May 17, 2011

To Secure U.S. Interests in the Arctic, Ratifying UNCLOS is Key

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
. 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
, 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
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.