Make the Arctic great again

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Story highlights

  • Walter A. Berbrick: The Arctic could hold the key to restoring America's economy, security and national identity
  • But unlocking America's potential in the Arctic demands moral courage and a bold new national strategy, he says

Walter A. Berbrick is an International Affairs Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He currently serves as a senior adviser to the special representative for the Arctic at the US Department of State. He is on sabbatical from the US Naval War College, where he serves as an associate professor in the War Gaming Department and founding director of the Arctic Studies Group. Follow him on Twitter @walterberbrick. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.

(CNN)President-elect Trump has vowed to confront a wide range of domestic and foreign policy challenges, including border security, job creation, energy and infrastructure development, trade reform, strengthening military and intelligence capabilities and improving relations with Russia. Nowhere in the world do such complex challenges and opportunities converge for America than in the Arctic region.

It's here along the northern maritime borders of Russia and the United States where we find a rapidly melting polar ice cap; the shortest trade route linking Asia, Europe and North America; nearly one-third of the world's untapped hydrocarbons; an increased abundance and distribution of fish and minerals; the historically intense relationship between Russia and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO; and the subtle, inevitable rise of China's third ocean strategy. With so much riding on one region, it's easy to see why America's long-term interest has now turned to its forgotten northern shores.
Walter A. Berbrick
America's past investment in the Arctic has yielded mixed return for our economy, security and national identity. And it makes sense. America's Arctic policy was formed nearly a decade ago at a time of reduced temperatures and tensions -- and our strategy mostly focused on environmental conservation and monitoring.
Needless to say, we've fallen behind, and most Americans don't even realize it. But the Arctic is open to us, and our own efforts in it — civilian, commercial and military — urgently need greater attention.
The United States is an Arctic nation with a compelling and unique role to play in the region: as a provider of peace and architect of new security arrangements, as an aggressive proponent of economic growth, as an advocate for indigenous peoples, and as a builder and leader of coalitions to deal with the problems of a rapidly changing ice-free Arctic world.
No other nation can play this role. But if we're going to succeed, then we must change our strategic approach now.
Here are seven ways President-elect Trump can shift our efforts in the Arctic from low to high gear.

1. Break new ground

America needs a new unified vision for the Arctic -- underpinned by integrity, imagination and integration. This renewed vision ensures the physical security and economic prosperity of our people and interests, and promotes our values at home and abroad. To advance this, America should commit to achieving the goals of constructing a new maritime trade route, sustainable energy development and building a new northern naval fleet over the next decade.
This bold initiative demands a national pledge to develop a new web of deep water ports, airports, roads, fiber-optic networks, high-speed rails and oil and gas pipelines -- the infrastructure that makes permanent security and economic growth possible. It will stimulate some $1 trillion in investment over the next 10 years and draw in countries that account for 80% of the world's energy consumption -- all the while redefining global trade patterns. Ultimately, our return on investment will be measured in sustainable revenue, jobs and unfettered access in a peaceful environment.
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A 21st century Arctic strategy requires an unconventional blend of public missions, commercial solutions and the ability to understand new markets and threats across national boundaries. Public-private partnerships and international arrangements are valuable and should be created and nurtured whenever possible -- especially to expand exports and investment in local capital and infrastructure development. But our long-term success rests upon American leadership, ingenuity and the effective use of all instruments of national power.

2. Identify and prioritize threats

Make no mistake, an opening Arctic unlocks enormous risk for America and the world. But climate change isn't the only serious threat we face in the years ahead. It's the threat posed by current and emerging powers with contrasting political institutions and philosophies for how to control the world's seas. The transnational threats plaguing warmer southern waters have now moved north, particularly environmental degradation, illegal fishing and the displacement of people and wildlife.
The first and most fundamental task is to clearly define and prioritize threats -- and to ensure our leaders and key decision-makers understand them. To do so, America must gather, synthesize and share the best and most up-to-date intelligence. But to truly connect the dots, we'll need to bring people and information together in a way that doesn't exist today -- perhaps in the form of a northern Joint Interagency Task Force. Until then, our people and interests remain vulnerable to tactical and strategic surprise.

3. Strengthen alliances and partnerships

Above all, President Trump must establish strong partnerships with Congress, the state of Alaska and the indigenous peoples of the Arctic. In practice, this means persistent engagement and a clear understanding of their priorities, beliefs and concerns. They, along with the rest of America, should be early and consistent consumers of this vision.
Needless to say, the United States cannot nor should we achieve this vision alone. We must adapt and strengthen the key alliances, friendships and principles, which serve as the bedrock for peace and stability, to a new set of challenges, opportunities and responsibilities in the Arctic. In practice, we'll need to spearhead new bilateral and multilateral strategies and policy instruments that promote regional security and economic growth.
Perhaps the most critical test of our partnerships will come from pursuing a positive and cooperative relationship with Russia and China in the Arctic, ensuring they remain responsible members of the international Arctic community.
Canada will surely remain a critical partner, but Russia will likely represent our single most important bilateral relationship in the Arctic for the simple fact that together we and Russia share the majority of natural resources in the region, as well as the Bering Strait, which could very well become the world's most important strategic choke point in the decades ahead. As hard as it is for some of us to adjust to that today, we ought to take the long view and welcome it.

4. Build a national Arctic security force

History reminds us that a strong national defense is the best deterrent, while withdrawal and cutting back often leads to unfavorable outcomes. America must always be ready to deter and defeat threats in the Arctic -- and with overwhelming force. To do so, we must develop a more capable and active military and law enforcement presence in the region.

5. Compete in the new Arctic international economic order

If we expect to be the leader of other nations, then we can expect to compete aggressively in the emerging ice-free Arctic international economic order. For starters, we'll need to reduce domestic and foreign barriers by lifting self-imposed restrictions on oil and gas development in the US Arctic, reach a deal with Canada on our disputed maritime boundary in the resource-rich Beaufort Sea and create sustainable economic growth strategies with Arctic and non-Arctic states.
Cutting across all these challenges is the need to craft effective multilateral strategies for addressing global environmental problems without undercutting economic growth.
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6. Restructure our national security institutions

The Trump administration must establish greater unity of effort across our government to deal with the new realities of an ice-free Arctic world. In practice, this means we not only need top talent but also that national security institutions must be better organized than the ones we have today. Such change starts at the top, beginning with the creation of a special assistant to the president and senior director for Arctic affairs at the National Security Council. Meanwhile, leadership of the White House Arctic Executive Steering Committee should be elevated to the vice president. At the State Department, an assistant secretary of state for arctic affairs should be created, reporting directly to the undersecretary for political affairs.

7. Turn the key as 'One Arctic Nation'

Even in times of competing global priorities and tightening budgets, past presidents have mustered the moral courage to achieve long-term national goals.
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Theodore Roosevelt completed the construction of the Panama Canal ahead of time, under budget and corruption free -- providing America and the world a safer and cheaper way to trade goods. Eisenhower's bold decision to build a modern federal highway system remains an economic and social blueprint today. Kennedy's grand vision to land a man on the moon in a decade was one of the greatest mobilizations of resources and manpower in American history -- and boosted American confidence and prestige at home and around the world. Reagan's multifaceted cost-conscious approach to ending the Cold War ushered in a new era of US-Russia relations, and without firing a single shot.
The Arctic provides President-elect Trump and America all these same opportunities today. Now is the time for America to come together as "One Arctic Nation" and to take a leading role in the region, which in many ways holds the key to our future at home.