“Our nation is playing catch up to the international community.” This was a statement made by The United States Arctic Research Commission’s Commissioner, Edward Itta, in reference to United States interest in the Arctic, at the World Wildlife Fund’s 2013 Fuller Symposium: Forces for Nature.The United States has placed Arctic policy in the background for much of the 21st century following its period of strategic importance during the Cold War. While the Obama administration has updated its Arctic policy through the 2013 release of the National Strategy for the Arctic Region, the United States has still yet to make its mark in the snow amongst the other Arctic states and those nations outside of the region looking for opportunities in the north.
What should the United States do to play a stronger leadership role in the Arctic?
Given the growing prominence of the Arctic Council, the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, and a number of other bi- and multilateral treaties in establishing legal and policy approaches to the Arctic, the United States can best secure its strategic interest and project its influence in the region by working through established frameworks and strengthening partnerships with the other Arctic nations. Three Arctic stakeholders represent the most ideal partners with which the United States should build relationships to expand its influence and leadership in the region: Canada, Russia and the new Arctic Council observer nations from Asia.
An expanded partnership with Canada could benefit both the United States and Canada by securing their respective Arctic borders, and by pooling resources to increase both of their Arctic capabilities. With the vast size of the North American coastline, sharing the burden of marine patrols to regulate maritime passage could act as a cornerstone in helping to ease tensions over their unresolved internal waters dispute, while enhancing collective monitoring, stewardship and development assets. Additionally, collaboration between the two will boost their combined maritime power in the region and icebreaking capability.
The United States also has an immense opportunity to strengthen U.S.-Russian relationsover shared Arctic concerns, and draw on this relationship to balance expanding Chinese influence in the region. As co-guardians of the Bering Strait, the United States and Russia have the opportunity to cooperatively manage and maintain the shipping routes and maritime infrastructure that will be necessary in the strait with the opening of Arctic maritime passageways.
Strengthening partnerships with Asian Arctic-interested nations like Japan, India and South Korea provides a threefold opportunity for the United States. By offering cooperative partnership opportunities in scientific exploration and resource extraction, the United States could secure increased markets for its energy trade, further expand its strategic foothold in Asia, and at the same time expand its operations in the Arctic through joint ventures.
As the Arctic continues to garner strategic interest globally, cooperation among Arctic nations will help solidify their claims in the region, provide better access and protect precious resources. The United States must embrace strong collaborative ties with other Arctic states. Through these partnerships, the United States has the ability to advance its influence in the region and establish strong leadership in the Arctic’s governing structures, ensuring that it won’t have to play catch up again.
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