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Eyes on the Arctic: The U.S.’s Pivot North

Eyes on the Arctic: The U.S.’s Pivot North

May 21, 2014

By Erica Dingman

Let’s face it. The Arctic is not part of America’s collective imagination. Yes, we recognize that the state of Alaska legitimizes our claim as an Arctic nation, but it’s so terribly far away. Maps of the United States sometimes depict Alaska plopped atop the lower 48, looking a bit like a headless creature with one leg circling toward Russia via the Aleutian Islands. Alaska is more than twice the size of Texas, and a flight from Juneau to Barrow is 1,100 flight miles as the crow flies. For that flight you’d have to pass through Canadian air space.

Alaska is rarely the focal point of presidential visits, but with a warming Arctic region, as well as the U.S.’s upcoming leadership of the Arctic Council in 2015, Washington has begun to renew its interest in the Arctic region. The changing natural and political climate will prompt changes in policy and a series of strategic adjustments among pertinent government agencies. Geopolitically, economic and security factors are likely to drive increasing interest in Alaska, as well as the rest of the Arctic region.

To the degree that Alaska recently peaked the interest of Washington, George W. Bush is a prominent figure. During his presidency, Bush visited Alaska several times. He even lived in Fairbanks during the summer of 1974 when he worked for a fledgling airline and construction business. During his presidency, he sought to reverse the ban on offshore drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and urged the Senate to ratify the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). UNCLOS defines the rights and responsibilities of a coastal nations use of an adjacent ocean. This includes provisions that give absolute rights to seabed resources, such as fish and oil, within the parameters of a 200-mile exclusive economic zone. For reasons primarily related to freedom of navigation, UNCLOS has yet to be ratified by the U.S.

Then, with only days to spare before George W. Bush left office, he released the National Security Presidential Directive and Homeland Security entitled The Arctic Region Policy on January 9, 2009. The directive echoed his earlier desire that the U.S. ratify UNCLOS. The U.S. has yet to ratify UNCLOS but, what Bush accomplished by authoring the directive was to provide a basis for the U.S. to act as a 21st century Arctic nation.

Bush’s Arctic Region Policy was a much-needed update to Bill Clinton’s Presidential Decision Directive/NSC-26 issued in 1994, an exectutive order that articulates the national security policy that carries the full force of law. NSC-26 fused Antarctic policy with that of the Arctic, indicating the high level of Arctic disengagement in a post-Cold War world. Although it recognized the fundamental geographic differences between the Arctic and Antarctic, the document did not address the geopolitical implications of the two regions, which remain oceans apart. While the Antarctic is largely the preoccupation of scientists, the Arctic preoccupies the minds of strategists speculating the benefits and challenges of an ice-free Arctic. Throughout the Arctic, nations defined by their geographic link to the region—Canada, and Denmark via Greenland, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States—have articulated their Arctic strategy, unleashing formal protocols befitting of a region with strategic significance. Changes to the Arctic environment have unleashed an array of issues that raise questions related to global climate change, security, and the economy. This all occurred swiftly since the turn of the century.

Eyes on the Arctic: The U.S.’s Pivot North

But to some observers, the U.S. was an Arctic laggard, its geopolitical intentions were undefined by policy current to the geopolitical future. The Bush policy, however, appropriately delinked Arctic policy from that of the Antarctic, definitively stating that the U.S. has “fundamental national security interests in the Arctic region.” By articulating that natural resource development should occur in an environmentally sound manner, and that the U.S. encourages international cooperation, U.S. policy came to reflect the collective assertion of all Arctic nations. Now it was a matter of implementation.

When President Obama entered office he stopped briefly at Elmendorf Air Force Base in Alaska while en route to Tokyo in November 2009. But it was not until 2013 that Obama set forth the mechanisms necessary to implement The Arctic Region Policy.

After much anticipation in Alaska, Obama signed the National Strategy for the Arctic Region on May 10, 2013. Upon the announcement Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell stated that Obama’s strategy was “an acknowledgement that the Arctic will play a significant role” in the nation’s future. The strategy defined U.S. strategic priorities in the Arctic necessary for guiding the more than 20 government agencies preparing for the uncertainties of Arctic change.

On May 21, 2013, Adm. Robert J. Papp, Jr. announced the unveiling of the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) Arctic Strategy. USGS, under the auspices of Homeland Security, has extensive responsibility in the region, where it aims to ensure safe, secure, and environmentally responsible maritime activity. With the purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1887, USGS was the federal presence operating in the Arctic region.

The U.S. Department of Defense Arctic Strategy followed soon after in November 2013. As the DOD’s lead agency, the U.S. Navy has played an important role in implementing Arctic policy. In 2009, the Navy emerged as the first department to develop a plan based on the Bush Arctic Region Policy, known as the Navy’s Arctic Roadmap (updated in February 2014), which was developed by the Navy’s Task Force Climate Change. Naval activities in the Arctic are driven by the implications of climate change such as  abrupt disruptions to infrastructure caused by rising sea level, severe storm patterns, and the need for disaster response. Notably, both the Navy and the Coast Guard advocate U.S. accession to UNCLOS.

Eyes on the Arctic: The U.S.’s Pivot North

Then on April 21, 2014, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) unveiled the agencies Arctic Action Plan. This document provides a roadmap for scientists, stakeholders, and partners in the interest of fostering deeper knowledge on the implications of Arctic climate change. NOAA is already a well-established Arctic presence, so in many ways this plan serves to heighten the urgency of scientific research in the region. Since 2006, NOAA’s peer reviewed annual Arctic Report Card has been a reliable source of environmental information based on the findings of an international team of scientists.

For example, in 2013 NOAA reported that although the decrease in sea ice extent was less than 2012, Alaska had a record 36 days with temperatures of 27°C or higher. In addition, NOAA established inter-agency links with the U.S. Coast Guard and the Department of the Navy, among others. Internationally, NOAA collaborates with Russian and Canadian Arctic science programs, and with the U.S. National Science Foundation to advance scientific knowledge of atmospheric changes in the region.

However, the most telling aspect of NOAA’s Arctic Action Plan is the blunt introductory remark that would require a pan-Arctic response: “The Arctic is changing—and those changes will affect us all, no matter which country we live in or region of the world we inhabit.” The figures cited in the Action Plan are astonishing.

“Since the 1980s, 75 percent of Arctic sea ice volume has been lost, and there are consistently more than 300 kilometers of open water north of Alaska every summer,” the Action Plan stated. This has vast social and economic implications for both the Arctic region and global systems alike.

Disruptions to global commerce could substantially shift financial markets. The cost of raging weather patterns make it likely that individuals, corporations, and governments will be stretched to their financial limits.

Sir Nicholas Stern, former World Bank chief economist, and author of the key 2006 Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change, said that economic models “grossly underestimate the risks” of climate change. Indeed, the costs are far-reaching. Lloyd’s of London, a leading insurance market, did a comprehensive study of the severe environmental consequences and economic risks of operating in the Arctic. In their influential 2012 report, “Arctic Opening: Opportunity and Risk in the High North,” Lloyd’s reported that “The potential environmental consequences, difficulty and cost of clean-up may be significantly greater [in the Arctic], with implications for governments, businesses and the insurance industry.”

Through partnership, the U.S. Navy, USGS, and NOAA are key to determining the extent of development in Alaska. Nationally and internationally, environmental uncertainty and the internal and external costs of doing business will determine the pace at which natural resource development takes place. Advanced by rapid changes to the Arctic climate, the economic risks associated with future development should inform U.S. Arctic strategy.

Certainly, the Arctic has captured the attention of Washington. When the U.S. takes over leadership of the Arctic Council from 2015 to 2017, a strategy based on the vast implications of Arctic climate change should direct an economically sustainable model viable for the 22nd century. The economic and human dimensions are vast. Note to the rest of the U.S.: we are an Arctic nation despite Alaska’s geographical distance.



Erica Dingman is the director of Arctic in Context.

[Photos courtesy of NASA/Kathryn Hansen, Alaska National Guard, and DVIDSHUBS]

This article first appeared on the World Policy Institute website.