By U.S. Ambassador to Denmark, Carla Sands
The majestic landscape of the Arctic – from the snow-capped peaks of the Brooks Range in Alaska to the vast Greenland Ice Sheet – creates the impression of permanence and timelessness. But with new sea lanes opening and milder inland climates, the Arctic’s landscape is rapidly changing.
Many nations and Arctic communities see investment opportunities – including in Greenland – while the strategic importance of the High North is attracting the attention of major powers. Some countries seek to impose new norms that would reshape the region in their own image. The Arctic hasn’t been in sharper focus in recent history. We need to wake up to this reality. America’s goal is a secure and stable Arctic, where Arctic nations and people work together to advance shared prosperity while also addressing shared challenges.
The establishment of the Arctic Council in 1996 among the eight Arctic states – Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Russia, and the United States – was a landmark accomplishment that continues to serve all of us well by providing a multilateral forum for shared, peaceful governance. Because of the Arctic Council, the eight Arctic countries have largely respected each other’s sovereign interests in the region. International agreements on scientific research, maritime traffic, search and rescue, and environmental protection are all concrete examples of successful “low tension” regional cooperation. But changes in the Arctic’s physical environment are presenting new and complex opportunities and challenges.
While Greenland stands on the cusp of a new era of productivity, governments who operate by different standards are looking to exploit opportunities to bring their authoritarian set of values to the future development and governance of the region. As an Arctic nation and a longstanding partner, the United States wants nothing more than to see Greenland and the greater Arctic region prosper, but this development cannot be at the expense of regional safety, security or sustainability. Russia’s pattern of aggressive behavior and increasing militarization in the Arctic is a looming global concern. It has restored many of its Cold War-era bases, established a new Arctic command, created four new Arctic brigades, refurbished old airfields and other infrastructure in the Arctic including deep water ports, and established new military bases along its Arctic coastline.
In 2018, Russia opened an Arctic airfield at Nagurskoye which can accommodate bombers capable of reaching Thule Air Base in Northwest Greenland with little to no warning. Furthermore, Russia is currently expanding the base’s 2,500-meter runway up to 3,500 meters, far longer than the length required for defensive fighters. These investments in new military capabilities reveal Russia’s growing ambitions that challenge the West’s shared goal of a peaceful, prosperous region. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) calls itself a “near Arctic state” even though nearly 1,500 kilometers separate the Arctic and China. The PRC is trying to insinuate itself into the region because it sees the Arctic as another place to advance its predatory economic interests and project its authoritarian values. It is attempting to gain a physical foothold in the region by building icebreakers, including working on a nuclear-powered icebreaker, deploying unmanned ice stations, and engaging in large and sophisticated data collection efforts in countries throughout the region, including the United States, Iceland, Greenland, and Canada.
According to the 2018 white paper “China’s Arctic Policy”, the PRC seeks to establish a “Polar Silk Road” through developing Arctic shipping routes. This presence could enable the PRC to project its repressive values and advance its self-serving economic interests. The PRC is also trying to seize upon the region’s valuable resources by pursuing dual use, civilian-military infrastructure and securing mining licenses for several mineral deposits throughout the region, including uranium and other rare-earth minerals. Given the PRC’s blatant disregard for international rules – see, for example, the South China Sea – and how the PRC has polluted its own land, water, and air, its growing fixation upon the Arctic’s peaceful and fragile environment is particularly alarming. Unlike Russia and the PRC, America’s vision for the Arctic is based on transparency, collaboration, and democratic values. The United States wants to be the partner of choice in the Arctic, and we hope to achieve this partnership through direct U.S. engagement that sustainably accelerates development and prosperity in the region – all based on the ideals of good governance, transparency, and respect for human rights that have helped freedom-loving societies thrive.
Our soon-to-be-reopened consulate in Nuuk will serve as our primary platform for increasing our daily interaction with the people of Greenland. For the past year, an American diplomat has travelled throughout Greenland, exchanging views and creating connections with people of all backgrounds and professions, including students, business owners, and government and municipality officials. With the establishment of a full-time diplomatic presence, we hope to further deepen and strengthen the U.S.-Greenlandic-Danish relationship. We want to collaborate with the entire Kingdom of Denmark to encourage the entrepreneurship and innovation needed to stimulate sustainable economic growth in the Arctic. The U.S. government is working on a substantial package of economic support funds to help jumpstart growth in Greenland. And for the first time in over thirty years, a U.S. naval vessel visited the Faroe Islands in 2019, signaling our wish to grow our security relationship and our economic and scientific cooperation.
The United States will also continue to build bridges between Greenlanders, Faroese, and Americans through exchange programs that build educational and professional skills to spur economic development – all to increase the resilience of Arctic and subarctic communities. In the years ahead, the United States can help Greenland reach its great potential, open up new markets, increase sustainable tourism, and set new standards for development in the region. The untapped resources throughout the Arctic are truly remarkable and include oil and gas, fish stocks critical to global food supply, rareearth minerals and, most importantly, a people striving for prosperity. From the American perspective, the Arctic region must remain stable and free of conflict, where polar nations collaborate in good faith. In order to ensure the Arctic remains secure and prospers, the United States will work with our European and North American allies. The United States will also continue to contribute to the great work of the Arctic Council – an organization that is vital to the region’s peace and stability. Even as we recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, the Western world can no longer overlook the Arctic’s importance, in terms of its unique and changing environment, its strategic location, and its potential.
The United States and the Trump Administration are setting out to wake the West up from our collective complacency before other less trustworthy governments shape the values of the region after their own repressive image. I encourage our Allies to join the United States in pursuit of our goal to keep the Arctic stable and peaceful, so that we all have a better future, where the democratic values and freedoms that we cherish are respected and upheld.