January 03, 2012

Time for Serious Attention to the Arctic

Washington has failed to have a serious conversation about U.S. economic and national security interests in the Arctic, and time is running short for the president and congress to act.

The loss of Arctic summer sea ice has created new opportunities for access to commercial maritime routes and sea lines of communication that could dramatically shorten the travel time from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The potential access to huge reserves of zinc, nickel, palladium and other valuable materials, in addition to the nearly $1.2 trillion in estimated oil and natural gas, could be a windfall to the U.S. economy as the country continues to recover from the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Meanwhile, the rise in eco-tourism will challenge the U.S. Coast Guard’s limited search and rescue capabilities, and the potential proliferation of drugs, weapons and other illicit materials across the Arctic Ocean will leave U.S. law enforcement officials hamstrung unless the United States has the capabilities and policies set in place for interdicting dangerous materials. Moreover, commercial exploitation and travel will continue unabated as Arctic ice continues to retreat. The United States will need to be increasingly vigilant to respond to environmental disasters that could arise, including (we desperately hope not) another Deepwater Horizon event.

The Arctic may not be at the top of U.S. policymakers’ agenda for 2012, but other Arctic countries – especially Russia – are taking a serious approach to the region. Moscow is planning to build six more icebreakers, expanding its existing fleet to about 20. (The United States by comparison has three icebreakers; two of them are in mothballs.) Moscow also plans to pay $33 billion to construct a yearlong Arctic seaport. Meanwhile, tensions between Russia and other Arctic countries could flame up this year when Russia is expected to file its claim to the extended continental shelf, which could give Moscow claim to about 380,000 square miles of what has been considered international territory in the Arctic Circle.

The United States has been slowly giving the Arctic more attention. For example, last April, President Obama signed a revised Unified Command Plan (UCP), shifting major defense responsibilities for the Arctic to U.S. Northern Command. (Previously, authority over the Arctic region had been split between U.S. European, Northern and Pacific Commands, complicating unity of effort within the Department of Defense.) Then last May, 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, where she emphasized the need for international cooperation to adjudicate grievances in the region.

Despite the call for increased international cooperation in the Arctic, U.S. policymakers will remain hamstrung unless the president and congress work together to develop a strategy for the region that is backed up by the resources that allow the United States to protect its economic and national security interests.

First and foremost, it is time for the U.S. Senate to ratify the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). U.S. reluctance to sign onto UNCLOS is standing in the way of the U.S. government protecting U.S. interests in the Arctic. For example, many of the valuable resources that U.S. firms could have access to – including precious stones and metals – lie in the extended continental shelf, up to 600 nautical miles off the Alaskan coast. U.S. failure to ratify UNCLOS prevents the United States from submitting a claim for rights to the extended continental shelf, which also prevents U.S. firms from securing commercial rights to those seabed resources. Moreover, U.S. failure to ratify UNCLOS excludes the United States from participating in the Law of the Sea Tribunal, where the United States could serve as a credible voice in rebuffing attempts by countries that seek to undermine longstanding international norms, such as freedom of access and navigation to international straits and waters (a potentially important issue looming in the Arctic).

Second, the president must direct the national security community to develop a strategy for the Arctic that clearly states what our national objectives are in the region. Does the United States wish to have a seasonal, semi-permanent or permanent presence in the Arctic? Will the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard serve to ensure freedom of access and navigation in the Arctic, or have a more limited mission to include supporting search and rescue and other modest law enforcement duties? These questions have yet to be asked and answered. Getting answers to these and other questions will then tee up the conversation on Capitol Hill about what resources the United States needs to support its interests in the region.

Third, congress needs to appropriate funding to expand the existing U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker fleet. The number of icebreakers will obviously be contingent on what it is the United States wants to do in the Arctic, but at a minimum the United States need to maintain its presence in the region. Having a sustained presence requires more than a single functional icebreaker at a time.

The United States has enduring economic and national security interests in the Arctic and 2012 is the year that the president and congress should work together to take immediate action to protect those interests. Presidential politics will make cooperation seem impossible, and the gridlock in Washington may ultimately delay or derail any efforts. But despite the hurdles ahead, the job is worthy of any serious policymaker who claims to support the economic and national security interests of the United States.