The United States has set its sights on the Arctic as an emerging region of importance for US national security. In the past two years alone, the Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security, Army, Air Force, Navy, and Coast Guard have all updated their Arctic strategies. High-level Trump administration officials like former National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien have written on the Arctic’s vital role to US national security in terms of great power competition. Meanwhile, the United States and NATO moved to reinforce their posture in the Arctic through major NATO exercises, the opening of NATO’s Joint Force Command Norfolk, American bilateral agreements with allied Arctic nations, and investments in Arctic military infrastructure.
While national security remains the United States’ highest priority in the Arctic, Washington also has other important objectives in the region as well. These include fostering economic development and scientific research, responding to climate change, establishing pragmatic agreements with other Arctic nations, and protecting the rights of indigenous peoples. The most recent American national Arctic strategy dates back to 2013 and lays out these interests, but Washington can improve its interagency processes in pursuing its objectives in the Arctic by reinvigorating the Arctic Executive Steering Committee.
The Arctic Executive Steering Committee
To synergize federal initiatives on the Arctic, the Biden administration should prioritize using the Arctic Executive Steering Committee (AESC); the Obama administration created the AESC to coordinate federal Arctic initiatives while the United States chaired the Arctic Council from 2015 to 2017. The committee’s membership includes the heads (or their designees) of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, the Council on Environmental Quality, the Domestic Policy Council, and the National Security Council, as well as the deputy secretaries (or their equivalents) of other relevant agencies such as the Departments of State, Defense, Interior, Transportation, Energy, and Homeland Security. During the Obama administration, the AESC coordinated Washington’s Arctic policies and ensured that those policies flowed from a harmonized interagency process.
However, according to Arctic policy experts, the AESC has been dormant since the end of the Obama administration, although it has not formally disbanded yet., The numerous updated Arctic strategies from the Department of Defense and the service branches show a renewed US military focus on the Arctic. That said, the United States also has military-adjacent or non-military interests in region—particularly regarding climate change, economic development, and the protection of indigenous populations—that require coordination to pursue. That is where the AESC can add value.
Using the AESC to coordinate America’s Arctic policy has a variety of advantages. First, revitalizing the AESC will ensure that there is high-level engagement on Arctic affairs across the spectrum of US government agencies. Prior to the establishment of the AESC in 2015, deputy assistant secretaries and senior directors largely spearheaded US Arctic policy, but worsening climate change and heightened geopolitical tensions increase the Arctic’s relevance and require a higher level of leadership to coordinate American efforts in the region. Yet, the United States retains global interests beyond the Arctic. With competition for finite resources to address a broad range of challenges, high-level leadership via the AESC can vitally make decisions regarding Arctic priorities while identifying where Washington can most effectively allocate resources and funding for the greatest return on investment.
Second, the AESC provides an official forum for deputy secretaries to communicate with their counterparts in other departments on Arctic affairs. It can both identify gaps in US Arctic policy and spot duplication in government efforts in the region. Eradicating duplication frees up resources for use on other Arctic priorities, and the close communication and coordination between departments facilitates monitoring for duplication in current and future programs.
Third, the AESC can guide strategy on key challenges in the Arctic. For example, a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report from March 2020 notes that federal efforts on Arctic maritime infrastructure “lack a current strategy and interagency leadership.” The AESC would be an excellent forum for determining if, how, when, where, and why the United States should invest in Arctic maritime infrastructure to support American and international vessels in Arctic waters. It is unsurprising that GAO found an incoherent approach to Arctic maritime infrastructure while the AESC remained dormant. This concrete example demonstrates how the AESC can coordinate US efforts in the Arctic and create more effective policymaking.
Reviving the AESC and Future Roles for the Committee
The benefits of utilizing the AESC are clear, but the committee lacks an executive officer to lead it and focus its efforts. From 2015 to 2017, Ambassador Mark Brzezinski presided as the AESC’s executive officer (sometimes referred to as executive director), but no one filled the role once his tenure ended in 2017. According to the January 2015 executive order that created the AESC, the Chair of the AESC nominates the executive officer. The Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy—now a cabinet level position in the Biden administration—chairs the AESC. Luckily, the Senate recently confirmed Dr. Eric Lander for OSTP Director by a unanimous vote in May 2021. Therefore, the first step in resuscitating the AESC is complete. Now that the OSTP Director is in place, he can nominate a qualified individual for executive director of the AESC.
After nominating an executive officer, the AESC Chair should invite the newly designated Deputy National Climate Advisor to participate in the AESC given the Arctic’s susceptibility to the negative effects of climate change. The Deputy National Climate Advisor serves in the White House Office of Domestic Climate Policy, which controls coordination of US policymaking process with respect to domestic climate policy issues. Although contemporary debates on US Arctic policy frequently focus on foreign policy or national security topics, the American Arctic represents an important area for domestic climate policy by way of Alaska. Therefore, having the Deputy National Climate Advisor on the committee will ensure that the AESC keeps President Biden’s commitment to combat climate change in mind as environmental concerns feature prominently in his agenda to date.
In addition, it is more productive to place the Deputy National Climate Advisor on the AESC as opposed to a representative from the Office of the Special Presidential Envoy for Climate Change, which is headed by John Kerry. The latter office focuses more on executing the President’s climate agenda on the international stage and forging multilateral agreements. However, this role is already filled on the AESC through the State Department’s Office of Ocean and Polar Affairs, which develops and implements US foreign policy related to the Arctic region, and the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs, which houses the senior US Arctic official. Furthermore, the State Department plays the lead role in negotiating international agreements in the Arctic through the Arctic Council. Notably, the Deputy Secretary of State already represents these interests on the AESC, so it would be redundant to include someone from the Office of the Special Presidential Envoy for Climate Change. The AESC lacks a representative solely devoted to addressing climate change; the Deputy National Climate Advisor best satisfies this purpose.
Once the executive director is in place and the Deputy National Climate Advisor joins the AESC, President Biden should instruct the steering committee to update the United States’ 2013 Arctic strategy to reflect the evolving nature of geopolitical tensions in the Arctic and in the international system. The AESC may not need to completely re-write the document, since Washington’s list of priority interests would likely remain consistent: advancing US security interests, pursuing responsible stewardship of the Arctic region, and strengthening international cooperation, in that order. Even without a major overhaul to the strategy, republishing it would signal continuity in US Arctic policy and reiterate that Washington has concrete, long term interests there with a cohesive internal vision.
After updating the 2013 strategy as needed, the AESC should then begin the more difficult task of revising the March 2016 Implementation Framework for the National Strategy for the Arctic Region. This document charts precisely how the United States will pursue its three aforementioned core Arctic interests, and it describes which agencies and departments should take the lead versus play a supporting role in a given objective. The AESC should thus return to this document and review resolved items and what remains unfulfilled, and it should identify new objectives for federal departments to accomplish in the next five years.
The 2016 Implementation Framework already notes in its conclusion that the AESC should revisit the framework after five years, but the AESC needs leadership from an executive director to do this effectively. In addition, the AESC must first resume meeting on a quarterly basis (or more as needed) to update the framework and synergize US Arctic policy. Without a high-level committee to oversee and coordinate American efforts in the Arctic, the United States risks adopting a disjointed approach that could produce ineffective policy and duplication of government efforts.
Lastly, if the AESC succeeds in refreshing the national Arctic strategy and implementation framework, Congress should consider providing statutory authority for the committee through formal legislation. This would give the AESC legal justification to continue operating across administrations, ensuring streamlined coordination for future US Arctic policy. Similar legislative attempts arose in the past, but they tried to tinker with the organizational structure of the committee., Those bills proposed elevating the Secretary of Homeland Security to chair the AESC and demoting the Director of Office of Science and Technology Policy to Vice Chair while removing the National Security Advisor—or designee—from a leadership position in the AESC altogether (although they would continue to participate in the committee).
The rationale behind designating the Secretary of Homeland Security as the AESC Chair is that the US Coast Guard, the only service branch involved in the Department of Homeland Security, has a long history of advocating for a US presence in the Arctic and has consistent operations in the region. For decades, it has handled search and rescue, anti-pollution actions, and control of smuggling efforts, among others, making it a natural leader on Arctic affairs. Enshrining the AESC into law entails determining the tradeoffs between which department chairs the committee and how that may affect the committee’s prioritization of Arctic issues. At present, the Director of Office of Science and Technology Policy retains leadership of the steering committee, and it appears unlikely that the AESC’s structure will change in the short term.
The Biden administration should revitalize the AESC to coordinate US Arctic policy and should initiate updates to the national Arctic strategy and implementation framework. Using the AESC ensures high-level engagement on Arctic issues across the US government, provides a forum for deputy secretaries to synergize their departments’ Arctic initiatives, and enables the United States to craft and implement a thoughtful strategy in the region. In this way, the United States can ensure that it adopts a strategic approach to the Arctic that flows from a coordinated interagency process while avoiding duplicated efforts and disjointed approaches. While the numerous Arctic strategies from the Department of Defense, Homeland Security, and service branches are welcome, the United States needs to combine its military priorities in the region with non-military or military-adjacent ones, and the AESC will enable Washington to accomplish that task.
 Department of Defense, United States Government, Report to Congress Department of Defense Arctic Strategy,June 2019, https://media.defense.gov/2019/Jun/06/2002141657/-1/-1/1/2019-DOD-ARCTIC-STRATEGY.PDF.
 Department of Homeland Security, United States Government, Strategic Approach for Arctic Homeland Security, January 2021, https://www.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/publications/21_0217_plcy_dhs-arctic-strategy.pdf.
 Department of the Army, United States Government, Regaining Arctic Dominance: The U.S. Army in the Arctic, January 19, 2021, https://api.army.mil/e2/c/downloads/2021/03/15/9944046e/regaining-arctic-dominance-us-army-in-the-arctic-19-january-2021-unclassified.pdf.
 Department of the Air Force, United States Government, The Department of the Air Force Arctic Strategy, July 21, 2020, https://www.af.mil/Portals/1/documents/2020SAF/July/ArcticStrategy.pdf.
 Chief of Naval Operations, United States Government, Strategic Outlook for the Arctic, January 2019, https://media.defense.gov/2020/May/18/2002302034/-1/-1/1/NAVY_STRATEGIC_OUTLOOK_ARCTIC_JAN2019.PDF.
 United States Coast Guard, United States Government, United States Coast Guard Arctic Strategic Outlook, April 2019, https://www.uscg.mil/Portals/0/Images/arctic/Arctic_Strategy_Book_APR_2019.pdf.
 Robert C. O’Brien and Ryan Tully, “How the United States Can Win in the Arctic,” The National Interest, March 8, 2021, https://nationalinterest.org/feature/how-united-states-can-win-arctic-179655.
 “NATO’s new Atlantic command declared operational,” North Atlantic Treaty Organization, accessed May 13, 2021, https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/news_178031.htm.
 Thomas Nilsen, “U.S. Navy will build airport infrastructure in northern Norway to meet upped Russian submarine presence,” The Barents Observer, April 16, 2021, https://thebarentsobserver.com/en/security/2021/04/us-navy-build-airport-infrastructure-northern-norway-meet-increased-russian.
 Mila Cisneros, “Air Force awards multiple contracts for airfield construction at NAS Keflavik,” U.S. Air Force, September 24, 2020, https://www.af.mil/News/Article-Display/Article/2359356/air-force-awards-multiple-contracts-for-airfield-construction-at-nas-keflavik/.
 The White House, United States Government, National Strategy for the Arctic Region, May 2013, https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/sites/default/files/docs/nat_arctic_strategy.pdf.
 The White House, United States Government, Executive Order, Enhancing Coordination of National Efforts in the Arctic, January 21, 2015, https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2015/01/21/executive-order-enhancing-coordination-national-efforts-arctic.
 Ambassador David Balton, Ross A. Virginia, and Hon. Kenneth S. Yalowitz, “America Must Act on the North and South Poles,” Wilson Center, September 12, 2018, https://www.wilsoncenter.org/article/america-must-act-the-north-and-south-poles.
 United States Congress, United States-China Economic and Security Review Commission, Hearing on an Emerging China-Russia Axis? Implications for the United States in an Era of Strategic Competition, 116th Cong., 1st sess., 2019, 228, https://www.uscc.gov/sites/default/files/2019-10/March%2021,%202019%20Hearing%20Transcript.pdf.
 Heather Conley, “What to Know about the New White House Executive Order on Enhancing Coordination of National Efforts in the Arctic,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, January 22, 2015, https://www.csis.org/analysis/what-know-about-new-white-house-executive-order-enhancing-coordination-national-efforts.
 “Maritime Infrastructure: A Strategic Approach and Interagency Leadership Could Improve Federal Efforts in the U.S. Arctic,” United States Government Accountability Office, last modified April 2020, https://www.gao.gov/assets/gao-20-460.pdf.
 The White House, United States Government, Executive Order, Enhancing Coordination.
 Sarah Kaplan, “Biden will elevate White House science office to Cabinet-level,” Washington Post, January 15, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/science/2021/01/15/biden-lander-ostp/.
 The White House, United States Government, Executive Order, Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad, January 27, 2021, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/presidential-actions/2021/01/27/executive-order-on-tackling-the-climate-crisis-at-home-and-abroad/.
 The White House, United States Government, Interim National Security Strategic Guidance, March 2021, https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/NSC-1v2.pdf.
 “Office of Ocean and Polar Affairs,” Department of State, Bureau of Oceans and International Environment and Scientific Affairs, accessed July 29, 2021, https://www.state.gov/bureaus-offices/under-secretary-for-economic-growth-energy-and-the-environment/bureau-of-oceans-and-international-environmental-and-scientific-affairs/office-of-ocean-and-polar-affairs/.
 “The United States,” Arctic Council, accessed July 29, 2021, https://arctic-council.org/en/about/states/the-united-states/.
 Arctic Executive Steering Committee, United States Government, Implementation Framework for the National Strategy for the Arctic Region, March 2016, https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/sites/whitehouse.gov/files/documents/National%20Strategy%20for%20the%20Arctic%20Region%20Implementation%20Framework%20%28Appendix%20A%29%20Final.pdf.
 U.S. Congress, Senate, Arctic Policy Act of 2018, S. Res. 3739, 115th Cong., 2nd sess., https://www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/senate-bill/3739.
 U.S. Congress, Senate, Arctic Policy Act of 2019, S. Res. 1179, 116th Cong., 1st sess., https://www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/senate-bill/1179?r=1&s=3.
 Michael T. Corgan, “US Arctic Policy in the American Arctic,” in Routledge Handbook of Arctic Security, ed. Gunhild Hoogensen Gjørv, Marc Lanteigne, and Horatio Sam-Aggrey (London: Routledge, 2020), 155.
 Corgan, “US Arctic Policy,” 155.