The United States as an Arctic Actor

by Andreas Østhagen The U.S. Arctic territory, defined as the region above the Arctic Circle (66.3 degrees North), is comprised of the northern parts of Alaska and parts of the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas. Compared to the other Arctic states (Norway, Denmark - through Greenland -, Russia and Canada) the U.S. Arctic is both smaller geographically and less populated than its counterparts. The largest communities in Alaska’s Far North have approximately three to four thousand inhabitants, mostly centered around the towns of Kotzebue, Prudhoe Bay and Barrow [1].

In comparison, the largest Russian Arctic community is in the city of Murmansk, located close to the Norwegian border, with approximately 325,000 inhabitants. Of the 4 million people living in the wider definition of the Arctic [2], most are located in the Russian or Norwegian territories. As a natural consequence, the American capabilities, presence and engagement in the Arctic have not matched that of the European Arctic nations.

Whereas the Arctic in Russia, Greenland, Norway and Canada has been extensively used in history to build national identity, the Arctic has not been used to the same extent to define U.S. self-perception and identity. Occupying only a small portion of the Arctic region, with a state that is far from the political and economic centers of the country, the Arctic has arguably been mostly perceived as serving the natural resource needs and the military strategic interests located further south. Especially after the breakup of the U.S.S.R., the Arctic has not been of crucial importance to U.S. foreign policy interests, while in contrast it has defined some of the other Arctic nations’ post-Cold War identity.

Therefore, where the Norwegian and Russian foreign policies in recent years have deemed the Arctic as a main strategic area of interest, the American approach has been hesitant and ad-hoc. As the United States has several geographical focal points and operations in other parts of the world that require extensive involvement, the Arctic has not made the top-priority list. The American military budget is also overstretched and the current financial situation does not imply increased spending in a territory that does not considered of immediate concern [3].

This does not, however, mean that current developments in the Arctic have been neglected in American foreign policy-making. In general, the U.S. has taken part in the international collaboration that has developed in the region with primary focus on the establishment of the Arctic Council in 1996. Additionally, late in the presidency of George W. Bush, the administration released National Security Presidential Directive 66, which established a new policy for the Arctic [4]. The directive addresses governance, scientific cooperation, environmental issues, boundaries and continental shelf disputes as well as economic developments. Following this, the U.S. Coast Guard, the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Department of Defense have released their own strategic documents on, or assessments of, current and future developments in the Arctic.

One of the main themes in all of the publications is the lack of current U.S. capabilities, especially compared to the ambitious and escalating plans found in the other four Arctic littoral states. The U.S. can therefore be termed a somewhat reluctant Arctic actor. It does participate in the international cooperation and is on the verge of developing a comprehensive national policy for the region. At the same time, the United States has other, more pressing obligations which have encouraged an ad-hoc stance and reluctance in both capability improvement and capacity building for the region. Should there develop a crisis situation in the Arctic, or an environment that suddenly requires closer attention, the U.S. has a strategic interest in dealing with it. But as long as the Arctic states keep emphasizing “high north, low tension”, and the current issues mainly concern search and rescue and small operating challenges, the non-crisis environment does not seem to encourage extra allocation of resources.

However, the United States did show an increased interest at the Arctic Council ministerial meeting in Nuuk in May 2011. The U.S. delegation displayed a somewhat renewed commitment to participation in Arctic matters, symbolized with the high level presence of Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton and Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar. The U.S. delegation also took an active stance in the meeting and promoted increased work in the different Arctic Council working groups. The end result was the historical signing of the Search and Rescue agreement by the eight Arctic Council member states, and further commitments to increase cooperation in the region.

In addition, the U.S. Department of Defense has made changes to the command structure for the Arctic. There has been a realignment of responsibilities from a shared system between the Commander for the U.S. European Command (USEUCOM), the Commander for the U.S. Northern Command (USNORTHCOM) and the Commander for the U.S. Pacific (USPACOM), to a sharing between the USEUCOM and the USNORTHCOM where USNORTHCOM has singular advocacy responsibility for Arctic capabilities [5]. This change is intended to improve the effectiveness of the Command structure as the Arctic issues become increasingly important.

Lastly, President Obama signed an executive order in July 2011, establishing an inter agency working group on the coordination of domestic energy development and permitting in Alaska [6]. The purpose of the order is to improve the cooperation in the American Arctic, as complaints has been made from both officials and industry that the process has been too rigid and has been lacking progress. Based on these developments, it would appear that there has been a realization within the U.S. government and different governmental structures that the Arctic warrants more attention. However, given the current financial situation in the United States and the relatively low level of activity in the American Arctic - in addition to its more pressing obligations elsewhere - the U.S. can still be considered a reluctant Arctic actor and is likely to maintain this posture moving forward.

[1] The State of Alaska, “Population and Size”,
[2] Drawing the line further south to include Iceland, the whole of Alaska and larger parts of Russia, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Canada.
[3] Anthony H. Cordesman, “Salvaging American defense: the challenge of strategic overstretch”, 2007, Praeger Security International, Westport
[4] National Security Presidential Directive 66 / Homeland Security Presidential Directive 25, (NSPD-66/HSPD-25) “Arctic Region Policy”, 09.01.2009,
[5] U.S. Department of Defense, “Report to Congress on Arctic Operations and the Northwest Passage”, May 2011, p. 20.
[6] The White House, Executive Orders, “Executive Order - Interagency Working Group on Coordination of Domestic Energy Development and Permitting in Alaska”, 12.07.2011,