Nothingness. Darkness. Whiteness. Remoteness. Snow. Ice. Polar bears. Penguins. These are some common conceptions of the polar regions. Maturing our Arctic and Antarctic policy narratives and knowledge is a strategic imperative, particularly in an era of great power competition. We need to refine our ideas of the polar regions and work toward achieving “polar-mindedness.” Just as US military airpower’s development was closely linked to the development of an of “air-minded” society, polar-mindedness is a unique appreciation of the role of the polar regions in our daily lives, and therefore, of its relevance to national and international policy.
This mindset is best examined in the context of core-periphery dynamics, and doing so reveals some best practices to promote polar-mindedness in modern society. This shift will be critical to tackling future environmental, societal, and security challenges at the poles.
There are two main starting points for approaching polar perspective shaping: a nation-state can possess an organic polar connection and heritage, or it may seek to develop such ties. Countries with (relatively) long polar heritage include the eight Arctic Council member states and the original signatories of the Antarctic Treaty. Geography and history therefore provide immutable advantages to a select group of “polar nations.”
Nations that lack polar geographic proximity deliberately construct international and domestic strategic narratives to increase their own polar prestige. Xi Jinping’s description of China as a “Near-Arctic State” and calls for a “Polar Silk Road” (an extension of the Belt and Road Initiative) as well as Malaysia’s efforts to shake up the Antarctic Treaty System since the early 1980s are two notable examples.
The core-periphery dynamics of the Arctic Council (members vs. observers) and Antarctic Treaty (consultative vs. non-consultative parties) are obvious. The Arctic Council is designed to remain an exclusive club. The Antarctic Treaty System is somewhat more malleable but requires unanimity to grant consultative (decision-making) status. Without high levels of scientific and logistical investment, the system will remain closed to all but the best-resourced nations. If, on the other hand, a country wishes to shrink this gap, or operate outside the system, these intergovernmental constructs matter little.
Core countries have a deep pool to draw upon in fashioning themselves as polar nations, or even “polar great powers.” Nonetheless, not all countries invest equally in the scientific, historical, and cultural links that would strengthen domestic discourse on their own national polar strategy. In the pursuit of national interests (whether narrowly or broadly defined), domestic and foreign perceptions of priorities matter.
Some nations actively incorporate their polar legacies to foster polar-mindedness. Norway, with its strong legacy of exploration at both poles, prominently showcases its polar ties, naming myriad places, ships, and even Martian and lunar craters after its heroes Fridtjof Nansen and Roald Amundsen. Norway’s century of sovereignty over the Svalbard Archipelago also grants it outsize prominence among nations seeking Arctic research station access.
The United Kingdom’s Natural Environment Research Council held a 2016 naming contest for its future polar research vessel. What is now the RRS Sir David Attenborough was then infamously voted to be named “Boaty McBoatface” in a viral poll that reached hundreds of thousands of people worldwide, bringing global attention to the British Antarctic Survey’s work. The British Antarctic Survey is frequently in the British media, and polar researchers regularly receive national honors such as knighthoods or geographic place namesakes.
“Polar cities” like Tromsø (Norway), Rovaniemi (Finland), Hobart (Australia), Ushuaia (Argentina), and Christchurch (New Zealand), among others, feature national polar museums, research institute headquarters, and festivals that draw in tourists and residents alike. The city of Christchurch even has its own 2018 citywide Antarctic strategy document, building upon a similar 2017 Antarctic Gateway Strategy for the Australian state of Tasmania. Archives and collections at local museums and centers like the Scott Polar Research Institute within Cambridge University or the University of Canterbury’s Gateway Antarctica promote heroic narratives of national expeditions to the Arctic or Antarctic, while facilitating research in environmental sciences, social sciences, arts, and humanities.
Countries seeking to break into the core do not typically have a century or more of polar history to draw upon. Notwithstanding this, nations like China have explicitly highlighted the polar regions in their domestic and international agendas. China’s “new strategic frontiers” of space, the deep sea, and the polar regions have shaped its research priorities, budgets, organizational structures, and information campaigns to reach every citizen. China’s pursuit of polar prowess (e.g., joining the Arctic Council as an observer) and infrastructure (e.g., polar research stations, icebreakers, monitoring satellites, and ice planes) is well documented in the international arena.
Polar-Mindedness in a Polarized America
In contrast to some of the above approaches to polar engagement, America has work to do. Though polar security is just one of many competing national priorities, America’s Arctic narrative is largely dominated by domestic views of the state of Alaska. Alaska, of course, struggles with its own public perceptions. With a population of approximately 730,000, America’s largest state by territory remains poorly understood by much of the nation at large. Few Americans have visited the state, and over half of those visitors arrive by cruise ship, sharing stunning images of glacial bays, coastal forests, and salmon runs in the summer months, but rarely crossing the Arctic Circle. Many others know of Alaska through popular culture: Ice Road Truckers, Deadliest Catch, and a host of other reality TV shows featuring the state’s harsh frontier living and working conditions. These shows generally relish in the remote inaccessibility of America’s Arctic.
Alaskan congressional delegations play leading roles in shaping American Arctic policy and strategy. Alaskan territory features prominently in debates on oil and gas, energy, mineral resources, fisheries, and military basing. Nonetheless, there are many tensions beneath the surface—among Alaska Native Corporations, 229 federally recognized tribes and villages, outside corporate interests, environmental groups, and federal entities. Arctic discourse can fall victim to politicization. Policymakers want the average voter and taxpayer to consider America an Arctic nation when it comes to homeland defense and military resourcing. However, this connection to a fragile ecosystem is inconvenient for environmental exploitation and associated economic development projects.
In Antarctica, the United States is a scientific and governance leader in the Antarctic Treaty System. However, it is a status quo power. Though the United States Antarctic Program is among the largest in terms of numbers of scientists and personnel on the continent, Chinese investment in facilities and research funds has increased substantially in the last fifteen years. The reality is that after the Cold War the United States has not really sought to compete in Antarctica. While Chile and Argentina have long sought to outpace each other in terms of quantity of research stations, the nonclaimant United States (which reserves the right to make a claim) is content with the quality of its sophisticated, city-like McMurdo Station, well-placed South Pole Station, and small peninsular Palmer Station. American tourist numbers in Antarctica are growing rapidly (31.9 percent of cruise passengers in 2018–2019, followed next by Chinese visitors representing 14.6 percent in the same period), but the US government plays little role in monitoring commercial tourist activities, so long as they are treaty compliant.
Sustaining America’s role as a polar great power is both a near- and mid-term challenge. There is currently only one Antarctic-capable heavy icebreaker—the USCGC Polar Star—and one medium icebreaker in the operational inventory of the US Coast Guard (another heavy icebreaker is out of service and used for parts). A single Air National Guard unit is currently responsible for the only ten operational LC-130H ski-planes, operating aging equipment in extreme conditions on rotations north and south in normal years. Russia has over thirty medium and heavy icebreakers, and China’s polar sealift and airlift capabilities are rapidly growing.
There is some good news. The United States has had a public-facing National Strategy for the Arctic Region since 2013. The release of the US Coast Guard’s Arctic Strategic Outlook in 2019, the US Air Force’s Arctic Strategy in 2020, the US Navy’s Strategic Blueprint for the Arctic in 2021, and now the Army’s Arctic Strategy highlight defense and security prioritization of at least one polar region. On the procurement front, defense leadership and Congress have reached a consensus on the need for polar security investments and prioritization, with funding for ski-planes, the Polar Security Cutter program, and Arctic port studies. Without population-wide buy-in, however, these documents, strategies, and contracts risk collecting dust.
Investment in human capital is harder to measure. The National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Directorate for Education and Human Resources has a broad mandate in supporting American science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education at all levels from kindergarten through graduate institutions. However, it is unclear what percentage of educational resources are allocated to polar-related programs. The NSF Office of Polar Programs typically has two communications specialists and one detailed polar education liaison when fully staffed, in addition to contract personnel supporting media activities like the Antarctic Sun newspaper. For perspective on outreach, the Office of Polar Programs Facebook page has approximately twelve thousand likes as of this writing, compared to thirty-three thousand for the British Antarctic Survey (a country with a population about 20 percent of the size of that of the United States). Polar education is exciting and easily embraced by teaching professionals, but resources and opportunities for training remain scarce.
Within Alaska’s Anchorage Museum, the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History supports robust exhibitions, research, collections, and field studies at its Arctic Studies Center. Importantly, this center engages with the languages, arts, anthropology, and ethnography of the American Arctic. However, few institutions are dedicated to polar heritage outside of Alaska. The Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum in Maine is the only one in the continental United States dedicated to Arctic studies. The Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center at Ohio State University preserves archival materials obtained from Admiral Richard Byrd’s family, and supported a 2007–08 International Polar Year elementary schooling initiative, “Beyond Penguins and Polar Bears,” to promote polar interests. Nathaniel Palmer, the first American ship captain to reach Antarctica, is memorialized with a US Antarctic station, icebreaker, and geographic namesake on the continent. How many American history students come across his name in textbooks or museums though? The last time any polar explorer was commemorated by the US Postal Service was in 1988.
The Next Polar Generation
To a skeptic, these examples of polar-themed focus are niche, but perhaps they should not be. Changes in wind patterns, currents, ice cover, and permafrost or glacial melt in the polar regions affect our climate, infrastructure, and trading economy elsewhere—now and in the future. In turn, our actions (and emissions) closely affect these regions.
While physical equipment procurement and facility programs will put the United States in global catch-up mode relative to Russia and China, America has an opportunity to nurture the next generation of polar-minded leaders. Whether or not polar security environments remain cooperative or devolve into competitive dystopias, America’s capacity to lead globally, or even sustainably provide for its populace, is inextricably linked to human capital. Policymakers will have to convincingly hold the interest of this audience at all ages, across schools and institutions in every state and territory. Nearly a century ago, Brigadier General William “Billy” Mitchell of the US Army Air Corps successfully lobbied for “air-mindedness” efforts to develop public understanding of the security and economic benefits of airpower, something we now take for granted. A similar effort surrounding the polar regions is necessary today.
Building a recognition of the relevance of polar regions will involve increased, messaging-centered focus and resourcing of the Arctic Research Commission, NSF, Smithsonian, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Endowments of the Arts and Humanities, and the Departments of the Interior, Education, and Homeland Security. Educational and informational campaigns will need injections of support from local to federal government, private-public partnerships, businesses, nonprofits, and cultural associations. Though it will serve the national interest, polar-mindedness as a means toward American prosperity and leadership must not be polarizing, nationalist, or imperialist. A polar-oriented mindset should inspire collective connectivity with two rapidly changing regions whose present and future affect us all.
Amid a rapidly changing geostrategic and natural environment, the next generation will have multiple “moonshot” challenges ahead. This generation will include the engineers, diplomats, and climate scientists tackling demanding problems in civil and communications infrastructure, trade, migration, and potential humanitarian or resource crises at the poles. They will be the ski-plane pilots, merchant mariners, and icebreaker crews of the future. They will be the guardians and teachers of millennia-old knowledge from Arctic peoples and ecosystems. They will need heroes and icons. And hopefully, they will even get ice shelves to enjoy, penguins and polar bears at which to marvel. However, to get there, we need to start developing and investing seriously in our national polar-mindedness—a prerequisite for strategic success in the Arctic and Antarctic.
Dr. Hila Levy is an Antarctic biologist and US Air Force Reserve officer, currently researching American engagement with polar policy at the US Air Force’s School of Advanced Air and Space Studies.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense, or that of any organization the author is affiliated with, including New America, the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies, Air University, and the Department of the Air Force.
Note: The text of this article has been amended to describe the substantial increase in Chinese investment in Antarctic research and facilities in the past fifteen years. A previous version described that investment as significantly larger than that of the United States. While some scholars do characterize Chinese Antarctic investment as larger than corresponding US investment, direct comparisons are difficult to make because of the wide variety of categories of spending that may or may not be included.
Image credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center