In 2013, Frank Hoffman described the “bifurcation between policy and operations” as a black hole in American strategic culture that needed to be closed. Realism, others have argued convincingly, offers the best means of doing so. No region is characterized by a greater bifurcation between policy and operations than the Arctic. Today’s Arctic policy debate generates more platitude-laden hyperbole than informed substance. Worse, opining and pontification prevail absent theoretical grounding. As such, the region is primed for a realist paradigm to demonstrate its potential contributions to US strategy. So what can it tell us about the Arctic today and what the Arctic will be tomorrow? And what should America’s Arctic security policy look like as a result?

Realism’s Take on Arctic Security Origins

The Arctic security status quo relies on international goodwill and consensus solutions, but this is a fragile system. The twentieth-century mechanisms of strategic cooperation are not fit for twenty-first-century purpose. To realists, the current Arctic security situation was predictable. Realism emphasizes the state’s pursuit of power to produce security, achieve sovereignty, and ensure survival in an anarchic world. Five states possess sovereign territory along the Arctic Ocean coastline. These same five states therefore also have national security concerns that, in the age of nuclear weapons, constitute an existential threat to survival. Their coastal borders extend territorial seas and nonterritorial exclusive economic zones into the depths of the Arctic Ocean and complicate matters of accessibility and extraction rights for increasingly apparent resource bounties. Whereas the Arctic was among the regions of focus for potential conflict during the Cold War, for most of the twenty-first century the Arctic has hewed to Mikhail Gorbachev’s call, issued amid thawing tensions in 1987, for the region to be a “zone of peace” and exceptionalism. As commercial and economic interests evolve, however, competition heightens. With that, there are competing territorial claims leading to increasingly aggressive maritime practices and a steady northward creep of military presence. Absent a consensus solution to these evolving issues, the Arctic is back in the crosshairs of international competition and potential future conflict.

Outside sovereign borders and territorial waters, untold resources exist within the global commons—the shared and ungoverned spaces of the world for all to access. To Hobbesian realists, Arctic resource competition is inevitable in an anarchic international system devoid of a central governing authority. The fear of losing military and economic advantage coupled with the perceived glory of conquering the harsh Arctic compel states further into the resource competition arena. Competition, fear (diffidence), and glory, according to Hobbes, are the three causes of quarrel. States seeking power will fight for security to achieve safety, relative gains, and reputational advantage. Each of these dynamics is at play in the power politics of the Arctic today.

Prominent realist thinkers have long told us that the state of nature is inherently violent and that because of this inclination, conflict is inevitable. The product of these forces at work in the Arctic will be an environment punctuated by resource competition, fear, and glory with a disposition for conflict that no international institution can quell. The challenge is devising a workable solution that does not leave powerful states at a relative disadvantage. To date, international institutions have been unable to achieve this.

Ignorance of Institutional Infallibility

Realists from Niccolo Machiavelli to John Mearsheimer have warned of humans’ self-interest to do and pursue what is best for themselves. At the individual level, Machiavelli asserted people are “ungrateful, fickle, [and] false,” and that their promises will be “broken at every opportunity for their advantage.” Individuals and statesmen alike cannot be bought indefinitely but only rented temporarily. Chance, uncertainty, and opportunity alter circumstances and often render commitments unfulfilled. At the institutional level, Mearsheimer quipped that “alliances are temporary marriages of convenience,” echoing E.H. Carr’s claim that the failure of the League of Nations was really the “failure of those who refused to make it work.” Given the choice, Reinhold Niebuhr insists that state interests will never harmonize enough to produce peace. Summarized, people and their promises are unreliable, statesmen seek power over partnerships, and politics is conflict at its core. Therefore, we must be skeptical of the utility of international institutions to keep and enforce promises, to quell power-hungry states and promote harmony, and to prevent conflict via consensus solutions and compliance mechanisms.

This “false promise of international institutions” Mearsheimer described is magnified in the ungoverned spaces of the world. Whereas prominent realist thinkers now recognize states need institutions to manage relations, devising a set of binding Arctic rules remains elusive in an increasingly self-interested landscape. Institutions like the Arctic Council, promising harmony in the commons based on covenants alone, are unreliable. The Arctic Council “does not and cannot implement or enforce its guidelines, assessments or recommendations.” In tempering Arctic militarization, the Arctic Council is powerless. Or as Thomas Hobbes more aptly stated: “Covenants, without the sword, are but words.”

Though there are no Arctic alliances, per se, the preponderance of Arctic states are NATO members sharing a collective security interest in the northern latitudes, with one outlier with a demonstrated recent proclivity for invading sovereign countries. Russian military buildup in the Arctic occurs within Russian territory, but remains among NATO’s concerns. In addition, there is China’s self-designation as a “near-Arctic state,” and increasing Chinese Arctic activity via the Polar Silk Road as an extension of Beijing’s global Belt and Road Initiative also compels attention. To date, appeals to NATO to do something about the strategic competition reemerging in the Arctic have gone unanswered save for occasional joint NATO training exercises. NATO’s existence alone is an insufficient deterrent to malign actor intent.

Arctic states ultimately can rely on neither the Arctic Council nor NATO to ensure their security in the High North and instead must safeguard their own sovereignty. If Russia or China seeks greater power in the Arctic, “There is no central authority beyond the mechanics of the balance of power, which could impose actual limits upon the manifestations of its collective desire for domination.” Ultimately, there is an emerging opportunity for states to secure resources in the Arctic and advance their relative power and security. There is a natural inclination rooted in the nature of man for states to pursue such opportunity, even as the cost to do so potentially raises the specter of conflict. As Kenneth Waltz reminds us, “Wars result from selfishness, from misdirected aggressive impulses, from stupidity.” Just as we are seeing evidence of power, fear, and glory driving Arctic behaviors, there is evidence of selfishness, aggressive impulses, and sheer stupidity emerging as well. From the realist perspective, the Arctic conflict scenario is predictable and preventable.

An Alternative Realist Response to Arctic Security

As idealists hope for Arctic peace and passivity, prudent states prepare for conflict. Just as realism offered predictions for the Arctic today, it offers policy prescriptions for the Arctic tomorrow. Assuming realism’s relevance, Arctic literature falls short of outlining a viable approach to ensuring Arctic security. We need a different approach recognizing the Arctic region for what it is—for the uniqueness of its opportunities, its environmental challenges, and its threats.

Waltz’s solution to anarchy is to impose controls on states. However, only a hegemon in a unipolar order can achieve such a task. Today’s multipolar order tempers the hegemonic ambition of force and submission and instead begets a more pragmatic strategy of accommodation and compensation. States increasingly seek proportional interactions and transactions rooted in opportunity over ideology. This emerging strategic competition in the Arctic looks like an unbalanced multipolar environment that Mearsheimer claims produces the greatest risk for war. To avoid this fate, states must suspend their dependence on international institutions as the solution and adopt pragmatism and realpolitik.

Consider Sebastian Rosato’s claim that “great powers cannot confidently assess the current intentions of others based on the latter’s domestic characteristics or behavior, and they are even less sure when it comes to estimating their peers’ future intentions.” The Arctic is a common space devoid of a central governing authority, teeming with valuable resources compelling increasing commercial and military activity by three competing world powers who cannot reliably assess each other’s intent. Therefore, states must make point-of-decision judgments based on present circumstance and act accordingly. This reduces most decisions to transactional dynamics. Wobbly engagements advancing immediate state interests supplant blind and indefinite alliance commitments in today’s security environment.

Transactional relations among curious partners are common today. Ongoing tensions within the World Trade Organization (WTO), as an example, lead more states to sidestep existing WTO arrangements and broken processes in favor of bilateral transactions removed from the WTO shackles. Germany and Turkey are NATO allies simultaneously transacting with Russia where it suits their economic and defense interests, respectively. The United States excluded France from AUKUS, at the risk of alienating a NATO and nuclear weapons ally. Ideologically rooted commitments cannot compete in precarious multipolar conditions where the balance of power rests on advancing one’s interests at every opportunity. Multipolarity necessitates a more opportunistic approach to foreign policy.

The United States cannot achieve regional hegemony in the Arctic. In an environment characterized by self-help, power maximization, and fear, prescriptions for Arctic hegemony via Mearsheimer’s offensive realism are impracticable. Likewise, Waltz’s call for defensive realism via reserved security policies and militarization is equally impracticable. Russian Arctic military capabilities necessitate—at least—an effective counterposture to deter and ensure US sovereignty and security along the Alaskan coastline. A Russian incursion into US territory would likely lead to World War III and is low probability. But Washington cannot afford to leave the homeland vulnerable with Russia’s ongoing international aggression. Continued Chinese Arctic activity also requires containment considerations or the United States risks a geostrategic imbalance emerging with two strategic competitors potentially at its back door. Washington’s Arctic objective must be to defend the homeland first while achieving a favorable balance of power to avoid conflict, but this requires engagement via balancing with NATO allies and against strategic competitors. Buck passing and bandwagoning implicitly mean trusting other states to act. This is not the answer.

Trust among states, as Machiavelli told us, is a false premise. We should not assume the sanctity of institutions as reliable self-binding mechanisms of establishing order. Lacking trust, states seek military and economic means to ensure survival. As more states seek expanded military postures, the Arctic security dilemma evolves. With potential conflict looming, states engage in balancing behaviors.

Balancing specific to military capabilities refers to a “state’s efforts to amass military might so as to deter another’s aggression or prevail in a conflict should deterrence fail.” Internal balancing emphasizes military spending to strengthen state security and external balancing emphasizes alliance engagement and participation toward the same ends. The result is either a unipolar, bipolar, or multipolar international balance of power. The United States has long engaged in both internal and external balancing to achieve its security ends, but neither has produced the intended outcome in the Arctic. A new balancing approach in the Arctic is necessary.

Transactional Balancing

Assuming (1) that human nature is inherently self-interested and opportunistic and (2) that institutions fail because of it, security policy prescriptions must outline approaches that leverage both assumptions. Internal balancing is too passive for the inherently violent state of things, just as external balancing is too ignorant for the inherently fragile state of things. Channeling Machiavelli and Mearsheimer—and recognizing reality—leads us to conclude that humans cannot be trusted and international institutions cannot deter conflict. In the Arctic, the absence of treaties, unratified conventions, and vast resources in ungoverned space means conditions are ripe for opportunistic aggression. Therefore, Washington should adopt a “transactional balancing” approach—at least in the Arctic—seeking to remove interactions from the confines of international institutions and capitalize on self-interested opportunism.

Transactional balancing operates on the back of a strong military, limiting engagement to existential threats to US vital interests—such as defending the homeland. This balancing construct pursues “mutually constitutive state economic and security arrangements premised on institutional fallibility and avoidance of self-binding ideology.” Transactional balancing becomes a rational system of bilateral arrangements rooted in conflict-avoidance behaviors. The world is anarchic such that the assumption of interminable institutional legitimacy is blindly rooted in the illogical logic of global good. Therefore, transactional balancing does not rely on international institutions to establish order, security, and stability and instead assumes state self-interest will generate transactional dynamics toward these ends. Transactional partnerships are more natural than not, especially in a bipolar or multipolar system where powers have, as Mearsheimer describes, “little choice but to act according to realist dictates and engage in security competition with each other” and where “ideological considerations are subordinated to security considerations in these circumstances.”

Consistent with these prescriptions, transactional balancing assumes a bilateral dynamic devoid of ideological restraint. Unlike balance of power politics that seeks to prevent hegemony, transactional balancing seeks only to advance state interests absent a larger agenda. If states do not perceive threats from a hegemon, they will not seek to balance against it. In theory, transactional balancing assumes a system of advancing reciprocal relations enabled via laissez-faire approaches allowing the system to define itself. In today’s strategic environment, no state can achieve a total victory. Attempting to do so is futile. Accepting this reality is necessary in strategic competition such that states must seek opportunistic and reciprocal transactional arrangements to advance their relative power positions. In this way, the inherent conflict of interest is mitigated by, in Hans Morgenthau’s words, the “temporary balancing of interests and the ever precarious settlement of conflicts.”

According to Joseph Nye, “The United States can influence, but not control, other parts of the world.” To influence requires power, and per Nye, there are three ways to wield power toward influence: through coercion, payment, or attraction. Transactional balancing offers an approach that can wield power in each of these ways, but based on need and interest rather than ideology and values. Transactional balancing is realist pragmatism and realpolitik rooted in the tenets of balance of power and compensation theories.

For the United States, a prescription for transactional balancing has two inherent assumptions. First, it assumes that states are self-interested and thus make hollow promises to international institutions kept only until a better opportunity presents. Second, it assumes that within the scope of self-interest, states are rational actors that will seek to avoid conflict as a primary motivator of their behavior, though they will posture militarily in preparation. These assumptions inform two principal objectives of transactional balancing: promoting US national security via a secure and defended homeland, and promoting global power balance through ideologically detached reciprocal arrangements.

As the future of alliances is unclear, the transactional nature of geopolitics will prevail, thus compelling informal security arrangements focusing on access, navigation, and resource sharing in the international commons. At their core, all interactions can be reduced to transactions. Transactional balancing satisfies US Arctic interests via securing the homeland through presence, engagement, and conflict avoidance rather than ideological posturing—and should be the basis of future Arctic policy.

Dr. Ryan Burke is a professor of military and strategic studies at the US Air Force Academy, codirector of Project 6633 at the Modern War Institute, affiliate professor at the University of Alaska’s Center for Arctic Security and Resilience, and research director for the Homeland Defense Institute at USAFA and USNORTHCOM.

Commander (Sel) Adrienne Hopper is a NOAA Corps officer with multiple sea tours sailing the Gulf of Mexico, Caribbean, South Pacific, and Arctic Ocean. After serving as the executive officer aboard the NOAA Ship Nancy Foster, she completed a master in public administration at the Harvard Kennedy School. She is currently assigned to NOAA’s Commissioned Personnel Center while awaiting her next assignment as executive officer, Marine Operations Center–Pacific.

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense, or of any organization the authors are affiliated with, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Department of Commerce, United States Air Force Academy, and Department of the Air Force.

Image credit: Senior Airman Joseph P. LeVeille, US Air Force