Open Seas

The Arctic is the Mediterranean of the 21st century.

If climate 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.

Understandably 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 lanes 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.

But the 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.

There's 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.

Human 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 circuitous, 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!

U.S. leaders 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.

Admittedly, an 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 military endeavors.

But even 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.

Mackinder postulated 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.

A continental 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 shadow.

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.

The United 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 in 2008 for the first time in recorded history (as was the Northwest Passage, to Canada's north).

Further warming 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?

This question 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.

Depending on 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 making.



Do Ceasefires Ever Work?

Why the tenuous Syrian truce could end up being a step back for peace.

Earlier this week, the Syrian government, the Free Syrian Army, and other rebel elements agreed to a temporary, four-day ceasefire for the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha.

Even before it went into effect, one opposition group, Jabhat al-Nusra, had publicly disavowed the ceasefire, and on its first morning there were reports of clashes between rebel and government forces in Aleppo and Damascus. A car bomb also exploded in the capital city, resulting in multiple casualties. Still, neither side has formally declared the ceasefire dead as of yet, and early reports suggest that the fighting does seem to be somewhat reduced.

What are the prospects for this temporary ceasefire? And what are the prospects for a more permanent ceasefire in Syria?

Temporary ceasefires bring temporary relief from the day-to-day grind of war -- and for residents of battered cities like Aleppo, even a few days of relief over an important holiday will be welcome. Even an imperfectly respected ceasefire can bring some respite if the level of violence drops significantly.

Beyond that, it's possible that a temporary ceasefire or lull could build a sliver of trust and momentum toward a permanent end to hostilities. If both sides are serious about making a deal, a temporary lull in violence this weekend could provide an opening for negotiations. But that's a big if.

If the ceasefire hasn't already been derailed by Friday morning's clashes, what are the prospects for a more permanent peace deal? Wars end in negotiated deals when the costs of continuing to fight outweigh the prospects for winning. The war has proved costly for both the rebels and the government (and, of course, for the Syrian people -- but unfortunately, it's not up to civilians whether the war continues or not). Bashar al-Assad's government is isolated internationally and has not been able to crush the challenge to its rule. It is unlikely the Syrian Army will be able to quell the rebellion without extreme measures -- measures that even Assad's most stalwart international friends might not be able to stomach. The rebels, too, are a very long and costly slog from any prospect of toppling the regime. Without a peace agreement, both sides must know they face a difficult path toward, at best, uncertain victory.

In such a mutually painful status quo, bargaining theory tells us that negotiation should be preferable to continued violence. But reaching a deal and committing to it credibly is no easy task. Even if both sides are serious about negotiating a peace deal, and see some prospects for overcoming the commitment problem, would a temporary four-day holiday ceasefire help move the process forward? If the current violence subsides and the main parties abide by the ceasefire, it could build trust on both sides. But if the ceasefire fails entirely and full-scale fighting resumes, the opposite holds true.

The temporary ceasefire plan negotiated by U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi faces obstacles. All ceasefires are fragile, but temporary ones face a structural problem that makes them more fragile than most. As the end of the ceasefire period nears, there is an incentive to go on the offensive prior to the expiration date in order to gain an advantage over the other side. The other side is aware of this, however, and has an equal incentive to move against its adversaries, who, in turn, know this, and so have an incentive to attack even sooner, and so on and so forth. Not surprisingly, temporary ceasefires with a fixed expiration have a tendency to unravel.

This problem can be mitigated if both sides know that it would be clear who broke the ceasefire first -- provided there are real costs to doing so. In this case, the Syrian government is probably hoping to use the ceasefire, and its willingness to agree to it, to shore up international support, and so it will not want to be blamed for being the first to break the ceasefire. And to the extent that the rebels hope to maintain the sympathy of most of the outside world (and the possibility of intervention on their behalf), they also have an incentive not to be seen as violating the truce first. (Of course, rebel elements like Jabhat al-Nusra have already demonstrated that they aren't swayed by international opinion.) But this is a do-it-yourself ceasefire -- there will be no monitors to observe compliance, since the U.N. withdrew its observer mission over the summer. As a result, if fighting resumes, it will be difficult for outsiders to tell who started what. The military incentives to strike first, coupled with plausible deniability, thus make it less likely that the truce will hold through the holiday weekend.

If fighting starts again with a vengeance before the holiday weekend is over, the failure of the temporary truce may do more harm than good by shattering whatever sliver of trust that reaching the agreement has generated, which might then hamper future negotiations. The more failed attempts at peace in the past, the harder it is to work toward negotiated peace in the future.

But if ceasefires are inherently fragile, that doesn't mean they can't be made more durable. Both the commitment problem that makes ending wars so difficult and the problem of deniability that results from imperfect information can be alleviated by international peacekeeping operations.

Fortunately, the U.N. is reportedly preparing contingency plans for just such a peacekeeping mission, should a more comprehensive deal be reached. Historically, we know that ceasefires are dramatically more likely to stick if peacekeepers are deployed than if belligerents are left to their own devices.

Peacekeeping missions are notoriously dysfunctional -- chronically underfunded and underequipped; they tend to arrive late and are plagued by force interoperability problems. And yet, they are surprisingly effective. Why is this so? Impartial observers make it more costly to violate the terms of a ceasefire (or a more comprehensive peace deal) by providing information to the international community about who is or is not living up to commitments. They also provide the same information to the local population. So to the extent that the parties are vying for both international and domestic legitimacy, their presence makes returning to war more costly and maintaining a ceasefire more likely.

Agreeing to, and cooperating with, an intrusive peacekeeping mission also provides a costly, and therefore credible, signal from each side to the other about intentions for peace. This in itself can help alleviate mistrust between warring parties. And of course, knowing that outsiders will be watching and reporting what the other side is doing makes it easier to trust that one will not be suckered into an agreement and then caught unawares if the other side attacks.

Peacekeeping is not perfect, of course. It does not guarantee that peace will last. But it does a remarkably good job of improving the odds. Empirically, peacekeeping reduces the risk that a ceasefire will fail by 75-85 percent.

Unfortunately, there is no way to get a peacekeeping mission to Syria to observe the fragile Eid al-Adha truce, if indeed one still remains. The minimal U.N. observer mission that was dispatched last year is long gone and the international community is working, first, to get some basic humanitarian aid to Syrians amid the relative calm. Deploying a peacekeeping mission takes much longer than a weekend.

U.N. peacekeeping chief Hervé Ladsous has said the organization is planning such an operation. A peacekeeping mission would require approval from the Security Council, however, members of which have already vetoed three resolutions on Syria. However, Security Council approval is quite likely if peacekeeping is part of peace deal and is agreed to by both sides of the conflict. The Syrian government will, like most governments, be reluctant to allow peacekeepers in, and bridle at the infringement on Syrian sovereignty that will entail. But this is true of all governments on the receiving end of peacekeeping, many of whom ultimately decide it is worth it to swallow their pride and request peacekeepers as the price for durable peace. The Free Syrian Army will presumably be more amenable to peacekeeping. Depending on the composition of the mission, splinter opposition groups may be less obliging. Many countries, however, might be understandably reluctant to send military personnel to Syria, even in the context of a peace deal. Whether the mission would be mounted by the U.N., by NATO, or by an ad hoc group of interested states remains to be worked out. But a peace deal without such a mission is almost certainly doomed to failure.

The temporary truce this weekend may or may not move Syria closer to a more permanent ceasefire. But if and when one is reached, an international peacekeeping mission will be necessary to secure a durable peace in that country.