The Future of US Arctic Policy under President Biden: Policy Recommendations

By Dr Dwayne Ryan Menezes

© Joe Biden Press Conference 2020/Flickr.

Dr Dwayne Ryan Menezes

Founder and Managing Director, Polar Research and Policy Initiative

After a frightfully divisive and agonisingly protracted US presidential campaign, with votes still being counted at this time and with results that continue to be contested by the incumbent, the graciousness of the projected victor ushered in a sense of relief that made his triumph all the sweeter – to those who supported him and to the many who simply wished to move on. The first address of the former Vice-President of the United States, now as President-Elect, set the tone of the incoming administration as inspiring, unifying and healing from the outset. The message was clear: the manifold wounds of the nation shall now be treated with the soothing and fragrant Balm of Gilead. Moderation is the need of the hour. 

Beyond the saccharine platitudes, the multiverse of promises and the misty high-level priorities, what would a Biden Presidency look like in practice? Arguably, it would have much more substance than a cynic might like to admit, with Biden inheriting from the Obama Presidency and his own time as Vice-President a legacy of ideas, policies, programmes, networks and structures so recent that, despite coming under a few years of heavy attack, still have enough life in them to be rescued, resuscitated and retrofitted for the current time. While Biden’s pledges on climate will bring the US more in line with the UK, Canada and its Nordic partners, how will the Arctic feature on his agenda? Polar Research and Policy Initiative (PRPI) stands ready to support the Biden Administration in crafting a sound, effective and globally respected US Arctic policy.

Here is our list of 20 recommendations that we hope will inform US Arctic engagement during the Biden Presidency:

  1. Develop a US Arctic policy that builds on, and recognises the interdependence between, three pillars – sustainable development, environmental stewardship and indigenous engagement; integrates local, tribal, regional and federal needs, interests and priorities; and clearly communicates to the nation and the world the importance that the US places on the Arctic.
  1. Appoint a Climate Task Force, re-join the Paris Climate Agreement, set goals enabling the transition to a net zero carbon economy by 2035; invest in clean energy and infrastructure; and work closely with the UK in ensuring a successful 26th UN Climate Change Conference (COP 26) in Glasgow in 2021 that features the Arctic prominently on its agenda.
  1. Reiterate support to the UN’s 2030 Agenda on Sustainable Development; outline the relevance and importance of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to the Arctic in US Arctic policy; and create a President’s State, Local and Tribal Leaders Task Force on Sustainable Development, akin to President Obama’s on Climate Preparedness & Resilience.
  1. Re-affirm the commitment of the US to Arctic cooperation, working with, and through, the Arctic Council as the principal intergovernmental forum promoting cooperation in the region; and consider in advance how its emphasis on Arctic cooperation will manifest in practice once Iceland’s chairmanship ends and Russia’s chairmanship commences in 2021.
  1. Articulate a more holistic vision of Arctic security, one that acknowledges the extent to which ‘domain awareness’ has redefined the traditional military focus, while a new human rights discourse undercuts traditional ways of managing sovereignty and territory, and accepts that military, human and environmental security can no longer be understood/treated as separate.
  1. Conceive a new security relationship within the North American Arctic, one that focuses on current and emerging conventional and non-conventional threats to security – increasingly transnational in their scope – that confront the region as a whole and that shape relationships between, and within, the US, Canada and Greenland.
  1. Revitalise cooperation with Canada and Greenland to devise transnational responses to regional challenges that often transcend physical state-instituted and -controlled borders, such as climate change, shipping accidents, disasters, environmental pollution, human trafficking, opioid smuggling and aero-spatial military challenges in the North American Arctic.
  1. Focus on improving border governance in the Yukon-British Columbia-Alaska borderland region by recognising how and why northern borders differ, and the dangers and pitfalls of importing and imposing border management paradigms from elsewhere – especially southern borderlands – that are insensitive to the specific needs, interests and priorities in the North.
  1. Move away from ‘high’ border management models that treat all borders alike and represent ultimately distant, elite interests to a ‘low’ border management model that recognises diversity and variation in different borders and promotes an asymmetric approach that is more sensitive and responsive to local cooperation and co-production of border management and integrity.
  1. Recognise that indigenous peoples have the right to have relationships and engage in cultural and economic activities with their people who live in communities that straddle international borders, and ensure they are included in discussions about cross-border mobility to build greater awareness across government about their rights and eliminate restrictions to mobility.
  1. Re-frame ‘border management’ in the North American Arctic from conveying simply a state’s ability to control its borders to a willingness on the part of state actors across borders to work with local and non-state actors in developing borderlands into zones for cross-border cooperation and viable regional economies, learning from the Kolarctic CBC programme.
  1. Acknowledge the limitations of formal disaster governance institutions and mechanisms to respond to situations where cross-border disaster risk reduction and response efforts are necessary; and proactively build the capacity and readiness of informal disaster governance mechanisms to enhance community-based resilience against shocks and stresses.
  1. Note that one great challenge to US Arctic security is the lack of adequate infrastructure, and consider the need for military, civilian and private collaboration to leverage finance in developing an integrated infrastructure network – marine, aviation and telecommunications – that works for all and that strengthens the position of the US Arctic on the global stage.
  1. Support the building of a deep-water port in the US Arctic – ideally, expanding the port at Nome – that would be valuable both for US naval forces and for commercial cargo ships, bulk freighters and LNG carriers, paving the way for safe, secure and reliable commerce in the region, given that the entire Arctic coastline of Alaska presently lacks a deep-draft port.
  1. Focus on developing telecommunications infrastructure to improve connectivity in the Arctic, which matters just as much for education, employment and general well-being, as it does for environmental monitoring and forecasting, search and rescue operations, ship-to-ship and ship-to-shore communications, military communication and domain awareness.
  1. Reinvigorate defence and security cooperation in the Arctic, North Atlantic and North Pacific regions with northern allies and partners, such as the UK, Canada, Greenland, Faroe Islands, Iceland, Denmark, Norway, Finland and Sweden, and expand the scope of the Five Eyes (US-UK-Canada-Australia-New Zealand) alliance to include polar cooperation.
  1. Appreciate the strategic importance of Greenland – from its vast resource potential to its waterways, airways and port and airport infrastructure – to the US and its North American and European allies, and ensure the US continues to prioritise its relationship with, strengthen its diplomatic presence within, and commit to infrastructure investment in, Greenland.
  1. Realise that the majority of mining firms that hold exploration or exploitation licenses in Greenland are British, Australian and Canadian, rendering a Five Eyes Task Force on Building Stable, Secure, Sustainable Supply Chains of Critical Minerals, such as rare earth elements, the logical next step in the quest to reduce dependence on China and enhance resource security.
  1. At the domestic level, ensure that policymakers shaping US Arctic policy regularly consult, and consider the concerns, needs, interests and priorities of, local communities in the US Arctic, as well as the two US states (Alaska and Maine) and two US regions (Pacific Northwest and New England) most engaged in Arctic affairs.
  1. Increase the staffing of the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) to ensure the Arctic, among other topics, is adequately covered within the White House, and revive the Arctic Executive Steering Committee to coordinate Arctic efforts across federal agencies and with state, local and tribal governments, academia, industry and civil society.

Some of these recommendations are drawn from my volume The North American Arctic: Themes in Regional Security (London: UCL Press, 2019) that I had the privilege of co-editing with Professor Heather Nicol of Trent University and that was based on three annual workshops on North American Arctic Security we had co-hosted in Canada (2017), the US (2018) and the UK (2019).

At Polar Research and Policy Initiative (PRPI), we are committed to seeing the US set the gold standard for Arctic engagement domestically and globally, and look forward to the next few years of fruitful cooperation with the US on all things Arctic. The Biden-Harris administration almost uniquely has every advantage proffered by hindsight and foresight to build on the Obama-Biden administration’s legacy and go further still, putting flesh on the bones of its priorities and crafting a sound, effective and globally respected US Arctic policy.

Dr Dwayne Ryan Menezes is the Founder and Managing Director of Polar Research and Policy Initiative (PRPI). He is also the Founder and Managing Director of Human Security Centre and Commonwealth Policy Development Centre. Over his academic career, Menezes read Imperial and Commonwealth History at the LSE and the University of Cambridge, graduating from the latter with a PhD in History. Subsequently, he held visiting or postdoctoral fellowships at research centres at the universities of Cambridge, Oxford and London. At present, he is an Honorary Fellow at the UCL Institute of Risk and Disaster Reduction at University College London and an Associate Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, School of Advanced Study, University of London. Over his policy career, Menezes has served as Head of the Secretariat of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Yemen in the UK Parliament (2015–2019); Consultant to the Secretary-General of the Commonwealth (2014–2016); Principal Consultant to the European Parliament Intergroup on the Freedom of Religion or Belief (2015–2016) and Research Associate to a UN Special Rapporteur (2013–2014). He is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, the Royal Geographical Society and the Royal Society of Arts.


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