scientists' prophesies of an ice-free Arctic Ocean pan out, the world will
witness the most sweeping transformation of geopolitics since the Panama Canal
opened. Seafaring nations and industries will react assertively -- as they did
when merchantmen and ships of war sailing from Atlantic seaports no longer had
to circumnavigate South America to reach the Pacific Ocean. There are
commercial, constabulary, and military components to this enterprise. The
United States must position itself at the forefront of polar sea power along
all three axes.
enough, most commentary on a navigable Arctic accentuates economic opportunities,
such as extracting natural resources and shortening sea voyages. Countries
fronting on polar waters -- the United States, Canada, Denmark, Finland,
Iceland, Norway, Russia, and Sweden comprise the intergovernmental Arctic Council -- will enjoy exclusive
rights to fish and tap undersea resources in hundreds of thousands of square
miles of water off their shores. Nations holding waterfront property in the
Arctic will bolster their coast guards to police their territorial
seas and exclusive economic zones during ice-free intervals.
But they will
not be the only beneficiaries. Former U.S. Navy chief oceanographer David
Titley estimates that "sometime between 2035 and 2040 there is a
pretty good chance that the Arctic Ocean will be essentially ice-free for about
a month" each year. If so, polar shipping
will cut transit distances by up to 40 percent, saving ship owners big bucks on
fuel and maintenance. They could pass those savings on to producers and consumers
of the cargo their vessels carry. Global warming, it appears, could bestow significant
advantages on mariners, fostering economic growth in the bargain. New sources
of wealth concentrate minds.
geopolitics of climate change is just as consequential as the economics, and
more intriguing. A strategic realignment could take place as the geographic
setting -- the arena where great powers grapple for advantage -- widens to
enfold a new inland sea. Navies will dispatch squadrons to the Arctic Ocean
lest it become a theater for naval rivalry.
precedent for this. This is not the first time new portals to inland seas have
opened -- or navies have scrambled to control access to new nautical highways. Until
1869, for example, shipping could enter the Mediterranean Sea only though the
Strait of Gibraltar. Geography compelled European ships to round Africa or
South America to reach Asia. Passage from the British Isles to India consumed
up to six months.
enterprise changed all that. Opening the Suez Canal wrought a revolution in
maritime affairs, shaving
nearly 3,900 miles off the journey to Asia while converting the Mediterranean
from a true inland sea into a thoroughfare for commerce and military endeavors.
The Mediterranean and Red seas were now a conduit to the Indian Ocean.
Europeans, and in particular Britons, swiveled their strategic gaze -- and
their naval power -- southeastward. The canal tightened Europe's commercial and
military grip on Asia.
Or there's the
Caribbean and Gulf. Before 1914, when the Panama Canal opened its locks,
America looked eastward to Europe. After 1914, transoceanic passage abridged
steaming distances between the U.S. Atlantic and Pacific coasts by 5,000 miles
or more. And, in effect, the waterway teleported Atlantic seaports closer to
Asia. Writing in 1944, Yale University scholar Nicholas Spykman observed that New York suddenly found itself
closer to Shanghai than the British seaport of Liverpool was.
less time-consuming voyages to the Far East bestowed commercial and military
advantages on the United States vis-à-vis its European competitors -- allowing
the United States to reinforce its standing as a Pacific power. Constructing
a transoceanic canal, wrote
Spykman, "had the effect of turning the whole of the United States around on
its axis." The republic now faced south toward the Caribbean and west toward
Pacific waters -- dividing its gaze between Europe and the Far East. Talk about
a pivot to Asia!
who felt the tug of the sea -- notably Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Cabot Lodge, and Alfred Thayer Mahan -- glimpsed
this strategic revolution before it took place. Before the Spanish-American
War, for instance, Mahan was already warning that European imperial powers
would seek naval bases in the Caribbean Sea -- bases from which they could
control the sea lanes leading to the Isthmus. Official Washington should
undertake that kind of strategic forethought today -- lest the United States
find itself playing material, intellectual, and doctrinal catch-up when Arctic
sea routes open.
accessible Arctic Ocean probably won't rearrange the physical and mental map of
the world to the same degree as the Suez or Panama canals. Even Admiral
Titley's forecast indicates that northern waters will remain off-limits to
shipping around eleven months of the year, as the icecap expands and contracts.
Consequently, there will be a rhythm to polar seafaring not found in temperate
seas. And that seasonal rhythm could be erratic. The icepack's advance and retreat
will presumably vary from year to year with temperature fluctuations. Navigable
routes will prove unpredictable -- limiting the scope of commercial and
partial and episodic access to Arctic sea lanes will add a northern vector to
seagoing nations' strategic calculus. Not just Arctic countries but countries
like China, Japan, and South Korea -- countries that look eastward across the
Pacific or southward toward the Indian Ocean when thinking about maritime
security -- will cast their gaze toward such polar entryways as the Bering
Strait, Baffin Bay, and the Greenland-Iceland-U.K. gap.
What will they
see? The intermittent appearance and disappearance of a mediterranean sea -- a
body of water nearly or wholly enclosed by land -- atop the world could renew
interest in geopolitical theories that have lain dormant for decades. Starting
in 1904, for instance, Sir Halford Mackinder published influential works
exploring the relationship between land and sea power. Great Britain's Royal
Navy had ruled the waves since the eighteenth century. Mackinder wrote with an
eye toward preserving British geopolitical ascendancy, which was premised on mastery
of what Spykman termed the "surrounding string of marginal and mediterranean
seas which separates the continent from the oceans" and "constitutes a
circumferential maritime highway which links the whole area together in terms
of sea power."
Sea power is
about strategic mobility. A maritime nation with unfettered access to littoral
waters enjoys the liberty to maneuver around the periphery -- radiating power
into Eurasia without heavy ground forces. Yet Mackinder fretted that land power
would win out over British sea power, tapping the strategic mobility offered by
railways and steam propulsion. He famously designated the Eurasian "Heartland"
-- a vast central plain ringed by mountains, and bounded by the Arctic to the
north -- the key to world dominance. Indeed, his main analytical tool was a map
centered on the "pivot area" encompassing and adjoining Siberia.
that whoever controlled the Heartland occupied the "interior lines" vis-à-vis a
global sea power like Great Britain whose forces had to maneuver along
"exterior lines" in the marginal and inland seas. Operating along interior
lines is like operating along the radii within a circle; operating along
exterior lines is like operating around the circle's circumference. Shorter
distances mean swifter response times when trouble looms. Advantage: land power.
power based in the Heartland lay closer than any seaborne competitor to likely
scenes of action around the Eurasian periphery. It could shift armies nimbly
from side to side by rail, outpacing navies forced to lumber from place to
place across great distances. In short, a land power blessed with this central
position could shape events in what Spykman termed the "rimlands," or outlying
regions forming the interface between the Heartland and the sea. Western Europe
and the "monsoon lands" of East and South Asia fell under the Heartland's
Here's the punch
line. Spykman declared that British imperial power "rested on a maritime
encirclement of the European land mass." British fleets dominated the
circumferential maritime highway, ranging back and forth at the crown's behest.
From there they could radiate power into the Heartland via the rimlands. But a
"competing sea power on the littoral of the continent" could threaten British
mastery of marginal waters, as could "the penetration of Russian land power to
the coast." Such developments could impede British strategic mobility, and thus
London's capacity to project power shoreward through the rimlands. A
continental power, then, could prevail over the world's preeminent sea power by
mastering the rimlands.
States is heir to British naval supremacy and thus, to borrow Spykman's terminology,
depends on maritime encirclement of Eurasia to sustain its own strategic
position. But like fin de siècle
Britain's, America's naval mastery is under stress, with worldwide commitments
and stagnant or dwindling assets to meet those commitments. And climate change
promises to increase the burden. Receding Arctic ice promises to complete the
watery belt enclosing Eurasia -- bringing Russian power to the northern
frontier of the Heartland at least intermittently. Indeed, the Northern Sea
Route passing along Russia's northern coast was ice-free
for the first time in recorded history (as was the Northwest Passage, to
would liberate Russia from its perennial quest for year-round access to the sea
while granting the Russian military full use of Eurasia's interior lines.
Mackinder's geospatial analysis would be complete. But at the same time, climate
change would transform the northern tier of the Heartland into an arctic
rimland -- letting a dominant sea power project influence directly into the
Heartland for the first time. Moscow could radiate power outward -- but it
would have to defend against sea powers arrayed along its Arctic flank. The
argument between Spykman and Mackinder would resume. Spykman believed the
rimlands offered the key to the Heartland, whereas Mackinder insisted on the
primacy of land power in Eurasia. Would land or sea power triumph once rimlands
came to enclose all of the Heartland?
could well be put to the test. The logic that drove great-power competition in
the Mediterranean Sea for many centuries could well take hold in the polar
Mediterranean. Like the Mediterranean, the Arctic Ocean is ringed by strong
seafaring nations, including Russia and five NATO allies. This stands in stark
contrast to the Caribbean Sea, and to that other inland sea that has dominated
headlines of late, the South China Sea. Each expanse is home to a single strong
power that overshadows many lesser ones.
how relations between Moscow and the West unfold, furthermore, the future could
see a resurgence of Cold War-style naval competition. Think back. The U.S.
Maritime Strategy of the 1980s called on aircraft-carrier task forces to steam
into Soviet waters to assault the Soviet Navy in its "bastions," or defended
home waters. Horizontal escalation, believed the strategy's framers, would
relieve NATO ground forces fighting in Central Europe. Climate change would
expand the scope for similar horizontal escalation along the rimlands -- a
strategy that might gladden Spykman's heart. At the same time, relatively free mobility
along the northern tier would allow the Russian Navy to combine fleets more
readily -- curtailing the isolation of its Pacific Fleet at a time when Moscow
again covets influence in the Far East.
How the ensuing
struggle for maritime influence would unfold is anyone's guess. Spykman concluded
his survey of Eurasian geography with a play on Mackinder's dictum that whoever
controlled the Heartland controlled Eurasia, and thence the world. Spykman's
rejoinder: "Whoever controls the rimland rules Eurasia; who rules Eurasia
controls the destinies of the world." Climate change could vindicate his proverb.
Seagoing states should plan ahead to exploit the economic benefits of an ice-free
Arctic. Coast guards should ready themselves for police duty in northern waters.
But it also befits navies to ponder strategy for this brave new world in the
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