Arctic Sovereignty and Regional Policy


Policy History

The United States has not properly addressed the concerns and issues facing the future use and development of our Arctic Territory. The Arctic has always been an area that is least prevalent when policy and legislative agendas are discussed and set, and as we move into a globalized society addressing new and unprecedented situations such as ice-free arctic summers, new international trade routes and the extraction of natural resources, the importance of this strategic resource can clearly be defined. Although the United States has previously implemented regional policies to help guide the administrations, there has been little in the way of continued legislative action or national push as a priority. Currently, the United States has a deteriorating icebreaker fleet that is inferior to most other countries, and the United States has done little to further expand and ratify key international laws that would further protect the national interests and ensure that we are represented adequately and equally on the stage of international policy.

Currently the state of research involving the arctic region is limited at best. Several countries are in a similar situation as the United States in its position of asserting its sovereignty over the arctic region. There are several conflicting territorial claims including between the United States and Canadian as well as other pushing for an expansion of natural resource utilization, and the debate regarding how international waterway straights are classified and governed. Canadian action in the arctic region can be exemplified and used as an appropriate guide for U.S. response for arctic policy. Due the strategic value placed on various interests in the region including natural resources, international trade, and environmental protection, the United States must take a more active role in policy that protects our international interests.

This has become an even more important as former President George W. Bush signed the Arctic Region Policy, which subsequently was updated in 2013 by President Obama, National Security Presidential Directive 66 (NSPD) and Homeland Security Presidential Directive 25 (HSPD). This national strategy outlines the importance of the arctic, covering national security, commerce, conservation and scientific exploration. Aside from these national policies, there are several other issues that are currently held in committee within the senate, and is also held up in the appropriations process.

In the Arctic Region Policy, the United States has a stake in the arctic region, citing that the nation is prepared to protect these interests either independently or in co-operation with other countries. The Arctic Region Policy adopted at the end of Bush’s term guides the actions of subsequent governmental departments and outlines the interests and implementation of the policy. This federal policy updates the previous Arctic Region Policy of 1994, but excludes changes to the Antarctic portion of the 1994 policy.

According to the policy, the United States has national security interests including early-warning systems, strategic and maritime deterrence, presence and security operations, and maintaining use of navigable waters and air operations. There is also a homeland security interest in protecting the United States from the vulnerabilities posed by terrorist and other illegal migrants. The policy also states that the United States should pursue every option available in extending our maritime boundary and seabed control, particularly by approving the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) treaty. In addition, the U.S. has a need to resolve the territorial disputes with Canada, and urge Russia to ratify the maritime boundary agreement of 1990.

A paper entitled Canadian Arctic Sovereignty, authored by Matthew Carnaghan and Allison Goody, outlines proposed issues that the Canadian parliament should be advised of while examining their arctic policy. They state that policy changes are not sufficient regarding the Arctic region and that an in-depth look is needed to ensure Canadian Sovereignty in the Arctic region. This was a policy paper prepared for use as background material in committees for the Canadian parliament.

They start by defining what sovereignty means and stating that it encompasses a state’s responsibility to a territory and its ability to act in and maintain the territory. They continue by discussing what issues have affected Canadian claims to arctic sovereignty including a disputed claim that the Northwest Passage is not an international strategic strait, are internal Canadian waters subject to the authority and jurisdiction of the Canadian government. They also cite disputed territorial claims with the United States in the Beaufort Sea and with Denmark regarding Hans Island, situated between Canada’s Ellesmere Island and Greenland, and they acknowledge the increased resource potential of the Arctic as challenges to Canadian sovereignty.

The United States is currently in a unique position in being the chair of the Arctic Council, something that happens approximately every 14 years. Since the arctic countries now look to the US to lead in the development and implementation of sound arctic policy, we are uniquely positioned to champion our ideas and interests in the region, while demonstrating collaborative and productive international relations. Two major short term objectives that can be accomplished in bringing us closer to ensuring the full implementation of the Arctic regional policy include approving the creation of an ambassador level position at the state department to ensure that our policy interests are represented and met, in addition to investing and growing our national fleet of military and scientific icebreakers. Currently, the bill (S.270) which will create the ambassador level potion is stalled in committee.

Preliminary Analysis

Due to the national and international aspects regarding securing our arctic sovereignty, it becomes a very politically charged battle that many politicians wish not to engage in fear of losing political support. Since the political process is very slow to move, and because it is dependent on politician’s belief in self-preservation, building consensus and creating the necessary political capital becomes very difficult. Most in the Senate are more concerned with attacking the politically charged issues of the day, or building support for issues that will keep them in office locally. This leaves building a coalition through think tanks and academia to provide quality policy recommendations to political officials.

Overall, the lack of interest the United States displays in how we approach this policy initiative has been and continues to be a key reason on why these policies have not been implemented correctly. Although extensive scholarly works are limited, the majority of departments in the executive branch have strategies in place to help guide them with responding to arctic issues. However, a major issue with responding to these strategies and ensuring the success of policy implementation is the general lack of budget and infrastructure needed to ensure success. With issues surrounding the activation of the Russian Northern Fleet, and territorial and mining rights claims, the United States has not done enough yet to invest correctly in ensuring proper policies are designed and implemented to protect our arctic sovereignty.

Overall, Andrew outline four policy alternatives that would at least get the United States on the right track to implement arctic policy. First, he believes that we need to prioritize our national interest as it relates to our stewardship on the Arctic Council, to include environmental protection, and scientific research. Secondly, pass the bill approving an arctic ambassador so that we are better enabled to represents our arctic interests and policy at the equivalent level of other nations. Third, ratify the UN Law of the Sea enabling us to extend our economic interest zone. Finally, determine a clear government policy outlining whether we as a nation to venture into arctic drilling and mineral expansion.

Overall, the Arctic Regional Policy is still a complicated issue. With many issues still to be settled through national discourse and the use of evidence based policy initiatives. A major factor, which has yet to move this policy issue forward, is the fact that a core threat to the nation does not exist. A major fault in American mentality is that we respond only when provoked, and without a direct threat to the arctic region beyond drilling and climate change, much of the discourse is expected to be limited at best.

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