America in the Arctic
June 4, 2015
In April, the United States assumed the two-year chairmanship of the Arctic Council – an intergovernmental forum of eight Arctic countries and six indigenous organizations -- at a moment of great change and challenge for the Arctic.
The average American may not realize that the United States is an Arctic nation thanks to the state of Alaska when, in 1867 the United States purchased 586,412 square miles of land from the Russian Empire for $7.2 million. Many ridiculed this extravagant purchase (2 cents per acre!) as President Andrew Johnson’s “polar bear garden” and Secretary of State William Seward’s “ice box” and “folly.” But in reality, the Alaska Purchase was a strategic transaction that effectively halted Russian expansion in the North Pacific, increased the territorial size of the United States by nearly 20 percent, and greatly enriched the country with its natural resources.
The Arctic has always been a region where the United States has pursued its strategic interests. From the daring exploration and gold rush of the 1800s to the energy boom of the 1900s, Arctic economics have been a key driver of circumpolar development. Defense and security concerns in the region have been equally important. The United States constructed the Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line in Alaska and the Soviets deployed nuclear weapons in the Arctic. The collapse of the Soviet Union figuratively melted the Arctic’s geostrategic ice cap, allowing international cooperation to flourish in the region for nearly two decades as evidenced by the creation of the Arctic Council in 1996.
But that was then; this is now. Much has changed since the United States last chaired the Arctic Council from 1998 to 2000. For example, in 1998, the minimum extent of Arctic sea ice was 12 million square kilometers; in 2014 it had shrunk to 5 million square kilometers. The average Arctic temperature today is one degree Celsius higher than it has been over the past 30 years. The United States had two functioning heavy icebreakers in 1998, but in 2015 it only has one and a half: one heavy icebreaker and a medium-strength research vessel. And in 1998, Boris Yeltsin’s Russia had just joined the Group of Eight (G8) countries, while in 2014 Vladimir Putin’s Russia has been suspended from the group and Arctic Council members have imposed sanctions on Russia for its illegal annexation of Crimea and ongoing aggression in Ukraine. The next two years will challenge Arctic Council members like no other moment in its nearly 20-year history.
Here are four important Arctic trends to watch during the U.S. Arctic Council chairmanship.
Welcome to the Global Arctic . First, the future of the Arctic will not be solely determined by the eight Arctic Council states and indigenous representatives. Increasingly, countries that are located far from the Arctic want a greater voice in Arctic matters. China, South Korea, India, Japan, Singapore, and many other countries are becoming more involved diplomatically and economically in the Arctic. For instance, China – a new observer to the Arctic Council -- is currently constructing its second icebreaker and is seeking to enhance its scientific research presence in Norway, Iceland, and Canada. The evolution of a “Global Arctic” means that global, rather than regional solutions are needed to reduce Arctic pollutants, such as black carbon and carbon dioxide emissions which often originate beyond the Arctic’s borders. A “Global Arctic” also requires that Arctic Council states develop new strategies to integrate non-Arctic states into Arctic Council structures and activities.
Economic Boom and Bust . The second trend is the waxing and waning of Arctic economies and its implication for future Arctic development. When global commodity demand is great and energy prices are high, the Arctic becomes more appealing to both Arctic and non-Arctic states for resource extraction, mining, and shipping. But when global demand weakens and oil prices are low (having fallen by nearly 50 percent), enthusiasm for Arctic development dissipates. Reports of an Arctic oil bonanza and a race for resources have been replaced by news that lucrative Arctic energy deals have been postponed and vessel transits through the Northern Sea Route have declined. The dramatic change in the global energy landscape -- fueled in large part by the U.S. unconventional energy revolution and Western sanctions targeting Russia’s Arctic energy ambitions -- has recalibrated Arctic economic interests.
Ice-Free Does Not Mean Permanently Ice-Free . Third, an increasingly ice-free Arctic Ocean does not mean that the region will be completely ice-free and permanently navigable. As the Arctic’s multi-year ice pack diminishes, ice floes become more unpredictable and the intensification of Arctic storms make the region more dangerous. Last fall, Super Typhon Nuri pummeled the Barents Sea and Alaska with sustained winds of 125-180 mph for a 24-hour period. Registering one of the lowest barometric readings ever recorded, this storm was so powerful that it altered the course of the North Pacific Jet Stream. With only 8 percent of the Arctic Ocean hydrographically mapped to international standards, maritime accidents will likely increase, yet Arctic search and rescue capabilities are remarkably scarce.
Will the Arctic Experience a Geopolitical Re-Freeze ? Finally and perhaps most troublingly, the United States and other Arctic nations have taken international cooperation in the Arctic largely for granted since the end of the Cold War. We do not know -- nor have we contemplated -- how the United States and international community would respond should Russia or the West cease to cooperate in the Arctic. Recent actions taken by Russia do not instill confidence that the Arctic will be exempt from geopolitical tensions. The Kremlin continues to hold unannounced military exercises in the Arctic which engage significant numbers of forces, demonstrate increasing complexity, and simulate the use of nuclear weapons. Moscow’s authorization of the use of military force to protect Russian interests in the Arctic (as stated in its updated December 2014 military doctrine), the planned reopening of over 50 Soviet-era bases along Russia’s Arctic coastline, and Russia’s recently Unified Arctic Command, as well as Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin’s pronouncement that “the Arctic is Russia’s Mecca” have all raised serious questions regarding Russia’s intent in the Arctic. Urgently, the United States and the other seven Arctic nations must rapidly develop new methods to enhance transparency and confidence-building efforts with Russia as it pursues its Arctic military activities and before a tragic accident or miscommunication occurs. Because there are no forums or existing international mechanism that can address security challenges in the Arctic today, new solutions must be found quickly.
Whither the U.S. Chairmanship ? Despite these ongoing trends, the United States has announced, and Arctic Council members have agreed, that it will largely focus its two-year efforts on climate change mitigation, ocean stewardship, and improving the well-being of communities that live in the North. All are worthy initiatives but do they take meaningful steps to address any of these issues?
Working closely with the state of Alaska, Washington must take urgent steps to ready itself for profound change that is happening in the Arctic today. First, the United States must budget resources to enhance U.S. maritime domain awareness and maritime infrastructure now. No more studies; implement a procurement plan. Secondly, the U.S. agenda is largely silent on Arctic economic development with the exception of a newly formed Arctic Economic Council. The people who live in the Arctic Circle need livelihoods to support themselves and Alaskans in particular are feeling the brunt of the change in global energy patterns. For decades, Arctic peoples have managed to find the balance between development and stewardship; today, they need help to diversify and enhance economic and educational opportunities. Finally, the United States, along with the other Arctic nations, must engage in an immediate and direct conversation with the Kremlin to enhance transparency and confidence-building measures regarding Russia’s Arctic military exercises in order to ensure the safety of all Arctic actors.
For many years, the Arctic was largely an afterthought for U.S. policymakers. Thankfully, Washington is turning its attention to its Arctic strategies; however, the emphasis remains on pointing to the Arctic to emphasize the United States’ global climate change policies. While slowing down the effects of an increasingly warming Arctic and focusing on climate resilience must be a top priority, it cannot be the only policy pursuit. Tough, national decisions about Arctic readiness should have been made years ago and assessments must be made about the Arctic’s future security environment. There is not a moment to lose.
Heather A. Conley is senior vice president for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic, and director of the Europe Program, at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C
Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
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