A second Trump Presidency will impact the Arctic

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As strange as it may sound, Donald Trump’s conviction on 34 felony counts in a New York court will not diminish the likelihood that he’ll be on the ballot in November’s presidential election, with a real chance to be elected.  This means it is a timely moment to consider the international ramifications of his possible return to office, including the possible impact on relations in the Arctic.  

Here in the United States, the major party candidates are assured to be, absent unforeseen developments, current President Joe Biden and former President Trump.  As the election result depends on who wins in individual states, and most states will no doubt follow their historical tendencies in favor of one party or the other, the election will be decided in a handful of “swing states”.  Trump shows a significant lead in polling in most of those swing states, and has for a number of months.  That means at the very least that a second Trump presidency is a very real possibility.

As a former U.S. civil servant working over a thirty-year career for many different Administrations, including as a senior diplomat during most of the Trump years, I saw firsthand the implementation of policies that might be restored or built upon if Trump is returned to office.  

Predicting what a new president will do is hard to do with precision, even where we are talking about a former leader with a track record.  Much depends on who is appointed by that president to design and implement policy.  But we have some very definite clues.  

Environmental issues have been central to the interests of Arctic States, and related U.S. priorities will change significantly if Trump is elected.  In particular, policy on climate change will be fundamentally altered.  It is likely that Trump would again withdraw the U.S. from the Paris Agreement and move away from global programs to decarbonize and limit greenhouse gas emissions.  He has already promised to remove domestic regulations that limit oil and gas production, suggesting that oil executives donate $1 billion to his campaign given the benefits their companies would receive.  Such actions will severely undercut international efforts to address the climate crisis.  And when other countries see that history’s largest carbon polluter isn’t taking necessary yet costly actions to address climate issues, they will hesitate to act as well.

These policy revisions would distance the U.S. from cooperation it has traditionally enjoyed with most Arctic nations focused on climate mitigation and adaptation.  The U.S. Government might reduce its support for science focused on climate, such as for understanding the implications of melting permafrost on the atmosphere, examining the cryosphere and measuring increased ocean acidification.  There would be less emphasis by the U.S. on marine conservation in the Arctic Ocean.  At the same time, consistent with approaches from the last Trump Administration that supported sustainable fisheries management and efforts to combat illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing, U.S. participation in the Central Arctic Ocean Fisheries Agreement might not be affected even though Russia and China also participate.  

Trump Administration officials previously prevented the Arctic Council, the main Arctic’s diplomatic forum, from issuing statements and promoting programs pointing to the importance of the climate issue.  Even though the current effectiveness and activities of the Council has been limited by strains resulting from the Ukraine war, we can expect that a second Trump Administration would follow a similar approach and block the ambition of other Arctic States that want the Council to focus on climate issues.  

A so-called “America First” foreign policy largely distrusts foreign institutions, or sees them as hindering U.S. ambitions, and thus the U.S. would rely less on the Arctic Council and organizations that might have influence on Arctic governance, such as the United Nations and the International Maritime Organization.  

 

A future Trump Administration would likely look at melting sea ice as an opportunity for economic gains rather than a harbinger of a dangerously changing planet.

 

Indeed, a Trump Administration would no doubt seek to remove obstacles to mining and access to critical minerals in Alaska and throughout the Arctic, as well as oil exploration.  

When it comes to Arctic security, there could be some new directions in policy, but what they would be is unclear.  The addition of Finland and Sweden to NATO has presented a new dimension for Arctic security that the White House would need to take into account.  But how a new Trump agenda would approach relations with Russia, the Arctic’s largest state, including its increasing military relationship with China, isn’t easy to predict.  We’ve seen Trump express admiration for authoritarian leaders, but also a willingness to promote an anti-China policy, and he has threatened extensive new tariffs that could raise tensions.  If he decided to decrease or withdraw military assistance to Ukraine, possibly as an accommodation to Russia, and force a peace that includes territorial concessions to Russia, this could have many implications for how other Arctic states manage their relations with Russia.

Trump’s negative feelings about NATO and his criticism of many member states for the amount they pay for defense are well known.  However, during the Biden years many NATO members have increased their defense spending (largely in reaction to the threat posed by Vladimir Putin, not haranguing from the U.S.).  Hopefully he would carry out America’s fundamental treaty obligations under NATO, but his enthusiasm for doing so may be limited.

The extent to which Trump, if elected, carries out his preferred policies will depend in part on whether Republicans gain majorities in Congress.  Even so, the President largely controls foreign policy, and the change in U.S. leadership would be felt acutely by Arctic allies.

In U.S. politics, five months is a long time, so things may look different in November.  Indeed, Joe Biden may still impress the electorate and achieve a second term.  However, there is a real possibility that not only America’s past but its future will involve Donald Trump.  

 

 

Evan T. Bloom is Senior Advisor at the Centre for the Ocean and the Arctic, UiT The Arctic University of Norway. He is a former US diplomat.