Analyzing US Arctic Security

Jenna Patterson

Is the US Defense industrial complex really going to do anything about a melting Arctic? Here at High North, we analyze new Arctic policies put forth by different nations and organization to see what these narratives represent and justify. On this episode, I evaluate the US Department of Defense Security Policy in the United States and their claim to securitize the “Arctic as US Homeland.” Join me for a better understanding of the geopolitical Arctic environment and what the Department of Defense propose to do with it.



Welcome to the very first episode of High North, the show where we investigate Arctic policies. I’m Jenna Patterson, your host. And today we’re going to be analyzing US defense strategy in relation to the Arctic.


Nearly all countries produce some sort of climate-related security discourses, influenced by cultural, political, economic, and societal perspectives surrounding the environment, human-environment interactions, and the spatial scale of environmental issues. The United States Department of Defense proposed security policy for the melting Arctic incorporates these perspectives to attempt to securitize the new space created from the reduced Arctic ice.


The Arctic is one of the largest growing climate security environments given the geopolitical ramifications of a reduced polar ice cap. Teeming with untapped resources, the Arctic can be thought of as the last maritime frontier for colonization on Earth, drawing the attention of Arctic and non-Arctic countries alike.


In the Trump Administration’s 2019 report to Congress on Arctic security, the Department of Defense claims the melting quote “Arctic as U.S. Homeland.” End quote. The report further claims the US must treat the Arctic as US Homeland to protect United States sovereignty. This narrative proposed by the Department of Defense advocates for the securitization of the Arctic in order to physically protect the people of the United States from foreign actors.


Together, we will discuss how analyzing this claim based on the role of the environment, human-environment interactions, and spatial scale offers a more objective view of securing the “Arctic as US homeland,” and the policies it justifies.


The environment plays an interesting role in this claim. It relates to physical features alone, specifically Arctic land, waterways, and unnamed strategic resources which access to is increasing due to melting ice. This report identifies the Arctic’s potential as a vector of attack to be the chief justification to treat the Arctic as US Homeland. The receding polar ice cap in the Arctic is cited as a potential risk to US physical security, yet interestingly enough, the very cause of this recession is not discussed.


Further, it’s purposefully avoided due to political considerations. In the publication “Geography, Climate Change, National Security: The Case of the Evolving US Arctic Strategy,” Lavario details the development of this report. Previous to the Trump Administration’s report of climate security, the policy included the term climate change. However, in the 2019 report, the words ‘climate change,’ cannot be found, keeping in line with the Trump-era climate denial policy.


Moreover, the reduced ice is framed as a risk for geopolitical reasons only, but the overall melting ice is advertised as a positive. This report offers no consideration of the risks associated with increased temperatures or rising sea-levels in and outside of the Arctic due to this melting.

Within this claim, “the Arctic as US Homeland,” the Department of Defense is justifying securitization of the region solely for the physical resources without any discussion of the environment beyond logistical means of defense infrastructure. If the melting ice caps pose such a dangerous security risk to the US, shouldn’t the solution be to prevent the melting in the first place? Apparently, the answer is to ignore the problem until it goes away.


This disregard for the causes of reduced ice caps certainly shows that climate change and environment at large are not priorities of the Department of Defense, especially not in the Arctic.


The Arctic is a vibrant region filled with a long history of international collaborations and scientific exploration. The region has been marked by overall peace and stability within the last decades after the fall of the Soviet Union. As compared to other regions, the Arctic has been

somewhat insulated from dips in US-Russian relations. The reason, Michael Byers argues in his publication “Crises and international cooperation: an Arctic case study,” is the region’s complex interdependence. If the Arctic has maintained a relative peace in the past 30 years, why does the Department of Defense claim it is necessary for physical security to secure the Arctic as a US homeland?


The truth seems to lie in the classical military and diplomatic perspectives deeply entwined with US foriegn policy. Out of all Arctic countries, the United States has one of the least robust Arctic policies, and then is sometimes called the reluctant actor within the Arctic. But it insists that the US is an “Arctic Nation whose territory affords it claims to the Arctic waterways and resources.” This policy recognizes other states with Arctic territory as legitimate sovereign Arctic states, but denies “Near-Arctic States” or non-Arctic state actors, such as China, the right to participation in the governance of the Arctic.


This refusal to involve non-Arctic states in Arctic affairs is fascinating. Considering the US holds that Russia and Canada are violating international regulations when they claim the Northern Sea Route or the Northwest Passageway with the same justification. Furthermore, the US was rather unconcerned about Arctic governance until other countries started showing interest in the region.


The report goes on to detail how Russia and China may upset the ‘rules-based order’ in the Arctic, and by extension, the entire international order if the Arctic is not secured as a US homeland. By rules-based order, the DOD really just refers to US hegemony, meaning that if the US doesn’t invest money and infrastructure into securitizing the Arctic, we will lose our strategic advantage.


It may not be plainly stated as the main security threat to the United States, but it is what the DOD sees as the most concerning issue in the Arctic. Therefore, shockingly, the Department of Defense wishes to combat the threat of melting Arctic ice with force instead of science or diplomacy.


This narrative they have proposed where US physical security is at risk if the Arctic isn’t secured as a US homeland, justifies the funding of new military infrastructure and development in the Arctic and outside of it. Make no mistake. It is not a coincidence that this claim is presented as a report to Congress.


The spatial scale of this claim reveals several things, not outwardly stated. When discussing the region of the Arctic, one would think the spatial scale would be everything north of the Arctic Circle, right?


Well, this report repeatedly justifies treating the Arctic as US Homeland, to quote “maintain favorable balances of power in the indo-Pacific region and Europe.” Moreover, the report identifies China’s involvement in the region to be a threat of equal importance as Russian militarization in the region. In truth, China’s agenda in the Arctic is focused on economic investments and mineral rights, not military installations and missile systems.


It is categorically false that China poses a physical security threat to US territory based solely on their movements in the Arctic. So then why is the Department of Defense so concerned with China’s ventures in the region?


The answer lies in the effort to maintain favorable balances of power in the indo-Pacific region. The real risk China poses in the Arctic is one of economic security through strategic competition. If China successfully developed investments and mineral rights in the region, it would strengthen their economy greatly. China’s growing economy has the potential to unseat the United State as the largest economy in the world in the next several decades, which would upset the current balance of power in the international order.


The United Staes uses its economy as a tool of foreign policy to manage US-China relations, so a shift in economic advantage could damage this US strategy.


Therefore, despite the US citing physical security reasons, the real reason to securitize the Arctic as US Homeland is to ensure China does not have access to the resources in the region in the first place.


American energy security policies have advocated for the securitization of oil-rich regions to prevent adversaries from the resources there for many years, the prime example being the Middle East. Additionally, the report doesn’t even begin to discuss the vertical spatial dimensions of the Arctic.


The oil, minerals, and other resources the Arctic contains lie nearly 4,000 feet below sea level. While China has access to the waterways above, different Arctic countries have already begun to claim their extended continental shelves. And by extension the right to this oil.


A report by IBRU’s Center for border’s research shows that nearly the entirety of the Central Arctic Ocean has been claimed by an Arctic country or another, so there’s a limited possibility China will even gain access to enough mineral resources to greatly impact their economy. This makes the narrative that China poses some great danger to the United States security if the Arctic is not secured as US homeland inconsistent at best.


After evaluating this discourse proposed by the Department of Defense that the Arctic should be securitized as US homeland.


We can see that this report misrepresents the greatest threats in the Arctic region. While there are legitimate security concerns present in the geopolitical sphere of a melting Arctic, it is problematic to declare the Arctic as US homeland without considering other perspectives beyond the standard military approach. The Arctic is currently a peaceful region, and to misrepresent it as turbulent only serves to heighten tensions instead of maintaining unity.


Thank you for joining me today as we began exploring US Arctic security policy. I want to credit Dr. Shannon O’Lear for the framework we used to analyze this claim. I hope you join me again for another episode of High North.


No sounds used


Byers, Michael. “Crises and international cooperation: an Arctic case study.” International Relations 31, no.4 (2017): 375–402. doi:10.1177/0047117817735680


Jensen, Øystein, and Svein Vigeland Rottem. “The Politics of Security and International Law in Norway’s Arctic Waters.” Polar Record 46, no. 1 (2010): 75–83. doi:10.1017/S0032247409990076.


Lundestad, Ingrid, and Øystein Tunsjø. “The United States and China in the Arctic.” Polar Record 51, no. 4 (2015): 392–403. doi:10.1017/S0032247414000291.

“Maritime Jurisdiction and Boundries in the Arctic Region.” Map. IBRU Arctic Maps Series. IBRU: Centre for Borders Research, May 2021.

Nilsson, Annika E. “The United States and the Making of an Arctic Nation.” Polar Record 54, no. 2 (2018): 95–107. doi:10.1017/S0032247418000219.



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Analyzing US Arctic Security Copyright © 2022 by Jenna Patterson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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