In a recent CNN interview by Jason Miks, Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, the President of Iceland, went into great detail about the changing geopolitical conditions in a melting Arctic and the distinct role of the United States in the region. Iceland, an Arctic nation which recently rebounded from a severe economic shock, can certainly teach us something about balancing domestic and international security priorities (Iceland’s security is also entirely handled by the U.S. military, so its perspective on this issue is quite consistent with that of our armed forces in the region).
President Grímsson also points out that the need for reinforcing interest in the Arctic is a recent phenomenon:
In the Cold War, you didn’t have to explain to U.S. audiences why this backyard was important, because you had the so-called Soviet threat of missiles, submarines. So you had a vast network of military installations throughout the Arctic region. But with the end of the Cold War, the eight Arctic countries, including the U.S., succeeded in creating through the Arctic Council a venue for different organizations and institutions, a very constructive network to discuss how to evolve an area that during the Cold War was one of the most militarized areas into an area of constructive cooperation.
The effects of climate change, which is melting Arctic ice and creating a new security landscape, should be the driver of U.S. interest and action today, but that interest has been slow to materialize. Grímsson continues on why now is a critically important time for the U.S. to engage with the other nations in the region:
In two years’ time, the U.S. will take on the presidency of the Arctic Council which is different from many other international organizations in the sense that the presidency is not just a formality – it is supposed to give a policy direction. So all the Arctic countries, European and Asian observer states will be waiting to see what priorities and guidance the United States will bring to the presidency.
But despite the U.S. presidency of the Arctic Council looming on the horizon, Grímsson notes:
America has only one ice breaker. So with all due respect to this great country, you don’t have the infrastructure or even the scientific manpower to gather the necessary, comprehensive knowledge on the Arctic. You, like us, need partners. We need comprehensive international cooperation to make sure that the economic future of the Arctic, the political negotiations, will be based on sound science.
Essentially, the U.S. should not let short-term budget constraints inhibit its leadership in the region. Such an approach could negatively effect U.S. influence in its own backyard, and do damage to international security.