Polar Notes

Jan 2017

Trump’s Arctic

Donald Trump’s inauguration as the 45th President of the United States will likely have wide-ranging repercussions for US Arctic policy in the coming years. Although Trump is yet to discuss the Arctic in any detail, the early signs are that his administration will depart significantly from the priorities developed under his predecessor, Barack Obama.

Over the past decade, the US has been seen as a laggard in the Arctic, with many commentators criticising post-Cold War administrations for ‘falling behind’ other Arctic States. Norway, Canada and Russia all published ‘Arctic Strategies’ before George W. Bush signed a Presidential Directive in 2009 setting out – in broad terms – US policy. America’s capabilities in the Arctic also lag behind potential rivals owing to a relative lack of icebreakers, infrastructure, and operational experience. A fuller strategy, prioritising the need to enhance security, pursue responsible stewardship and strengthen international cooperation was not published until 2013.

When the US assumed the chairmanship of the Arctic Council in 2015, there was a strong push to focus minds on America’s interests and priorities in the region. Under the theme ‘One Arctic’, the US chose to address the impacts of climate change, promote Arctic Ocean safety, security and stewardship, and improve economic and living conditions in the re gion. It also sought to strengthen scientific cooperation – a legal binding agreement to that effect should be signed in May 2017, just before the US relinquishes the chairmanship to Finland.

Obama himself took a keen interest in the Arctic, becoming the first US President to visit the region. Obama’s broader leadership on the global climate change agenda, culminating in Paris Agreement, further reinforced efforts to tackle emerging threats to the Arctic. Obama went further still in the final year of his presidency by ordering an expansion of the protected areas of Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) and blocking the sale of new offshore drilling and mining rights in the federal waters off Alaska (comprising c. 98% of US Arctic waters). Both measures were designed to prevent further oil and gas development.  

Trump, meanwhile, is yet to discuss the Arctic in any detail, although, since his inauguration, every publication, page and policy memo with the word ‘Arctic’ in it has been deleted from the White House website, including the 2013 Strategy. Looking ahead, his main priority will likely be to try to re-open ANWR and US Arctic waters for oil and gas drilling, and support the construction of new pipelines to connect Alaska with the ‘Lower 48’ – moves supported by Alaskan leaders and fellow Republicans in Congress. However, whether Trump will be able to attract the majors to return to the Arctic will depend on how far he is willing to go to make Alaskan oil and gas projects commercially viable.  

Elsewhere, Trump’s scepticism about climate change and his hostility towards the climate science community could diminish US efforts to mitigate the impacts of climate change on the Arctic and result in reduced funding for climate change science in general. That will mark a major reversal of Obama’s efforts to promote international science cooperation in the Arctic and support for the Paris Agreement. It could also damage the Arctic Council and circumpolar efforts to produce robust scientific assessments of how the Arctic is changing. As the Arctic Council is a consensus-based organisation, which relies on all of the Arctic States being committed to a multilateral approach in the Arctic, there is considerable scope for Trump’s administration to disrupt its activities by withdrawing funding or challenging the validity of its assessments.

The outlook for US defence planning in the Arctic is less clear. On the one hand, Trump’s administration might seek to diffuse tensions with Russia (with or without its EU/NATO partners) by dropping the economic sanctions which have been in place since 2014, deliberately targeting Russian Arctic oil and gas projects. Rex Tillerson, the former ExxonMobil CEO who has been nominated Secretary of State has voiced support for the continuation of sanctions but has kept the door open to reviewing them at a later date. Doing so could provide the basis for a renewal of US-Russia Arctic oil and gas cooperation, including the $700m joint venture between ExxonMobil and Rosneft in the Kara Sea, which was suspended in 2014.  

On the other hand, since his inauguration Trump has stated his desire to enhance the US’ ballistic missile defence system, a move which would demand upgrading and expanding the US’s military presence in the Arctic. Russia would likely regard this as provocative. However, Trump might also be wary about supporting costly procurement programmes in the Arctic, given his intent to cut defence spending (more will be known about that when his first federal budget plan is published).  

Ambiguity remains about exactly what kind of Arctic Trump wants and whether he can deliver it. However, in line with his ‘America First’ vision, he will likely seek to adopt a unilateral position on most, if not all, issues relating to the Arctic. More specifically, it can be expected that his focus will be firmly on economic and security issues. Meanwhile, there seems to be little reason to be optimistic that Trump will seek to maintain US efforts to address the impacts of climate change on the Arctic, foster greater international science collaboration or offer strong support to the Arctic Council – all of which are key priorities for other Arctic stakeholders, including Britain.