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General News    H3'ed 9/12/19

Tomgram: Michael Klare, A Formula for Catastrophe in the Arctic

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In what turned out to be an ultra-hardline address, Pompeo claimed that we were now in a new era in the Arctic. Because climate change -- a phrase Pompeo, of course, never actually uttered -- is now making it ever more possible to exploit the region's vast resource riches, a scramble to gain control of them is now officially underway. That competition for resources has instantly become enmeshed in a growing geopolitical confrontation between the U.S., Russia, and China, generating new risks of conflict.

On the matter of resource exploitation, Pompeo could hardly contain his enthusiasm. Referring to the derision that greeted William Seward's purchase of Alaska in 1857, he declared:

"Far from the barren backcountry that many thought it to be in Seward's time, the Arctic is at the forefront of opportunity and abundance. It houses 13% of the world's undiscovered oil, 30% of its undiscovered gas, and an abundance of uranium, rare earth minerals, gold, diamonds, and millions of square miles of untapped resources."

Of equal attraction, he noted, was the possibility of vastly increasing maritime commerce through newly de-iced trans-Arctic trade routes that will link the Euro-Atlantic region with Asia. "Steady reductions in sea ice are opening new passageways and new opportunities for trade," he enthused. "This could potentially slash the time it takes to travel between Asia and the West by as much as 20 days... Arctic sea lanes could come [to be] the 21st century's Suez and Panama Canals." That such "steady reductions in sea ice" are the sole consequence of climate change went unmentioned, but so did another reality of our warming world. If the Arctic one day truly becomes the northern equivalent of a tropical passageway like the Suez or Panama canals, that will likely mean that parts of those southerly areas will have become the equivalents of uninhabitable deserts.

As such new trade and drilling opportunities arise, Pompeo affirmed, the United States intends to be out front in capitalizing on them. He then began bragging about what the Trump administration had already accomplished, including promoting expanded oil and gas drilling in offshore waters and also freeing up "energy exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge," a pristine stretch of northern Alaska prized by environmentalists as a sanctuary for migrating caribou and other at-risk species. Additional efforts to exploit the region's vital resources, he promised, are scheduled for the years ahead.

A New Arena for Competition (and Worse)

Ideally, Pompeo noted placidly, competition for the Arctic's resources will be conducted in an orderly, peaceful manner. The United States, he assured his listeners, believes in "free and fair competition, open, by the rule of law." But other countries, he added ominously, especially China and Russia, won't play by that rulebook much of the time and so must be subject to careful oversight and, if need be, punitive action.

China, he pointed out, is already developing trade routes in the Arctic, and establishing economic ties with key nations there. Unlike the United States (which already has multiple military bases in the Arctic, including one at Thule in Greenland, and so has a well-established presence there), Pompeo claimed that Beijing is surreptitiously using such supposedly economic activities for military purposes, including, heinously enough, spying on U.S. ballistic missile submarines operating in the region, while intimidating its local partners into acquiescence.

He then cited events in the distant South China Sea, where the Chinese have indeed militarized a number of tiny uninhabited islands (outfitting them with airstrips, missile batteries, and the like) and the U.S. has responded by sending its warships into adjacent waters. He did so to warn of similar future military stand-offs and potential clashes in the Arctic. "Let's just ask ourselves, do we want the Arctic Ocean to transform into a new South China Sea, fraught with militarization and competing territorial claims?" The answer, he assured his listeners, is "pretty clear." (And I'm sure you can guess what it is.)

The secretary of state then wielded even stronger language in describing "aggressive Russian behavior in the Arctic." In recent years, he claimed, the Russians have built hundreds of new bases in the region, along with new ports and air-defense capabilities. "Russia is already leaving snow prints in the form of army boots" there, a threat that cannot be ignored. "Just because the Arctic is a place of wilderness does not mean it should become a place of lawlessness. It need not be the case. And we stand ready to ensure that it does not become so."

And here we get to the heart of Pompeo's message: the United States will, of course, "respond" by enhancing its own military presence in the Arctic to better protect U.S. interests, while countering Chinese and Russian inroads in the region:

"Under President Trump, we are fortifying America's security and diplomatic presence in the area. On the security side, partly in response to Russia's destabilizing activities, we are hosting military exercises, strengthening our force presence, rebuilding our icebreaker fleet, expanding Coast Guard funding, and creating a new senior military post for Arctic Affairs inside of our own military."

To emphasize the administration's sincerity, Pompeo touted the largest NATO and U.S. Arctic military maneuvers since the Cold War era, the recently completed "Trident Juncture" exercise (which he incorrectly referred to as "Trident Structure"), involving some 50,000 troops. Although the official scenario for Trident Juncture spoke of an unidentified "aggressor" force, few observers had any doubt that the allied team was assembled to repel a hypothetical Russian invasion of Norway, where the simulated combat took place.

Implementing the Doctrine

And so you have the broad outlines of the new Pompeo Doctrine, centered on the Trump administration's truly forbidden topic: the climate crisis. In the most pugnacious manner imaginable, that doctrine posits a future of endless competition and conflict in the Arctic, growing ever more intense as the planet warms and the ice cap melts. The notion of the U.S. going nose-to-nose with the Russians and Chinese in the Far North, while exploiting the region's natural resources, has clearly been circulating in Washington. By August, it had obviously already become enough of a commonplace in the White House (not to speak of the National Security Council and the Pentagon), for the president to offer to buy Greenland.

And when it comes to resources and future military conflicts, it wasn't such a zany idea. After all, Greenland does have abundant natural resources and also houses that U.S. base in Thule. A relic of the Cold War, the Thule facility, mainly a radar base, is already being modernized, at a cost of some $300 million, to better track Russian missile launches. Clearly, key officials in Washington view Greenland as a valuable piece of real estate in the emerging geopolitical struggle Pompeo laid out, an assessment that clearly wormed its way into President Trump's consciousness as well.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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