The US and a peaceful Arctic future

The United States is signaling welcome interest in the Arctic. This heightened attention to the region is reflected in the long-awaited appointment of a Special Representative to the Arctic. And as the U. S. prepares to take on the chairmanship of the Arctic Council in 2015, the appointment of an experienced, capable leader, Admiral Robert Papp, former Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, has real potential to focus and unite U.S. Arctic policy and give the Arctic Council the leadership it will need to preserve the Arctic as a zone of international cooperation and peace during a period of rising global unrest.

The Arctic Council is the designated intergovernmental forum for cooperation and for development of responsible policy to the challenges of this rapidly changing region. The council membership consists of the eight Arctic states (Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States), permanent participant organizations (the Inuit Circumpolar Council and others representing indigenous peoples), and states with permanent observer status (China, Singapore, Japan, South Korea, Italy and India).

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The council works on a consensus basis and has demonstrated the capacity to initiate much needed policies and projects to address jointly a diverse agenda of pressing Arctic issues. Recent council actions have focused on safer navigation, improved health for the region’s people and adding observer nations to the council’s deliberations. But perhaps most critically this unique body has given purpose and substance to the idea of the Arctic as a zone of peace and cooperation at a time when “Great Game” geopolitical theorists and so-called realists foresee an Arctic fractured among players competing for resources and pursuing ephemeral ideas of regional dominance.

As global warming accelerates the melting of glaciers, sea ice, and permafrost, all parties face complex decisions about adaptation to a changing environment, the pace of development, extraction of increasingly accessible natural resources, and the movement of new nations into the “Arctic community”. A year ago we assembled leading Arctic scholars, government officials, industry leaders and representatives of indigenous peoples in Washington, DC to examine these real issues facing the region — Arctic energy, health, commercial shipping, security and governance, and environmental protection. Our report, A Euro-Atlantic Action Plan for Cooperation and Enhanced Arctic Security, was on the whole optimistic that negative forecasts about the Arctic were overdrawn and that the Arctic states, working with the indigenous peoples and business interests of the region, remained committed to an Arctic future marked by international cooperation and sustainable development.

Today, those conclusions remain the same. Even as new political concerns have complicated the international environment, the Arctic Council has persevered. It has promoted scientific research and important environmental protection measures; more recently it has concluded binding agreements on maritime search and rescue and on managing oil spills. These council accomplishments have shown that council members can balance their individual state interests in the Arctic with constructive cooperation on broader Arctic issues. Likewise it has been shown repeatedly that although all states are determined to protect their Arctic interests, solid cooperation is possible and the risk of conflict remains very small. An important question now is whether this pattern of cooperation can survive a time of growing tensions between Russia and the other key Arctic Council nations, in particular the United States.

The indigenous peoples’ organization of the Arctic, The Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC), recently met in Inuvik Canada under the theme of One Arctic-One Future. The question is whether U.S. leadership of the council can advance that vision. We believe there is substantial reason for optimism on this score. Cooperation among the council’s major participants is vital, and there are plenty of reasons to ask whether the current tensions between Russia and other state members of the council will disrupt cooperation. This need not be the case. There are few areas where Russian interests in this region are at variance with those of the U.S. or other Arctic states. The primary issues facing the Arctic Council in the coming years are those where all the council’s members have more in common than not: safe navigation of the Arctic Ocean; environmental protection measures to limit pollution and prevent oil spills; the application of business models for economic development that empower and meet the needs of Arctic communities establishing new programs for improved healthcare and education; and prudent management of fishery stocks.

In addition, the council’s Arctic nations face governance questions like the exact role and involvement in decision making of the new observer states, whether classic security issues should be added to its list of subjects for council discussion, and the nature of further binding agreements. In all these matters the major Arctic Council players have strong interests in finding common cause to preserve the constructive, consensual nature of council operations.

These will be the principal challenges facing the U.S. chairmanship as it leads the council. Much of this work will focus on efforts to build consensus around the rules and legal regime that govern international action in the Arctic. The U.S. will bring strong leadership to this effort but will carry one major burden that inevitably complicates its effectiveness. U.S. failure to ratify the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea Treaty continues to weaken U.S. capacity to lead in building support for the legal regime most central to orderly Arctic governance. On a practical level it also undercuts U.S. ability to make extended territorial shelf claims in the Arctic Ocean beyond the 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone. For both these reasons ratification of the UN Convention is long overdue.

As it takes up the Arctic Council chair, the United States has immense resources and influence that it can bring to bear in leading the council. It can bring great authority to the council’s efforts to maintain the Arctic as a zone of cooperation and to build the consensus that permits all parties to work together effectively. We welcome the appointment of Admiral Papp as a promising down payment toward achieving that goal.

Virginia is director of the Institute of Arctic Studies at Dartmouth University; Collins is a senior associate in the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former U.S. ambassador to the Russian Federation; Sfraga is vice chancellor of the University of Alaska Fairbanks; and Yalowitz is a global fellow at the Wilson Center and a former U.S. ambassador to Belarus and Georgia.