On the US Policy in Arctic

The White House Keeps Status Quo

International forum "The Arctic – Territory of Dialogue", finished on March 31, 2017 in Arkhangelsk has once again confirmed the considerable interest of the world community to the problems of the polar region. The U.S. delegation, participated in the Forum, has demonstrated high activity and willingness to multi-format cooperation.

However, the arrival in the White House of the new President raises the question about possible changes in the US policy in the Arctic, especially since the Trump administration yet has not made any official statements regarding the political course of the US in the region. In this regard, it seems to be possible to estimate the probability of change in the Arctic vector of the US, based on current geopolitical interests of Washington in the Arctic.

The foundations of the modern U.S. strategy in the Arctic have been defined in the decision directive of President W. Clinton in 1994. The Document has set out six principal objectives in the Arctic region: 1) meeting post-Cold War national security and defense needs, 2) protecting the Arctic environment and conserving its biological resources, 3) assuring that natural resource management and economic development in the region are environmentally sustainable, 4) strengthening institutions for cooperation among the eight Arctic nations, 5) involving the Arctic's indigenous peoples in decisions that affect them, and 6) enhancing scientific monitoring and research into local, regional, and global environmental issues.

Another important document was the Presidential Directive of 2009 (National Security Presidential Directive and Homeland Security Presidential Directive on the Arctic Region Policy), signed by George Bush. It has fully confirmed the objectives set out in the Directive of 1994, and provided more details with regard to specific areas of policy. In particular, the document has confirmed the position of the United States in respect of the regime of international management of the region, according to which the growth of economic activities in the Arctic should be supported by the development of new international legal instruments governing one or another aspect of these activities. However, Washington sees no need to establish a comprehensive legal instrument, such as the Antarctic Treaty of 1959.1

The US consider the Arctic Council the main venue for discussion of Arctic issues, commending its contribution in the achievement of sustainable development and the protection of the interests of the indigenous population of the region. At the same time, Americans consider the Council only as a regional high-level forum and oppose giving it the status of an international organization. This is because Washington fears that in this case the Council will get powers to adopt binding resolutions, which may come into conflict with the USA policy.

It seems that the priority of the United States in the Arctic is the support of the military and strategic superiority and the possibility of free and prompt maneuvering of the Navy. In the Presidential Directive of 2009 the ensuring of freedom of navigation is named the national interest number one in the region. This is what dictates the position of the Americans on the legal status of the Northern Sea Route and the Northwest Passage: Washington considers them as international straits, in which the right of transit passage is applied, and coastal states (Canada and Russia respectively) can not infringe upon this right by way of their national laws. The importance of freedom of navigation for the United States is increasing due to accelerated melting of Arctic ice and the resulting appearance of new transport capabilities.

At the same time, in terms of comparing the importance of the Arctic for Russia and the United States from strategic and economic point of view, the polar region plays a significantly smaller role in ensuring the national interests of Americans. So, Russia's Far North contributes up to 20% to the national GDP, Arctic regions account for about half of the whole territory of our country, and the Northern Sea Route is a key thoroughfare providing access for the Russian Navy to the Global Ocean and transportation of resources extracted in the region. On the contrary, in terms of the area of waters in the Arctic Ocean the USA has the smallest Arctic sector from among the five coastal States. Icebreaking fleet of the Americans has only three heavy diesel-electric ships (Russia has 38 ships, including 7 nuclear-powered ones). The only Arctic state, Alaska, is experiencing a budget deficit and is on one of the last places in the country in terms of GDP. Economic development of the state is tied mostly to the oil and gas production. However, in recent years amid falling oil prices there is a steep decline of interest from part of oil companies to the Arctic shelf of the United States.

The American lag in the development of its Northern region from leading Arctic countries became the reason for the harsh statements of some senior officials of the US. So, Alaska Republican Senator Dan Sullivan said, that “the highways of the Arctic are paved by icebreakers. Right now, the Russians have superhighways, and we have dirt roads with potholes”2. Adm. Paul F. Zukunft, the Coast Guard’s Commandant, has stated in reply to the question on competing with Russia in the Arctic, that "we're not even in the same league as Russia right now"3. In these circumstances, officials the United States constantly raise the question of the need to finance the construction of modern icebreaker fleet and modernization of the infrastructure of the North. In particular, this is stated in the National Strategy of the United States in the Arctic 20134

Perspectives of the spread by the Americans of their jurisdiction on extended continental shelf remain unclear (i.e. the shelf beyond 200 nautical miles from shore). Presidential Directive of 2009 determined that the defining with certainty the area of the Arctic seabed and subsoil in which the United States may exercise its sovereign rights over natural resources is critical to the country's national interests in energy security, resource management, and environmental protection. The most effective way to achieve international recognition and legal certainty for country's extended continental shelf is through the procedures available to States Parties to the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea of 1982, which is still not ratified by the United States. The successive administrations of presidents, supported by virtually all the executive authorities and the expert community, have been seeking the ratification of the Convention within the last twenty years, but always met counteraction of the part of senators, mostly representing the Republican Party. According to them, the ratification of the Convention does not meet the national interests of the United States. A key bone of contention is the provisions of the Convention, according to which the States have an obligation to make contributions to the International Seabed Authority for the development of oil and gas on the extended continental shelf. The probability, that in the near future, the Senate, which at the moment is dominated by Republicans, will ratify the Convention, is rather small5.

The work on the implementation of the US strategic interests in the Arctic, set out in the directives of 1994 and 2009, was continued by the administration of President Obama. Only accents of the policy have been changed. So, for example, the National Strategy for the Arctic Region6 adopted in 2013 sets the task of enhancing Arctic domain awareness, primarily in part of environmental matters. Obama's visit to Alaska in September 2015 was in particular aimed at attracting attention of the population to the issues of climate change and environmental protection in the North. In addition, in December 2016 the President of the United States has made significant political dividends on the climate agenda, having banned the issuance of licenses to develop oil and gas fields in part of the waters of the Chukchi Sea and the Beaufort Sea.

It is hardly to expect the development of Obama's environmental agenda from President Trump, who's known for his skeptical remarks in relation to climate change. At the same time, it seems that the general strategic course of the United States in the Arctic, outlined in the end of the XX century, will continue. An indirect evidence of the continuity of the current Arctic policy of the US is the fact that almost all the key officials of the State Department responsible for implementing the US policy in the Arctic under the Obama administration, retained their positions under the new President.

In this regard, noteworthy is the opinion of one of these high-ranking officials – David A. Balton, who is the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Oceans and Fisheries and Chair of the Senior Arctic Officials. At the press conference held after the meeting of the Council in Juneau (Alaska) on March 10, 2017 Balton, who has worked for more than 30 years in the Department of State, said that US policy in the Arctic over the years has undergone a minimum of changes. According to him, the objectives of the state in the region are unchanged and based primarily on the socio-economic interests of Alaska and the need to ensure ecological safety of the region. Balton suggested that this will not change in the coming years.7, 8

As for the prospects of the US involvement in international cooperation, it is necessary to consider the following. Today there is a number of factors, both regional and external, which are capable to destabilize the North: these include the threat of military expansion in the Arctic; potential competition for a new transport and economic benefits, which are becoming available as the ices are melting; fundamental controversies between the Western Arctic States and Russia on the Ukrainian issue; growing ambitions of Asian States, etc.

At the same time, all potential threats are outweighed by the benefit to the Arctic States from the consolidation of power in the development of the Arctic. Harsh climatic conditions, the need for an effective response to the consequences of emergency situations of transboundary character (search and rescue of people at sea, oil spills) requires common efforts of all States in the region. In addition to that, Washington is likely not interested in escalation of tensions on its Northern borders. In these circumstances, Americans seem to continue to strike a balance between ensuring their national interests and the desire to preserve the atmosphere of peaceful cooperation in the Arctic, interacting with Russia and other States of the region at such international venues as the Arctic Council, the Arctic Coast Guard Forum and the Arctic Economic Council.

  1. The Treaty provides for the demilitarization of Antarctica, using it exclusively for peaceful purposes and the transformation into a zone free from nuclear weapons
  2. Why the Envy of the Republicans to Russia because of the Arctic is the Misplaced
  3. Russia has Built Powerful Nuclear Icebreaker for the Conquest of the Arctic
  4. National Strategy For The Arctic Region, May 2013.
  5. However, the United States recognize that the provisions of the 1982 Convention that are not related to the legal regime of the seabed in the open sea, reflect generally recognized principles of international law of the sea and are obeyed by them
  6. National Strategy For The Arctic Region, May 2013.
  7. Arctic Council continues to work on Alaska environmental issues, with or without Trump support
  8. US Arctic officials don’t expect big policy changes with Trump presidency

Arctic USA