Icy Pitfalls: Challenges for America’s Arctic Council Chairmanship

On Friday April 24th, Secretary of State John Kerry will travel to Iqaluit, capital of Canada’s Nunavut territory. At a meeting with representatives from seven other countries (Russia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden), Kerry will initiate the two-year American chairmanship of the Arctic Council, taking over from Canada. The U.S. chairmanship comes at a time of rapid changes in the Arctic’s international status. But over the next two years the United States will play a decisive role in shaping the international Arctic community despite the fact that many Americans (apart from Alaskans) aren’t even aware that the United States is an Arctic nation. There are two particular challenges that the U.S. will face: finding a balance between development and conservation, and preventing regional tensions from escalating.

Although economic development of the Arctic (primarily resource extraction) is driven by the profit margins and expansion plans of large corporations such as Shell, Statoil, and Norilsk Nickel, and has environmental consequences, it also brings benefits to the actual inhabitants of the Arctic namely through the building of infrastructure such as roads and airfields, electricity and the internet, and improved healthcare. On the other hand, outside of Russia, the majority of Arctic inhabitants are indigenous people who are dependent, materially and spiritually, on their traditional ways of life, such as hunting marine mammals or herding reindeer. All of which is at risk if oil drilling and mining expands in an unsustainable way.

The United States has tried to carefully walk the line between conservation and development. This spring the U.S. approved Shell’s plans to attempt exploratory drilling in the Chukchi Sea despite a series of mishaps in 2012. At the same time, Washington has set aside particularly sensitive locations in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas as off-limits for energy exploration. But this debate isn’t just between companies and the federal government: the Alaskan government and many residents have generally criticized Washington for hampering oil drilling, which is the state’s most important source of revenue. This debate also plays out internationally: Norway, Russia, and Canada are particularly supportive of economic development, while Finland and Sweden are especially focused on conservation and environmental protection. The United States has an opportunity, in coordination with both President Obama’s climate change initiative and his “all of the above” energy strategy, to bring both sides together, and set an example of both sensible protections and sustainable development.

This weekend, if all goes according to plan, the Arctic Council is expected to ratify an agreement on protecting the Arctic from black carbon, a worthy environmental goal. However, this agreement has been held hostage to the relationship between Russia and the current chair, Canada. Although all sides stress the need to continue Arctic cooperation, this has not played out in practice: U.S. and E.U. sanctions have singled out Russian oil and gas operations in the Arctic, and the recently unannounced visit by Putin aide Dmitri Rogozin to Norwegian-administered Svalbard, in defiance of Norway’s travel ban against him, was a deliberate provocation.

Tensions are exacerbated by continued militarization of the Arctic, by all parties. Although the military presence is growing from an admittedly low base, the growth rate is rapid. Russia (which, unlike its Arctic neighbors, has generally followed through on its rhetoric with funding) is forming two Arctic warfare brigades and building nearly a dozen airfields across Siberia’s coast. In addition, because most of Russia’s nuclear deterrence forces are based in the Arctic, increased nuclear posturing is also increasing Arctic security concerns. For example, the Russian navy recently announced that it has increased its Arctic strategic missile submarine patrols by 50 percent over the last year.

This is not to say that a shooting war in the Arctic is inevitable or even likely. The forces involved are too small to be anything other than symbolic, and there are a myriad of peaceful uses for national militaries in the Arctic such as domain awareness, search and rescue, developing capabilities, etc… However, belligerent incidents with Russian military airplanes coming dangerously close to civilian aircraft, or Russian submarines interfering with scientific ships on the high seas highlight the risks of something going wrong; even if no one actually intends to escalate, accidents happen.

The Arctic Council is prevented by its founding document from discussing military security matters. And the issue of reducing Russian-Western tensions is beyond the scope of this article. But unlike Canada’s attempts to tie Arctic diplomacy to events in Ukraine, the United States can work to further Arctic cooperation with Russia. Second-track diplomacy between security forces, such as the biannual Arctic Coast Guard Forum, is an important method to make clear to the Russians that, while the United States strongly disagrees with Russian actions, it also wants to avoid a conflict between their militaries. Although restarting joint Arctic military exercises between the two countries is understandably impractical, the United States does need to keep dialogue open to ensure that conflict elsewhere does not spread into the high north.

The next few years will be critical for shaping the future of the Arctic: will it become a barren nature preserve, an increasingly degraded wasteland, or the front line between jockeying Russian and NATO aircraft and submarines? Over the two years of its Arctic Council chairmanship, the United States will have to take a firm hand to steer the region towards the best outcome – a region of peace with sustainable and equitable development.

Photo by P J Hansen / CC BY-SA 2.0

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