Phantom Peril in the Arctic (Foreign Affairs Sep 29, 2020)

Oct 4, 2020

Russia Doesn’t Threaten the United States in the Far North—But Climate Change Does.

For over a decade, defense hawks have been sounding an alarm over Russia’s supposed military superiority and incipient aggression in the region. Previous U.S. presidents resisted the bait, avoiding confrontation and embracing cooperation through the multinational Arctic Council established after the end of the Cold War. They knew that Russia’s forces in the region were defensively structured and weaker than they were before the Soviet collapse in 1991, despite efforts to rebuild them that began in the mid-2000s. Previous U.S. presidents also knew that U.S. and NATO forces had the clear upper hand in the Arctic and that predictions of Russian aggression were mainly threat-mongering by armchair analysts and vested political interests.

But the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump has recently embraced Arctic alarmism with a vengeance. It has stoked fears of Russian and Chinese “aggression,” trashed the Arctic Council’s delicate diplomacy, and adopted a new confrontational posture. In so doing, it joins the alarmists in three serious mistakes: the failure to assess specific threats accurately, the failure to consider an adversary’s forces in relation to those of the United States and its allies, and the failure to evaluate the broader strategic landscape—the political, economic, and environmental factors beyond the battlefield. Violation of these three pillars of careful threat assessment is drawing the United States toward an unnecessary confrontation in a region where the real enemy isn’t Cold War ghosts but looming environmental disaster.

Blind to looming disaster, Trump’s desire to dominate an Arctic endowed with endless U.S. oil brings to mind a crusader from the Middle Ages who, while seeking to export his faith on a journey of conquest, unwittingly imports a plague that devastates his own country. This is no casual metaphor. Scientists have long warned about the dangers of disease in a warming Arctic and traced recent anthrax outbreaks to spores from the thawing carcasses of long-frozen animals. Virologists have “awakened” dormant viruses from the permafrost, and biologists are charting the warming-fueled spread of disease in Arctic fish and mammals. The collapse of key species or the spread of disease between species, including humans, could make the Arctic the source of the next global pandemic.

In the face of all this, bromides from analysts such as Heather Conley that “the country that controls the Arctic controls the world” are extremely shortsighted. Climate-driven crises upend traditional notions of political-military control. The looming catastrophe can be managed only cooperatively. Thirty years ago, as the United States and the Soviet Union ended the Cold War and pondered how to eliminate chemical weapons, U.S. Secretary of State James Baker proposed disposing of them “somewhere in the Arctic.” Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev replied: “That would be even worse” because, in the Arctic, “the ecological balance cannot be disturbed under any circumstances.” Let the wisdom of their predecessors guide today’s leaders in halting an incipient Arctic arms race that can only hasten global catastrophe.


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