The United States’ Missing Arctic Policy

Washington Monument, Washington DC [Photo by Pixabay]
This week, the commandant of the US Coast Guard announced that a revised American strategy for the Arctic was in preparation. Describing the Arctic as becoming a ‘competitive space’, Admiral Karl Schultz noted an increasing emphasis on the role of the Arctic region in American strategic interests, and predicted the final assessment of changes to US policy in the far north would be published within the next three months.

It can certainly be argued that an updated strategic statement from Washington regarding the Arctic is overdue, especially given the extensive changes in the region since the Arctic policy written during the Barack Obama administration was published [pdf] in May 2013. Climate change continues to affect the Arctic, as demonstrated by the recent abnormally high temperatures in the far north, (as well as in much of North America). Relations between the United States and Russia, the two largest players in the Arctic, remain sour including a controversial summit in Helsinki between the countries’ leaders last month. Moscow has continued to increase its military presence in its Arctic regions, creating concerns in the West.

The anticipated ‘resource scramble’ in the Arctic Ocean ultimately did not materialise, (or at least not yet), as lower oil and commodity prices have dulled enthusiasm for large-scale mining and drilling. Non-Arctic states, led by China, which published its first governmental White Paper on Arctic Affairs in January this year, have begun to express greater interest in participating in future Arctic economics and governance. In many ways, Washington has been playing a game of catch-up in the region over the past year.

Current American policy in the Arctic in no way resembles what it used to be and may be considered a by-product of trends towards isolationism in overall US foreign relations. During the second term of the Obama administration, there was a noteworthy increased focus on Arctic concerns, illustrated especially by the President’s August-September 2015 visit to Alaska, (the first time a sitting president ventured north of the Arctic Circle). His keynote speech [video] at the GLACIER conference in Anchorage, outlined the challenges of climate change in Alaska and the Arctic region as a whole. Just before leaving office, President Obama signed a joint agreement with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada, banning offshore drilling in the two countries’ Arctic waters as a further move against regional climate change effects, including the melting of the Arctic ice cap.

Also under President Obama, Admiral Robert J. Papp, Jr., was appointed as the State Department’s Special Representative for the Arctic in July 2014 and acted as Washington’s primary representative when the United States held the chair of the Arctic Council during 2015-7. He was the first, and so far only, person to hold that title, as at present the position remains vacant, despite the current administration being in office for more than eighteen months. During a speech [video] at the October 2016 Arctic Circle conference in Reykjavík, he lauded American contributions to the exploration and study of the Arctic, while calling for greater US collaboration with other states in future endeavours in the region.

Thus far, Washington’s contributions to Arctic policy over the past year have included a rolling back of the Alaska drilling ban, and a growing unease [pdf] over the increased levels of Russian military activity in Siberia and the country’s other far-northern regions, including near the Nordic region, an issue which will likely factor greatly into the next US Arctic strategy paper. A related matter has been the so-called ‘icebreaker gap’ between the United States and Russia.

As a new comprehensive report [pdf] on American Arctic policy by the US Congressional Research Service noted, the United States currently has two heavy icebreaking vessels, both of which were launched in the 1970s. However, one of the vessels, the Polar Sea, has been non-functional for more than eight years. Its counterpart, the Polar Star, is seen as having only a very limited operational lifespan at this point, a fact underscored by the vessel’s engine failure, coupled with flooding problems, during a mission in Antarctica in February of this year. The US Coast Guard also maintains a medium icebreaker, the Healy, which was launched in 1997.

Alaska-Siberia World War II Memorial, Fairbanks, Alaska [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
By contrast, Russia has more than forty operational icebreakers, including nuclear powered vessels, with the latest such vessel, the Sibir (Сибирь), launched officially in September 2017 and a similar vessel, the Ural (Урал), being readied for 2021. Reports also appeared last month that China was seeking to develop a nuclear powered icebreaker, possibly in cooperation with Moscow or based on indigenous technology. China currently has a single icebreaker, the Snow Dragon (Xuelong 雪龙) with a sister vessel, the Snow Dragon II, under construction and in preparation for 2019.

There have been numerous calls since 2013 by various agencies within the US government for the construction of at least one and potentially more [pdf] icebreakers, but the budget and timetables remain uncertain. This week, it was reported that the country’s Congress was seeking to divert US$750 million, which had been earmarked for the icebreaker programme in February this year, to assist in the building of the contentious border wall between the United States and Mexico. That move could delay the deployment of a new icebreaker until the middle of the next decade.

When the revised American Arctic policy paper is released, it is likely to place less of a focus on environmental issues than its 2013 predecessor, especially considering the climate change skepticism omnipresent within the governing party, as well as the decision by the United States to withdraw from the Paris climate accords in June of last year. The other questions will be how the US will continue to interact with the other major Arctic states, given the precarious state of Russian relations, increasingly frosty relations between Washington and many European capitals, and the escalating Sino-American trade war.

Whatever the final draft of the new strategy document consists of, US Arctic policy has nowhere to go but up.