U.S. WEEKLY offers an in-depth analysis of various geopolitical processes that have direct effect on US’ domestic and foreign policies. This particular analytical column is possible thanks to the cooperation with polish media abroad: Dziennik Związkowy – Polish Daily News, Polishexpress of United Kingdom and WIrlandii.pl of Ireland
Date: 31 October 2022
The Role of Alaska in U.S. Arctic Strategy
The United States formally took possession of Alaska through the Alaska Treaty, ratified by U.S. Congress and signed into law by President Andrew Johnson in 1867. The state was admitted as the 49th state of the United States back in 1959. Purchasing a vast area north of Canada was not just a folly, which proves how strategically important Alaska is. This text describes the role of Alaska in the geopolitical chessboard now.
The Alaska purchase was glaring proof of American expansionism during the nineteenth century. In United States history, the concept of American frontier consisted in advancing borders that marked those lands that had been inhabited back then. A new era beckoned for mass migrations across the United States when President Thomas Jefferson negotiated a treaty to buy Louisiana from France in 1803–1804. At that time, what was known as “Manifest Destiny” was born––a cultural belief that American settlers were destined to expand across North America.
Following the Mexican-American War of 1845–1846 and the American Civil War (1861–1865), the United States decided to take possession of Alaska. As defeat in the Crimean War of 1853–1856 further reduced Russian interest in Alaska, Tsar Alexander II eventually offered to sell Alaska to the United States. He decided so to make up for the financial losses Russia had sustained in the war. The Russian tsar also believed the area would be difficult to defend in any future war from being conquered by Great Britain. William Seward, who served then as U.S. Secretary of State, was a chief negotiator in talks to purchase a vast Alaskan land that was about a fifth of the whole U.S. territory at that time. On March 30, 1867, the United States reached an agreement to purchase Alaska from Russia for a price of $7.2 million ($140 million in 2021). Taking possession of northern territories was a major step towards U.S. development, a sign of its might in the Asia-Pacific region. The Alaska purchase also put an end to Russian claims in North America. Despite that, some U.S. hardliners then regretted the deal. Many contended that the United States had acquired useless land whose climate was harsh and that held practically no natural resources. And yet they were wrong.
Strategically, Alaska’s central position consists of its natural resources, military potential, and geographical location. Not incidentally, in 1935, General Billy Mitchell, a United States Army officer who is regarded as the father of the United States Air Force, referred to Alaska as “the most strategic place in the world.”
Alaska has also large deposits of oil, gas, and rare earth minerals. Some 13 percent of the world’s untapped oil reserves and 30 percent of the world’s undiscovered gas reside in the U.S. state. Since 1959, Alaska has produced $180 billion worth of oil, or 85 percent of the state budget. These figures could grow––as the federal government holds 60 percent of Alaska’s territory, the output might grow in case of sudden demand surges.
Where Alaska is located is also key to U.S. strategic operations. The whole territory of Alaska and its biggest city of Anchorage are both located near the center of the northern hemisphere. Alaska is located in comparable proximity to the world’s most important countries––including those that compete with Washington. According to world maps available online, the distance between Anchorage and Beijing is 3,970 miles, Moscow––4,342 miles, Tokyo––3,457 miles, and Warsaw––4,577 miles. The U.S. Army could thus respond in all directions that now matter for world geopolitics. Department of Defense forces in Alaska include more than 22,000 U.S. Air Force, U.S. Army, U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps personnel, and 4,700 guardsmen and reservists.
Thus, Alaska is a strategically important area of the United States. Receding ice in the Arctic Ocean could yield new trade routes in international waters close to the North Pole. The prospect of a maritime link in the Arctic between Russia, China, and the United States is growing as fast as ice cover is melting in the north.
In October 2022, the U.S. administration released a new Arctic strategy that seeks to tackle new challenges, including exacerbating threats from Russia or China. Alaska is central for the Biden administration that plans to increase its influence in the Arctic to ensure homeland security while coordinating shared approaches with North Pole partners.
In its updated Arctic strategy, the White House pledged to address any impacts from global warming-induced climate change and build resilience to it. This state of affairs will serve a pivotal role in the environmental protection of this region. The U.S. federal government is seeking to cooperate with local Alaskan communities by investing in infrastructure and supporting growing economic sectors. Washington is planning to invest in strategic infrastructure in the region. The United States pledged to support the development of much-needed infrastructure in Alaska that serves responsible development, food security, stable housing, climate resilience, and national defense needs as driven by requirements.
To pursue a new strategy, the U.S. Department of Defense is seeking to build a nuclear power plant at Eielson Air Force Base. Last month, the Air Force issued a request for proposals to construct a 2.5-megawatt micro-reactor at Eielson to supplement its current 20-MW coal-fired heat and power plant that delivers power across the installation on overhead wires. Other Alaska-based military facilities may follow suit.
Washington’s updated white paper on the Arctic prompted speculation that Alaska could play a bigger role for the U.S. Army amid climate change in the far north. The U.S. administration seeks to ensure food security and invest in military presence by providing for homeland security and offering supplies to U.S. military facilities across the Arctic. Alaska also gives the United States membership in the Arctic Council, a tool that Washington could use to channel its geopolitical ambitions and settle territorial disputes, including those over resources. In addition, the state’s geographical location means easy access to most strategic places around the world. Alaska is home to major U.S. military facilities, which puts it on the top list of all U.S. states in this respect. The importance of Alaska’s key position is today reflected in the Air Force positioning four squadrons of fifth-generation fighter jets in Alaska — two squadrons of F-22 Raptor jets at Joint Base Elmendorf Richardson in Anchorage and two squadrons of F-35 Lighting II jets at Eielson Air Force Base near Fairbanks. The updated U.S. Arctic strategy is proof that Washington has notched opportunities that opened up in Alaska to take most of its strategic potential.
Brian Garfield, The Thousand Mile War: World War II in Alaska and the Aleutians (1969; repr., Fairbanks, AK: University of Alaska Press, 1995), 59.
Stephanie Pezard et al., Maintaining Arctic Cooperation with Russia: Planning for Regional Change in the Far North (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2017), 35–36.
Jan Hernik – Jan Hernik is a graduate of the American Studies Center at the University of Warsaw. He specializes in the theory of religion, race and ethnicity for political choice in the U.S presidential elections. His research interests also include US activity in the Indo-Pacific region.
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