by Rob Huebert
December 14, 2016
The world is still digesting the election of Donald Trump as the U.S. president. It will be some time before the impact of his election will be fully understood. But what is already known is that he has achieved the Republican nomination as well as the presidency by trusting his own counsel and challenging orthodox wisdom. He will no doubt continue to disregard conventional wisdom and the advice of those outside of his immediate circle and do things “his way” to “make America great again.” So, what then can we expect in regards to his policies concerning the Arctic?
First, it is highly probable that the United States will return to a policy framework that is significantly more oriented toward unilateralism than multilateralism. As a result, the support of the Arctic Council, which has been one of the major elements of the Obama administration, will likely decrease. Trump will support the Arctic Council only so much as it directly supports American interests, as he understands them. Thus, any effort toward cooperation simply for cooperation’s sake should not be expected to continue. Nor should anyone think that there will be any effort by Trump to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. This means that the United States will remain outside the process of determining the outer limits of their continental shelf in the Arctic region.
Second, Trump has also indicated a support for the development of North American-based energy supplies. He has stated, on record, his support for the construction of new pipelines and the development of new North American-based supplies. This will undoubtedly mean a decrease of support for measures dealing with a mitigation of climate change and a greater focus on developments of North American energy sources, including those in the Arctic. There could also be a renewed search for new energy sources in Alaska. How quickly this is done will depend on market forces that will entice companies such as Shell to return. But the Trump administration can encourage a return and improve the business environment by decreasing the existing regulatory system and reducing any new policies meant to protect the environment for the sake of promoting oil and gas development.
Third, and most confounding, will be Trump’s policies regarding Arctic security. On the one hand, he has continually expressed an admiration for Russian president Vladimir Putin, and Trump’s tendency to personalize his policies means this could lead to a new relationship between the Russians and the Americans that may result in a greater willingness to work with the Russian government. But, on the other hand, he has also criticized the NATO alliance and suggested that the United States may no longer support it unconditionally. He has singled out the Baltic States for “not pulling their weight.” Such messages may act to encourage the Putin administration to try to separate these states from the alliance through some of the techniques learned in Ukraine. If this happens, Western security arrangements may be undermined, which may embolden Russian military actions in Europe, including in the Arctic region. If this were to occur, Arctic regional security might be at risk.
It is, of course, too soon to know with any certainty what paths Trump will actually take, but given his propensity to do what he says he will do, it is probable that we will soon see a U.S. Arctic policy that will be more unilateral, more focused on resource development and much more uncertain regarding military security. Under the Obama administration, the United States had moved from being a “reluctant Arctic power” to one that was increasingly active as an engaged partner in the region. It is probable that Trump will soon return the United States to the more normal policy of ignoring the Arctic, except in terms of Alaskan politics.