, Arctic interests largely fall well within Russia’s purview. An Arctic security and defense forum is a necessary initiative to restore productive security dialogue with Moscow after Western nations effectively severed security ties with Russia following the 2014 annexation of Crimea. A Biden administration intent on restoring the United States’ role as a global leader needs to start with renewing productive security dialogue with Moscow, including in the Arctic. An additional benefit to such a forum is the overlapping security conversation and relevance for polar affairs broadly, as Antarctica is an equally compelling geostrategic theatre. An antiquated Antarctic Treaty System is arguably no longer fit for twenty-first-century security purposes. Assessments of what does and what doesn’t constitute “military use,” with the increased applicability of dual-use technologies, means innovative states are chipping away at the treaty’s edges and working in the rather lawless gray-zone space.
Of course, Xi Jinping spoke of Chinese intent to exploit Antarctica as far back as 2014. Biden has filled many posts in his administration with familiar faces of the Obama administration—folks insistent on soft power as the guiding approach to the Indo-Pacific, and the promotion and protection of rules and norms in the international system. Yet rules and norms in relation to the Antarctic are not treated in the same manner by Beijing. They are manipulated and used against the West. In Antarctica, China is stretching the bounds and interpretations of the Antarctic Treaty for dual-use gains in the military and commercial sectors. This alone renews Antarctica’s profile among the list of emerging twenty-first-century security challenges. Like the Arctic, there remains a faction of influencers committed to the belief that Antarctica will forever remain an isolated nature preserve immune from the throes of escalating great power competition occurring elsewhere. But just as the Arctic has generated increased strategic attention in recent years, more are also viewing Antarctica with eyes wide open, now acknowledging the specter of competition and the geopolitical power struggle taking shape on the world’s most isolated continent. To this point, in June 2020 the Trump administration released a memo on “safeguarding” US interests in the polar regions. This memo was the first policy document to substantively discuss Antarctica in the context of US national security since the Clinton administration’s 1994 Presidential Decision Directive 26 outlining US policy on the polar regions. Veiled references to building and deploying weaponized icebreakers to Antarctica aside, the 2020 polar memo signals a renewed US interest in Antarctica and acknowledgement of an evolving an undeniable reality that the continent is again increasingly relevant in the geostrategic equation, just as it was in the years after World War II.
The Biden administration needs to continue down the path the Trump administration started and consider Antarctica within its national security framework. The geographic significance of Antarctica, to the United States, is not akin to that of the Arctic. Rather, it is strategically significant for the opportunity it presents those states with the capability to operate on the continent. Such states are often competitors of the United States, some especially so. China and Russia are testing the bounds of the Antarctic Treaty’s ban on military maneuvers and expanding space and surface power projection capabilities from great distances.
Biden cannot afford to overlook the polar regions in the national security dialogue. The new administration’s first National Security Strategy must include discussions of both polar regions’ geopolitical futures and the US intent for each. The Arctic must be presented as a homeland defense matter for the United States. Even though an over-the-Arctic Red Dawn scenario is hyperbolic and unlikely, the United States must not rely on good odds and leave its northern flank exposed as a potential avenue of approach in the event of tensions elsewhere. Antarctica, meanwhile, presents as an evolving geopolitical power dynamic as a likely driver of future great power politics between Washington, Beijing, and Canberra. The next National Security Strategy document should acknowledge competition has and will continue in the Arctic and Antarctica, but should also outline the US approach to ensure neither region descends into conflict. This requires a pragmatic rather than ideologically rooted approach that recognizes realities and opportunities instead of standing on the elevated—and increasingly challenged and too often shallow—narrative of the United States as the global leader. Washington is not the central Arctic stakeholder by basic measure of geography and even by international law and norms, which assign Moscow the Arctic leadership stake.
The hard reality that Biden must accept, painfully obvious in both polar regions, is that the United States no longer stands alone as the unchallenged global leader. The international rules and norms Washington helped craft and proliferate globally are eroding in places and artful interpretations these rules and norms are lending themselves to the enhancement of Chinese and Russian security interests. In this sense, an emerging issue for the Biden administration is that the United States in the polar regions is reverting back to hegemonic ambition. This too may be used against Washington. Biden cannot rely on the false premise of liberal institutionalism to ensure the polar regions remain conflict free. There have been calls for the new administration to bolster the Arctic Council and enhance ocean governance in the Arctic. While we will not go so far as to repeat the equally false narrative that the Arctic is an ungoverned space, the competing premise that the Arctic is a stable region of effective governance and compliance mechanisms is equally misguided.
Arctic governance is a misnomer. The Arctic Council is a consensus forum that “does not and cannot implement or enforce its guidelines, assessments or recommendations.” Though the Arctic has thus far avoided modern military conflict—no doubt partly due to the successes of the Arctic Council—clinging to the false hope of indefinite state self-governance and voluntary compliance in an environment increasingly driven by resource competition is naïve. The Arctic Council continues to deliberately avoid hosting discussions concerning military and security dynamics based largely on the argument that there are transparency reporting mechanisms to document Arctic military maneuvers and postures. But these are entirely voluntary. To optimistic liberalists, such mechanisms are sufficient and effective. To pessimistic realists, these formats are insufficient to sustain responsible—and thus peaceful—cooperative engagement in the contested polar commons. So, the United States under Biden needs to consider its alternatives.
It is true that the majority of the Arctic natural resources supposedly driving competition are contained within legally established state exclusive economic zones and thus subject to national jurisdiction. But it is equally true that remaining Arctic resources are in the commons of the Arctic Ocean high seas, an area governed on paper by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and the Polar Code. It is a widely known that the United States has not ratified UNCLOS, but traditionally follows the convention as a matter of custom. Without signing, however, Washington is not bound by its covenant. As well, there is regular evidence of China’s continued deviation from UNCLOS, despite being a signatory to the treaty, which suggests Beijing only follows the agreement when it is convenient. In effect, existing international law like UNCLOS exists increasingly in ceremony only and should not be thought of as a viable deterrent to maintain indefinite stability in the Arctic. Similar dynamics are at play in Antarctica.
The Antarctic Treaty does not expire in 2048, as it is sometimes said to. Rather, what happens in 2048 is a legal window to renegotiate the Madrid Protocol opens. This process is a two-step one based on consensus, but nonetheless, it is the source of much speculation among scholars and policymakers regarding Antarctica’s geopolitical future. Of course, this relies on the assumption that the treaty remains in force, as written in 1959, through 2048. The truth is, we don’t know what the future holds for the treaty; as it stands today, states can just opt out and after two years are no longer bound by it. The treaty’s status as a longstanding, successful model of international cooperation and effective arms control remains the gold standard, but assuming its infallibility fails to recognize twenty-first-century realities. The United States must operate now within a system that counts among its largest stakeholders states with different value systems. Perhaps, for the Biden administration to navigate this interest-driven international system, a dose of realpolitik is in order.
Looking Ahead: US Polar Strategy
Detaching US foreign policy from twentieth-century hegemonic ideology opens opportunity for constructive engagement pathways in the polar regions. Washington and Moscow can maintain productive dialogue and engagement in the Arctic and Antarctica because Moscow operates more on the basis of self-interest than it does on principle or values. Russia is more likely to balance with those states it can benefit from most. For all the talk of a China-Russia strategic partnership in the Arctic, there are equal tensions between Beijing and Moscow elsewhere such that there is opportunity for Washington to mend relations with Moscow and seek mutually beneficial arrangements outside the scope of international institutions; and that might start in the Arctic.
China’s advance on the Arctic and expansion in Antarctica presents a compelling security challenge for the United States that it cannot meet alone. Washington needs to see China for what it is and craft reasonable and responsible policy and strategy for dealing with Beijing’s expansionism. But here again, within the context of the old way of American leadership and hegemony invokes notions of assertiveness and containment more likely to antagonize China and lead to escalating aggression than it is likely to defeat the Chinese Communist Party’s resolve to expand and influence world affairs. China will continue its outward movement. It will continue to build icebreakers and polar infrastructure. But that should not compel the Biden administration to “keep up.”
There is a growing body of work devoted to calls for the United States to close the “icebreaker gap.” But the new administration should not build more icebreakers just for the sake of having more. Most polar ports of any strategic or commercial significance are navigable without icebreaker support throughout most of the year. On polar infrastructure, despite calls in the Fiscal Year 2020 National Defense Authorization Act (2021 NDAA not yet publicly released) for constructing “strategic Arctic ports,” the Biden administration should consider the effects of climate change and sea level rise relative to such plans. Arctic infrastructure development will take longer and cost more than equivalent projects elsewhere; will be more expensive and difficult to maintain; and are more susceptible to the Arctic region’s active seismic activity and changing landscapes. Before embarking on a years-long Arctic infrastructure effort to expand defense and security presence north of the Arctic Circle, Washington must consider the risks to doing so.
Building Arctic ports without sufficient missile warning and intercept systems in place is strategically myopic. If the United States is committed to expanding Arctic presence and posture, a good defense is the first necessity, because right now, the US government does not have one. Rather than rushing north with plans to build more expensive, questionably necessary (and problem-prone) icebreakers and more Arctic infrastructure at significant risk of environmental loss, Washington, under Biden, should leverage its international partner and alliance network and seek expanded polar postures via relationships and agreements with experienced—and geographically advantaged—polar actors and their infrastructure. There are military-use runways in Norway (Jan Mayen), Iceland (Keflavik), Canada (Alert), and Denmark (Thule, in Greenland), as well as a number of dual-use runways and accessible deepwater ports in the extreme northern latitudes. These are the necessary investments—in relations with capable Arctic states—that must drive the Biden Arctic agenda, not vanity infrastructure and icebreaker projects of limited functional use and inordinately unbalanced cost-per-use ratios.
The polar regions will be increasingly relevant to the twenty-first-century geostrategic power dynamic. The days of limiting engagement to likeminded states are over. Realpolitik is necessary in an increasingly self-interested and competitive international security picture, and the polar regions should be at the forefront of this approach. The liberal institutional international rules and norms that are alive and well in the polar regions are increasingly exploited and interpreted by our competitors for strategic gain. The United States must get in the game.
Dr. Ryan Burke is an associate professor of Military & Strategic Studies at the US Air Force Academy, a fellow at the Modern War Institute, and co-director of Project 6633.
Dr. Elizabeth Buchanan is a lecturer in strategic studies for the Defence and Strategic Studies Course at the Australian War College in Canberra, a fellow at the Modern War Institute, and co-director of Project 6633.
The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense, or of any organization the authors are affiliated with, including the United States Air Force Academy, Department of the Air Force, Australian Department of Defence, and Australian government.
Image credit: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff