Challenging Russia’s Arctic: America’s Uneven Policy

The policy of the United States concerning climate change in the Arctic has been and is one that is ever-changing. Since 2009 there have been adaptations to the policy in order to face the concerns of today while anticipating the challenges of tomorrow.

However, if the current policy does not continue to change in an effective manner to meet the evolution of Arctic challenges, the United States will be further behind the curve. This will have an impact on both allies and adversaries that are active in the region, most especially the Russian Federation.

The current policy of the United States concerning the Arctic region was originally developed in 2009 under the Bush Administration as National Security Presidential Directive (NSPD) no. 66 and Homeland Security Presidential Directive (HSPD) no. 25. This policy discusses topics and issues that concern international governance of the Arctic, territorial claims, international scientific cooperation, maritime transportation, economic and energy issues, environmental protection, and conservation of resources. It takes into account that due to climate change there are new issues that must be addressed concerning United States’ interests. This policy has been so useful that Obama only added to the policy rather than replace it.

In May of 2013, the National Strategy for Arctic Region was released with the implementation plan following in January of 2014. Much like the original policy, it focuses on climate change and the challenges that come with it. It discusses maintaining freedom of the seas for maritime transportation, working within international institutions such as the Arctic Council to address issues between states, and working to protect the environment and conserve resources in the region. The unwritten portion is how much of this is meant to countermand Russian initiatives in the region.

The NSPD 66/HSPD 25 has been effective in stating how the United States plans on approaching the Arctic region for energy development. Anders Rasmussen stated in A Place Apart: A Peaceful Arctic No More, “that the US Geological Survey indicates that the region contains approximately 13 percent of the world's undiscovered oil and 30 percent of the world's undiscovered gas deposits, as well as vast quantities of mineral resources including rare earth elements, iron ore, and nickel.” Being able to exploit these resources would be beneficial to the United States, yet it has been slow to approve permits for companies to explore parts of the Arctic. Thus, while the policy does address energy issues, it may be ineffective in providing greater energy independence, especially given how aggressive Russia wants to be and has been in recent years in the Arctic region.

NSPD 66/HSPD 25 and the National Strategy Arctic region both address economic issues and advancing American security interests. Currently, though, the United States does not have a modern fleet of Arctic ice breakers, while Russia has the largest number of Arctic capable ships. The United States lacking a modern fleet of Arctic ice breakers means that it cannot advance its security interests and address economic issues that relate to maritime traffic. When this is coupled with not belonging to a significant international convention (UNCLOS), the United States will have a hard time protecting and promoting its interests in the region and countering a Russian Federation that has assertively declared the Arctic region a major focus of its own national security portfolio.

The current policy has also been ineffective in getting the United States Congress to agree to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). As Dobransky points out, the NSPD 66/HSPD 25 came up short largely due to the United States still not being a member of UNCLOS. This becomes a serious issue if another state makes territorial claims that are accepted by following UNCLOS procedures. The United States would be unable to contest these claims or have its counterclaims recognized by the international community. This could have large detrimental ramifications in the future as other Arctic states make more claims in the region.

The United States might try to have better success with other means of international cooperation. Its policy puts an emphasis on international cooperation and working within existing international bodies. This allows the United States to work out conflicts of interests with other states through the use of diplomacy. As Richard Weitz stated in Russia Tensions Threaten U.S. Arctic Council Agenda, the United States is working with other countries to challenge Russia’s broad territorial claims in the Arctic, which include the Northern Sea Route. The Arctic Council consists of eight states with many other states in observer status. With so many states displaying interest in the Arctic region it is important for the United States to emphasize and practice more international cooperation, whether it is a part of UNCLOS or not.

The current policy of the United States on the changing conditions in the Arctic region has mixed results up to this point. The policy addresses many of the current issues that are present in the Arctic while anticipating the ever-changing future of the region. However, there is no substantive progress to challenge the clear elephant in the Arctic room: Russia. There is no state today acting more assertively and proactively than Russia as concerns the Arctic. American policy was clearly developed to answer this reality and yet the details of said policy are markedly poor answering that challenge specifically. Just as Russia took steps recently at the IV Caspian Summit to ensure its military dominance over the Caspian Sea, it seems quite intent on ensuring an economic and political dominance over its other great sea body to the north. This likely means the immediate future of the Arctic is going be decidedly more bold bear than bald eagle.

Gregory Roudybush

Gregory Roudybush is currently a graduate student at Bellevue University’s International Security and Intelligence Studies program in Omaha, Nebraska. He served previously in the United States Marine Corps.

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