Phantom Peril in the Arctic

Phantom Peril in the Arctic

Accurate threat assessment is vital to the formulation of foreign policy. Across centuries of political and technological change, the giants of strategy—from Sun-tzu and Thucydides to Carl von Clausewitz and George Kennan—warned against exaggerating threats and ignoring their geopolitical context. Still, ideologically driven threat inflation—from a phantom Vietnamese attack in the Gulf of Tonkin to nonexistent Iraqi nuclear and chemical weapons—has repeatedly led the United States into costly quagmires. Despite this history, the country is again on the brink of an ideologically driven blunder—this time in the Arctic.

For over a decade, defense hawks have been sounding an alarm over Russia’s supposed military superiority and incipient aggression in the region. Previous U.S. presidents resisted the bait, avoiding confrontation and embracing cooperation through the multinational Arctic Council established after the end of the Cold War. They knew that Russia’s forces in the region were defensively structured and weaker than they were before the Soviet collapse in 1991, despite efforts to rebuild them that began in the mid-2000s. Previous U.S. presidents also knew that U.S. and NATO forces had the clear upper hand in the Arctic and that predictions of Russian aggression were mainly threat-mongering by armchair analysts and vested political interests.

But the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump has recently embraced Arctic alarmism with a vengeance. It has stoked fears of Russian and Chinese “aggression,” trashed the Arctic Council’s delicate diplomacy, and adopted a new confrontational posture. In so doing, it joins the alarmists in three serious mistakes: the failure to assess specific threats accurately, the failure to consider an adversary’s forces in relation to those of the United States and its allies, and the failure to evaluate the broader strategic landscape—the political, economic, and environmental factors beyond the battlefield. Violation of these three pillars of careful threat assessment is drawing the United States toward an unnecessary confrontation in a region where the real enemy isn’t Cold War ghosts but looming environmental disaster.