Over the last several years, the United States has elevated the Arctic region as a U.S. national security prerogative. Just days before leaving office in January 2009, President Bush issued National Security Presidential Directive 66, stating that “the United States has broad and fundamental national security interests in the Arctic region and is prepared to operate either independently or in conjunction with other states to safeguard these interests.” In April 2011, President Obama signed a revised Unified Command Plan (UCP), designating U.S. Northern Command as the lead command for Arctic issues in the Department of Defense. (Previously, authority over the Arctic region had been split among U.S. European, Northern and Pacific Commands, complicating unity of effort within the Department of Defense.) The UCP change arguably signaled a shift in the Arctic’s strategic priority, giving the military greater latitude in determining current and future capabilities for Arctic missions.
Last week, Secretary of State Clinton attended the Seventh Ministerial Meeting of the Arctic Council, the first U.S. Secretary of State to attend the meeting of Arctic nations, reiterating America’s concerns in the Arctic, while emphasizing the need for international cooperation. The meeting concluded with the Arctic Council’s first binding agreement for council members –Russia, Canada, Finland, Norway, Iceland, Sweden, Denmark and the United States – to coordinate search-and-rescue operations. Needless to say, the U.S. government – between the Departments of Defense and State and others in the interagency – has been better positioning itself to adapt to the challenges of a melting Arctic that scientists say could be ice free for one month out of the year by 2030 as a result of global climate change. Yet in order to fully prepare for the challenges of an open Arctic, especially around competing claims for minerals and energy resources, the United States needs to ratify the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
As we noted in our 2010 report Broadening Horizons, ratifying UNCLOS may be the most important step to ensuring that the United States – including the military, foreign policy establishment and private industry – are adequately prepared to meet the challenges and realize the opportunities from the effects of climate change on the Arctic. For example, UNCLOS would give the United States a better leadership role in maritime security issues in the High North, such as coordinating and improving interoperability around search-and-rescue operations, as well as related missions in other regions around the world. Indeed, ratifying UNCLOS could give the U.S. military greater opportunity to coordinate Arctic search-and-rescue operations with states that are not Arctic Council members and that are not signatories to the recent binding agreement – including South Korea, China and other non-Arctic nations that will look to use Arctic sea lanes to cut down the costs of plying long sea routes and as an opportunity to avoid piracy that already plagues shippers along many of the world’s busy sea lanes.
Ratifying UNCLOS would also help the United States protect certain economic interests by enabling it to claim legal rights to minerals and other Arctic resources. For example, the UN convention would give the United States the legal right to claiming and securing resources in its Exclusive Economic Zones, and would provide mining firms and other private industry an established procedure for securing rights to and sustainably extracting those resources. As we wrote in our 2010 report, the economic stakes of failing to ratify UNCLOS could be high:
A failure to ratify UNCLOS prevents the United States from submitting claims for rights in the extended continental shelf and prevents firms from securing these rights. This will hinder growth in the emerging seabed mining industry and related industries in the United States – as well as the jobs supporting those industries – because corporations will wisely seek the protection and legal certainty afforded only to member nations of UNCLOS before investing in these opportunities.
Perhaps the most compelling reason to ratify UNCLOS is the simplest: the U.S. government seems to be positioning itself to be an international leader in the Arctic; what better way to demonstrate international leadership than to ratify the UN convention that enables nations to cooperate in this strategically important region. The Obama administration and UNCLOS advocates in the Senate will need to navigate the political terrain and rebuff attempts by the Sovereignty Caucus and others who argue that U.S. ratification would undermine its ability to protect its own national interests. Continuing to highlight the Arctic region as strategically important should help build a narrative that the United States can no longer wait to prepare for a melting Arctic, and that it is not possible to navigate the challenges or reap the benefits without coordinating with our international partners. Ratifying UNCLOS offers us a way forward in securing U.S. interests in the High North.
Photo: Secretary of State Clinton in Nuuk, Greenland for the Seventh Ministerial Meeting of the Arctic Council. Courtesy of the U.S. Department of State.