Arctic Trail: Six Steps The United States Must Take To Manage The Global Rush North
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The world is at a precipice of a potential new cold war in the Arctic between Russia and the NATO Arctic nations. Russia is in a position to win it. The number of icebreaking hulls a country operates is the simplest and most tangible measure that can be used to judge its ability to conduct northern operations. The United States has a total of four diesel-powered icebreakers (one of which is out of service for this year) whereas the Russians have 14.51 Of the 14, seven are nuclear-powered--capable of cutting through nine feet of ice without even slowing down. In comparison, the U.S. icebreakers can only make it through six feet of ice at a constant speed.52 Even China and South Korea, non-Arctic nations, have icebreakers in preparation for regional access.53
In addition to greater Arctic naval power, the Russians also have a superior support infrastructure. The Soviet Union, in sustaining the Northern Sea Route and oil development in the Barents Sea, invested tremendous capital in developing a robust infrastructure of rail lines and river transport services. It maintained this infrastructure by offering state workers huge subsidies and inflated wages. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the loss of state jobs, the region experienced a significant reduction in population. However, the Russian North still has a fully functioning infrastructure in place.54 Meanwhile, the North American presence is ―naked and unguarded.55
Russia intends to use these weaknesses along with divisions among the NATO members to increase its power in the region. According to a leading Russian economic journal, ―...Russia’s main task is to prevent the opposition forming a united front. Russia must take advantage of the differences that exist [between NATO states]."56 Moreover, a prominent Russian Navy journal acknowledged that an increase in regional militarization could increase the possibility for local military conflict. ―Even if the likelihood of a major war is now small, the possibility of a series of local maritime conflicts aimed at gaining access to and control over Russian maritime resources, primarily hydrocarbons, is entirely likely."57
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Conflict in the region, however, is not inevitable. Among the NATO allies, especially, there have been plenty of diplomatic successes to resolve differences. All the parties within the region have shown a willingness to work within the constraints of international law. Even Russia, despite its flag-planting antics, has accepted those constraints. In discussing Russia’s position on Arctic policy, its Ministry of Foreign Affairs released the following press statement, ―Russia strictly abides by the principles and norms of international law and firmly intends to act within the framework of existing international treaties and mechanisms. As was pointed out in the joint declaration of the ministerial meeting of the five Arctic coastal states held in Ilulissat, Greenland, this past May, these states, including Russia, are committed to the existing international legal framework that applies to the Arctic Ocean and to the orderly settlement of any possible overlapping claims.59 It is only in the Arctic areas where international law has failed that conflicts are escalating. Consequently, the United States must seek a way to bolster international law in order to provide stability in the region. To this end, U.S. Arctic policy must be guided by the following six steps.
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The United States must ratify UNCLOS as soon as possible. It is the entrance fee to sit at the table and discuss international law in the Arctic. With 156 other nations belonging to UNCLOS, the absence of the United States signals to the world that it intends to be a unilateral actor.60 Moreover, it also decreases the strength of international law in the region. Given that international law is the only constraint to massive power projection and militarization in the region, continuing to be a signatory without ratification is detrimental to regional security. In addition, there is considerable evidence showing that the continental shelf off the Alaskan coastline extends well beyond the 200 nautical mile EEZ limit.61 It is estimated that United States could claim an extra 291,000 square miles.62 This extra seabed could yield approximately 27 billion barrels of oil.63 As a party to UNCLOS, the United States would be able to formally submit its claim to the CLCS and have this continental shelf extension to the EEZ internationally recognized.
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Opponents to ratification argue that ratifying the treaty undermines U.S. sovereignty.64 In essence, in the event of a dispute, the ISA would have the ability to rule against the interests of the United States. Not only is this position outdated, it is incorrect. It assumes that the United States has the naval power to assure its interests at sea. However, U.S. naval power in the Arctic is limited, at best. Moreover, the continental shelf extensions in the Arctic are a perfect example of how ratifying the treaty would actually enhance U.S. sovereignty, rather than limit it. Additionally, ratifying a multilateral treaty would signal to the world that the United States will operate on the same set of rules agreed to by everyone. At a minimum, ratification would buy some badly needed international goodwill.
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Despite opposition by a few members of Congress, UNCLOS ratification has widespread support in the military, diplomatic and intelligence communities. The Departments of Defense, State and National Intelligence have consistently advocated that the Senate should ratify the treaty.65 In fact, all of the members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff have written the Senate letters seeking the Senate’s advice and consent.66 Moreover, in his last NSPD before leaving office, President George W. Bush explicitly sought UNCLOS’s ratification.67 At the end of 2007, the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations voted to recommend ratification.68 The U.S. Senate’s vote is pending.