How America can ‘win’ the Arctic
April 29th, 2013
10:32 AM ET

How America can ‘win’ the Arctic

By Heather A. Conley, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Heather Conley is senior fellow and director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington and author of a new CSIS report, ‘A New Foreign Policy Frontier:  U.S. Interests and Actors in the Arctic.’ The views expressed are the writer's own.

Last August, then U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Tom Nides declared that, for the United States, the Arctic is “one of the last true frontiers in the United States. It is becoming a new frontier in our foreign policy.”

He was right. The Arctic is a new frontier in the sense that the polar ice cap is melting so rapidly – confounding and deeply disturbing most climatologists and earth scientists – that once-frozen and nearly impenetrable borders in the region are now being traversed with increased frequency. The Arctic also presents a new opportunity for U.S. policymakers to address the emerging political, diplomatic, economic, and security dynamics caused by unprecedented climate change.

But what is America’s vision for its piece of the Arctic – the state of Alaska? Will the United States view the Arctic like a new frontier that must be explored, claimed, and developed along the lines of Teddy Roosevelt’s vision of Winning of the West, embodying America’s pioneering spirit? Or will Washington seek to protect and preserve the Arctic? What are U.S. policy objectives and priorities? What financial resources will be needed to implement these priorities? What are the right organizational and coordination structures to ensure that an American Arctic strategy is implemented and federal agencies are held accountable?

U.S. policy towards the Arctic has traditionally focused on three areas:  national security, development, and science. These priorities have been reflected in successive budgets of the Defense Department and the National Science Foundation for decades. But today, U.S. Arctic policy is increasingly shaped by economic factors, primarily concerning oil, gas, and mineral resource development as well as shipping.  It isn’t surprising that today the most senior level U.S. interagency policy group involved with Arctic policy is the Interagency Working Group on Coordination of Domestic Energy Development and Permitting in Alaska.

More from CNN: Why we should look to the Arctic

The reality is that there has been no updated Arctic policy statement since George W. Bush signed National Security Presidential Directive 66/Homeland Security Presidential Directive 25 before leaving office in January 2009. Prior to this, the last U.S. Arctic strategy was produced in 1994. Policymakers tend to give the Arctic a strategic look every decade or so.  But given the dramatic changes the Arctic region has experienced in the past four years alone, combined with the increasing geopolitical interest from such countries as China, Korea and India, it is critical that Arctic policy be sharpened and focused to reflect the shifting Arctic climatic and policy landscape.  In short, it’s time for the United States to think more broadly about “winning” the Arctic.

This will not be easy.  The Arctic is perceived as a far-off issue as policymakers convince themselves that they will have plenty of time to act until they must face ice-free conditions, say in 20 to 30 years.  But to ensure that the U.S. is prepared to address the increase in human and commercial activity that is already evident today, we must act now.  And to act, we must dedicate scare financial resources to the task. However, with only one medium-strengthened icebreaker and very minimal port and aviation infrastructure in Alaska, America is already behind.

Even if the Arctic was declared an urgent issue and resources could be made available today, Washington would still struggle with the task of coordinating U.S. Arctic policy.  How many federal agencies does it take to make U.S. policy in the Arctic (excluding state and local levels)? Answer:   23. This isn’t a joke; you read that right. How many White House coordinating groups are dedicated to, wholly or in part, to coordinate this policy today?  Answer:  Six.  A coordination nightmare of our own making.

So, what can the Obama Administration do to “win” the Arctic? Here is a five-step plan:

First, develop a prioritized national economic strategy for the American Arctic with a consolidated, multi-year budget.  It is not enough to create a wish list of all the things the U.S. would like to do in the Arctic.   We must prioritize them and make tough choices.  Begin by deciding how much or how little the U.S. will develop its Arctic. Between the global implications of U.S. unconventional oil and gas and the extraordinary costs of working in both a hostile and fragile environment, the U.S. has already decided (without formally acknowledging the decision) that it will take a more conservative approach to the Arctic rather than full economic development, although many in the state of Alaska strongly disagree.   There are suggestions that the White House is currently working on a plan that will prioritize U.S. objectives in the Arctic, but it is unclear how this plan will impact our overall policy.

Once a prioritized economic strategy for the Arctic is in place, there must be a new organizational approach in the White House and in the State Department to support this new policy. For the past 40 years, our approach to Arctic policy coordination is to add yet another working group to sort out the coordination complexity.  It’s time to create a single coordinating entity or federal department in charge of the twenty plus federal agencies which have a hand in developing U.S. Arctic policy.

An important third step would be to reinvigorate State Department leadership and appoint an Arctic envoy.  The Arctic issue should be a natural fit for a secretary of state committed to the law of the sea and slowing down the effects of climate change.  While it is contradictory to demand in one breath to streamline bureaucracy and in the next suggest adding yet another bureaucrat to the mix, for the moment the U.S. urgently needs a senior official to force the internal bureaucracy to function more efficiently while also providing a more visible and active diplomatic and international engagement strategy on the Arctic.

Why is this critical? The United States must prepare for its upcoming chairmanship of the Arctic Council, the premier inter-governmental organization to discuss Arctic issues, in 2015. This is only the second time the U.S. has held the chairmanship since the Arctic Council’s formation in 1996. Historically, the U.S. position toward the Arctic Council has been to keep its work solely focused on Arctic sustainable development and environmental issues and to suppress any larger ambitions. But, over the past four years, that policy has quietly (and correctly) changed and the U.S., along with the other Arctic Council member states, have worked collaboratively to strengthen the work of the Council.

Finally, we need to rediscover our great American pioneering spirit and apply it to our newest and perhaps most exciting frontier.  The United States is surrounded not by two oceans, but three:  We are an Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic power.  In the spirit of Teddy Roosevelt, let’s win the Arctic.

You can follow the Center for Strategic and International Studies on Twitter @CSIS.

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Topics: Arctic • Climate • United States

soundoff (21 Responses)
  1. Carson

    Most of the Arctic is in the Canadian territories.

    April 29, 2013 at 12:40 pm |
  2. wjm

    The author of this article seems to be doing a whole lot of dancing around the subject of the Arctic, why is it that he is doing that. As a Canadian I'm very curious to know what he means by let's win the Arctic. Alaska may have a border on the Arctic ocean, but in comparison with the Canadian border on the Arctic ocean, it is very small indeed. So what is it trying to win, we already work with the American government on the Arctic situation, would the author like to see the Arctic sea taken over by the American government and if so to what end? Our claim to the north is not something that is up for debate, its a natural border of our country and we have now wish to see that change. How would you describe this winning the Arctic Ms. Conley. Is there something your leaving out here? Should we in Canada simply let ourselves and our sovereignty in the Artic be ignored as you have done in this article. No I don't think so.

    April 29, 2013 at 12:58 pm |
    • wjm

      Please insert she where I have used he, I apologize to the author,

      April 29, 2013 at 1:01 pm |
      • blender

        Well said. The day is coming soon where the US will come knocking for OUR resources and land in the Arctic.

        April 29, 2013 at 2:40 pm |
    • Vangaurd

      I think it is less of a "let us take over the Artic", and more lets use what materials we have up there and own.

      April 29, 2013 at 3:48 pm |
    • JAL

      Consider the harmonic.

      April 29, 2013 at 5:45 pm |
    • 100 % ETHIO

      In US, muscle took.
      What you got?

      May 1, 2013 at 10:32 am |
  3. wjm

    It may cost a fair chunk of change, but a naval base would need industry to help maintain and service itself. Admittedly the American people have a gate to defend. Also which of these based on the east coast protecting that border. There has to be overlap of coverage move that base to the north. The military are more then capable of providing years of experience and tradition, it represents America around the world. So the biggest cost would be relocating families, those that are up for it anyway. Year after year cost shouldn't be much more expensive, climate costs might 8% or so. The intrepid businessmen and women will be able to help with land development process, city planners, if done with enough thought about the flora and fauna of this pristine environment, so the move should be able to be accomplished by the defense department with input by all three levels of government. Who should be able work in the best interest of the country, and maintaining a strong nation, on all its borders.


    April 29, 2013 at 4:58 pm |
  4. Ted Ward

    I can't imagine the Obama administration would be capable of or even interested in something as practical and useful and visionary as what this author is proposing. After all, there are no universities full of intellectually ingrown PC bowing and scraping faculty, or urban "minorities" needing food stamps and access to public housing in the arctic. Polar bears, seals, and inuit people don't give a hoot if the Potus gives a speech and says he's " proud" of them. Anyway, there's no golf courses on the tundra.

    April 29, 2013 at 9:57 pm |
  5. j. von hettlingen

    Shipping companies would beneift, if warmer temperatures open up the North-West and North-East passages in the Arctic. The North-West Passage would make a journey from the Bering Sea to the US east coast much shorter, while the North-East passage would be a more convenient lane for ships to sail from Britain to Ja pan without passing through the Suez Canal.
    But this would also mean the rise of sea level up to 70 metres, when the snow melts. The Maldives will disappear together with other countries with low ground level.

    April 30, 2013 at 8:23 am |
    • gustav

      Just a reminder, sea level rise requires ice caps on land to melt; which they are doing. However, the Arctic ice sheet is floating, and will not contribute to sea level rise at all if it shrinks, expands or disappears entirely (A tall glass of water full of ice cubes doesn't flood when the ice melts). It is predicted and very likely that it will contribute to myriad other atmospheric and oceanic processes, but sea level change won't be one of them. Look to the Greenland and Antarctic ice caps for that.

      April 30, 2013 at 11:23 am |
  6. Andrey

    There is oil in Arctic: so just say that, why to write such a long article and never even mention such a key point! That would explain all that war terminology that you can see in the article! US will stop at nothing to win Arctic for its oil companies: that is pretty clear!

    April 30, 2013 at 11:19 am |
  7. Jeff

    Actually Tom Nides is the Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources, William Joseph Burns is the Deputy Secretary of State I'd like to see this corrected.

    April 30, 2013 at 2:53 pm |
  8. Yuck

    Americans can't leave people alone,as an American we should mind our own business and start RESPECTING this world

    April 30, 2013 at 7:59 pm |
  9. canadafirstaid

    Picture this; BP sending in 'clean up' crews to clean up a massive spill in the high Arctic!! Why do decisions about the future of this region have to be made in Wash. DC or even Ottawa, Canada?? The future of the high Arctic should be decided by the people(s) who live on the land (near and within the Arctic Circle) at this present time. Right? Right on. cfa

    May 1, 2013 at 6:22 am |
  10. 100 % ETHIO

    Let us give it to Jewish. Let it be their Second State.

    May 1, 2013 at 10:34 am |
  11. 100 % ETHIO

    If the Jewish are smart and need not to be bother by anyone, this is the right time to bring their case with $10 Trillion Dollars on the table, to owned the Arctic.

    $3Trs each to Russia, U.S.A and Canada. $1Trn for my idea.

    If Iran bothers the Jewish State in Middle-East, Jewish from Arctic do not need Missile to attack Iran. They will just throw Chunk of Ice to make them ran.

    May 1, 2013 at 10:48 am |
  12. Patrick Sule

    Dude.. I am not substantially into studying, but somehow I obtained to experience lots of post information with your online web site. Its amazing how attention-grabbing it truly is for me to go to you pretty frequently.

    August 29, 2013 at 8:05 pm |

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