January 25, 2012

Time for a National Dialogue on the Arctic

Last week, the Center for Strategic and International
Studies (CSIS) released its report, “A New
Security Architecture for the Arctic: An American Perspective
."  The report
provides concise summaries of the existing governance regimes for the Arctic and
touches on many of the reasons the United States and other nations should care
about the Arctic.  It reprises the role
of the Law of the Sea Convention, Arctic Council and the North Atlantic Treaty
Organization.  The authors also argue for
creation of an Arctic Coast Guard Forum to address security concerns with
membership comprised of the eight Arctic Council countries, plus other
countries willing to contribute resources to the region. 

Two of the key takeaways for me were the emphasis on the
failure of the United States to create a comprehensive “large scale economic
development plan for the region” and the lack of existing military assets
suited to operate in this complex environment to protect, enforce and ensure
our interests.  From my perspective, the
lack of a serious national discussion and investment in Arctic resources, coupled
with the continued failure to ratify the Law of the Sea Convention, signals to
other nations that we are willing to forfeit our leadership role in the
Arctic.  The longer we wait to engage in
a national dialogue and set a firm course to implement a strategy, the more
options we foreclose in the future.  As
we delay implementation and investment, others gain leverage through the
development of critical infrastructure or assets needed to exploit resources in
the region, including shipping ports to take advantage of potentially shorter
trade routes, ice breakers to keep open sea lanes or allow development of oil
and gas fields and patrol vessels to protect fish stocks. 

Ideally, we should enter critical international negotiations
over governance, use and protection of resources within the Arctic from a
position of strength rather than weakness. 
That is not to suggest that partnerships are bad, or that the United
States must have enough government assets to go it alone.  Partnerships can be incredibly productive
when they are mutually beneficial. 
Partnerships that are completely one sided in nature have little appeal
and are difficult to sustain.  Perhaps if
we could afford to continue to build assets and infrastructure with nominal
concern for costs we could make up for the lack of a comprehensive development
strategy through sheer numbers of assets or breadth of capabilities.   Yet in a time of financial austerity it would
seem far better to invest in assets or partnerships that support a well
developed national strategy.


As the CSIS report points out, the failure of the United
States to complete ratification of the Law of the Sea Convention weakens our
positions on freedom of navigation as well as the right to claim an extended
continental shelf.  Both of these issues
are critical in resolving conflicting claims among Arctic nations and access
claims by other countries that are signatories to the international convention.

The track line we are following now is fraught with unnecessary
peril.  Engaging in a meaningful national
debate over what we want to prioritize in the Arctic, as well as creating and
funding an investment program designed to implement a strategy for the Arctic, is
critical if we want to maintain a leadership position in the Arctic.  Even if at the end the debate the nation
decides that the Arctic remains a low priority, we will have at least made a
conscious decision rather than backing into that position by failing to discuss
it in time to have an impact.   

Commander Shannon
Gilreath is the Senior Coast Guard Fellow at the Center for a New American
Security. The views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do
not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Coast Guard, Department
of Homeland Security or the U.S. Government.