Alaskan senators push for creation of U.S. Arctic policy

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, center, accompanied by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, right, and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, May 23, 2012, before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on The Law of the Sea Convention. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)In the U.S., the only Arctic country without a national policy for the region, there are stirrings in the Senate about drafting one.

Senators Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Mark Begich (D-Alaska) co-wrote a letter (PDF) to President Barack Obama, citing the “less than organized fashion” in which Arctic policy-making has proceeded since the signing of National Security Presidential Directive 66 under President George W. Bush, in which the first outlines of a U.S. Arctic policy were put to paper.

It is true that, as Murkowski and Begich point out, a number of government agencies — probably too many — are working on the Arctic, such as the Coast Guard, Navy, Department of the Interior and its multiple bureaus and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

More unified front

Were an umbrella policy to be developed, these groups and the numerous others that contribute to research and activity in the Arctic could coordinate their actions whether on offshore oil drilling or environmental conservation. The U.S. would also be able to present a more unified front at the Arctic Council, which will be especially important once it assumes the chairmanship in 2015 following Canada’s tenure.

“We think it is now time to take the next step in this policy development: creation of an overall national U.S. strategy for the Arctic,” Murkowski and Begich write. They want Alaska to have a visible role in developing the national policy for the region. They also advocate for ratification of the Law of the Sea Treaty, which might be difficult given the 34 Republicans who recently signed a letter pledging their votes against UNCLOS when it comes up for a vote — enough to stop it in its tracks. Singing the same tune, Senators James Inhofe and Jim DeMint wrote an editorial in the Washington Post, which states,

“They argue that we need this treaty, which the Senate correctly has ignored since its original completion in 1982, to ensure America’s access to the world’s shipping lanes. Of course, we already have such access, no thanks to a piece of paper, but to the world’s most powerful navy.”

Enforcing sovereignty in the Arctic

The American Navy may be the largest, but it has no active heavy duty icebreakers. American naval power is not guaranteed, either. To hedge against that, ratifying UNCLOS would grant the U.S. security in having regulations and standards that do not depend on the size of a country’s navy. It would be hard for the U.S. to enforce sovereignty in the Arctic — let alone carry out normal search and rescue duties — without a capable navy and coast guard, and even harder without ratifying UNCLOS.

Senator John Kerry (D-Mass.), along with the Obama administration and groups as disparate as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Coast Guard are trying to move ratification forward, but a vote will probably not take place until after the November elections. Still, the first hearing on UNCLOS was held in May. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the Honorable Leon Panetta and General Martin Dempsey testified in support of ratification. General Dempsey probably said it best when he observed,

“Around the globe we are witnessing nations expanding their naval capabilities. We are also seeing countries expand their maritime claims—in the direction of restricting movement on the oceans. Illegitimate expansionism could become particularly problematic in the Pacific and the Arctic, two regions whose importance to our security and our economic prosperity will only increase over the next several decades. The Convention would provide us an important tool to help stave off jurisdictional creep in these areas and to resolve future conflicts peacefully and with less risk of escalation.”

This statement provides a direct rebuttal to Inhofe’s claim that the U.S. can ensure freedom of navigation through naval power. In places like the Arctic where so many parties have a stake, from South Korean fishing trawlers to American oil companies, it is much more reasonable, cost-effective and efficient to manage disputes through diplomacy rather than resolve every incident with ships and sailors. The testimonies of all three witnesses can be viewed and read here.

Ratifying UNCLOS would give the U.S. a framework within which it could develop its Arctic policy as well. For now, it’s hard to define what America’s strategy should be up north when the U.S. does not subject itself to international laws that every other country in the Arctic follows and when the U.S. prefers to resolve situations off the cuff.

For further reading, I recommend this paper on the Arctic policies of the U.S. and Canada, which the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute recently published.

News Links

Murkowski, Begich press White House on Arctic strategy,” The Hill

Republicans have the votes to sink sea treaty,” The Hill

Law of the Sea Treaty heads Arctic challenges,” Marine Link


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Mia Bennett

Mia Bennett is an assistant professor in the Department of Geography and School of Modern Languages & Cultures (China Studies Programme) at the University of Hong Kong. Through fieldwork and remote sensing, she researches the politics of infrastructure development in frontier spaces, namely the Arctic and areas included within China's Belt and Road Initiative. Read Mia Bennett's articles

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