With the Arctic warming at twice the rate as the rest of the planet and melting sea ice opening up the resource-rich region to new trade routes and commercial activities, the Arctic offers both opportunities and challenges for the United States and other countries. Arctic Imperatives: Reinforcing U.S. Strategy on America’s Fourth Coast, the report of a CFR-sponsored Independent Task Force, assesses U.S. interests in the Arctic region in the face of changing conditions there.
The Task Force finds that the Arctic is of growing economic and geostrategic importance and proposes specific actions to improve the United States’ strategic presence in the region, including bolstering infrastructure investment, defending national borders, protecting the environment, and maintaining U.S. scientific and technological leadership.
This CFR-sponsored Independent Task Force report is available here: Arctic Imperatives: Reinforcing U.S. Strategy on America’s Fourth Coast.
MCMANUS: Well, greetings and thanks to all of you for coming. I’m Doyle McManus of the Los Angeles Times and a member of the Council. And I’m delighted to have a chance to preside over this meeting of the Council, one at which I know we will learn a lot because, as I was reading the task force report—which I will say parenthetically is usually well-written for a Council report. I commend it to you. (Laughter.) And includes a quite excellent selling point: What happens in the Arctic won’t stay in the Arctic. (Laughter.)
As I thought about it, I realized that, you know, members of the Council on Foreign relations spend a lot of time thinking about the hot spots. We don’t always spend a lot of time thinking about the Arctic. It is my suspicion that more members of the Council have probably visited Kazakhstan or certainly Sichuan province than have spent time any time at all above the Arctic Circle. Visits to the panhandle and the resorts in southern Alaska don’t count. So I’m delighted to preside over this.
As you know—as you know, we are on the record today. We are helping launch the Council’s independent task force report, “Arctic Imperatives: Reinforcing American Strategy on our Fourth Coast.” And we are joined by the co-chairs, Admiral Thad Allen and Governor Christine Todd Whitman, the project director, Esther Brimmer, to discuss their report. Admiral Allen and Governor Whitman need no introduction. And Esther Brimmer really doesn’t need an introduction either, but I want to give a plug to her new role as CEO of NAFSA, the association of international educators. So congratulations on that.
And special thanks as well to the task force members. Several of them are here in the room. And to the observers. There are several people here from the embassies of nations in the Arctic Council, who are joining us in the audience today. And also to all of you who are joining us via Livestream and Facebook. I get to—as presider, get to start us off with a number of questions. But I will certainly do my best to open to questions and answers from the floor as soon as we can get there.
So, Governor Whitman, let me—let me start with you. And let me start with the kind of existential question behind the taskforce. You have—you and your colleagues have the daunting mission of going around Washington, getting people’s attention to these issues, and persuading them to look at your recommendations and, with luck, even act on them. So let me ask first for the elevator version: Why the Arctic and why now?
WHITMAN: Well, the Arctic is, as I said to a number of people and we say reflected in the report—and oh, by the way, let me just say that this is a task force report. And Thad and I were privileged enough to be the co-chairs, but it’s the members, as you said many of whom are here, and the observers who really made a great difference in what we were able to put together. And of course, Esther did an extraordinary job in writing it all.
But particularly there are two things happening. One, Alaska is the canary in the coal mine. And what we see happening in Alaska, it’s happening faster there than is happening in the rest of the country, in sea level rise, but it’s indicative of what we’re going to face. And you can’t ignore it. We need to take lessons from it. We need to start looking at it now. You also have a transition in administrations. And that’s a time when you have an opportunity to bring this up that might not otherwise get brought up, but you also have—you’re in a position where things get lost and fall between the cracks if you don’t bring them up and if you don’t act on them.
And so it was really an opportune time. It’s someone outside the purview, one would think, of the Council on Foreign Relations. Alaska is not a foreign country, although many of the people in this—in the United States might think of it as such, it is not. We are an Arctic nation and it’s time to remind ourselves. We’re also coming to the end of our chairmanship of the Council—the Arctic Council—and then Finland is going to be taken over from us. And it’s a time when we need to strategize with them: What do we need to do to keep the agenda moving forward?
And how do we make people understand the strategic importance of Alaska to the United States, as well as to the other Arctic nations and our involvement with them, and the potential for a lot of somewhat nontraditional relationships that can be—continue to be developed. Because when you’re talking science, you’re not talking politics. And you can talk with countries that we may not be able to talk with quite so well—I’m thinking particular of Russia as an Arctic nation. This is a way to keep a dialogue going.
So there were—all these combination of factors were coming together to say this was the time to really bring this forward. And hopefully we can get the kind of attention that we think it needs.
MCMANUS: Admiral, I think when most of us without much Arctic experience think about the region, we think about it first of all in terms of environment and energy. But there’s a big security agenda there as well. And it’s a long time since that was defined by NORAD and Nautilus. So bring us up to date, if you would, on what the security interests are, and what the security agenda ought to be.
ALLEN: Sure. Let me preface my comments with the fact that I started grade school in Ketchikan, Alaska when my dad was stationed there as a petty officer in the Coast Guard. And we had DEW Line. It was built during the Cold War to try and prevent an attack from the Soviet Union. The threats have evolved. Governor Whitman’s talked about some of the environmental issues there.
If you look at Alaska, and in maritime parlance, it’s on the great circle route. In other words, the closest way to get to northern Asia is over the top through Alaska. We have ground-based interceptors there for our strategic missile defense. We have a significant amount of capability and capacity in the bases that are in Alaska. If you think about it, they’re very close flight-wise, time-wise, longitude-wise to the Pacific Rim and to the PACOM area of responsibility.
So it certainly is a forward positioning, if not a forward operating base, for our security forces against a variety of challenges. And I won’t even get into the current challenges that are being faced on the Korean Peninsula. So I think the strategic location of Alaska in relation to our security forces may be not well-understood, but totally critical in the overall fabric of the defense of the nation.
MCMANUS: Is the Arctic an area where we are likely to see more friction with Russia over the next decade, or is it an area where we could have opportunities for cooperation?
ALLEN: You’re raising an excellent point, and one that was discussed vigorously—(laughter)—by the task force. And you know, we share the Bering Strait with Russia. It’s a transit strait under the definition of the Law of the Sea Treaty. We necessarily have to work with them on shipping, navigation, and natural resource issues. We share an exclusive economic zone.
I think—and I don’t want to speak for the task force—but the sense, I think, of the task force was this is multifaceted relationship. And somehow, if we’re going to take care of our national responsibilities on our fourth coast, we have to be able to separate out the national interest in the Arctic, and understand we have serious issues in the Ukraine, Iraq, and Syria, but we also have lines of communication that are radically different, in the Coast Guard’s relationship with the Russian border guard and our shared responsibility for resource development and the environment up there.
So I think it’s not a simplistic question, but it’s a question that everybody needs understand has a variety of answers, almost based on the environment, the issue, and the risk that you’re talking about.
MCMANUS: So we could actually have a future of both cooperation and—
ALLEN: We currently have—currently have cooperation. The Coast Guard is part of and leads the North Pacific Coast Guard Forum. There is an Arctic Coast Guard Forum. There are routine channels communication related to the missions that have to be done in those operating environments, and have been for a number of years. Those need to be sustained and they need to be able to be evolved in relationship to the changing climatic challenges and the changing environment up there, and the issues associated with that.
WHITMAN: It’s not unlike our relationship in outer space. I mean, this is an area where you can have collaboration. And it’s something we need to have. I mean, right now they’re the ones that have the ability to do actually more search and rescue, depending on where they are up there in the Bering, where problems occur, than we do, and better capability at this point. So we need to work together.
ALLEN: The northbound shipping lane in the Bering Straits is in U.S. waters, southbound is in Russia.
MCMANUS: Esther Brimmer, you spent most of your career as a specialist on international organizations, and so I want to ask for a very quick brief from you on the Arctic Council. What does it do? What did the United States accomplish during its year, number one? And then number two, the tough part of it is, the Trump administration hasn’t sounded enthusiastic about most forms of multilateral diplomacy. How do you hope to interest and engage them in more multilateralism on this front?
BRIMMER: Well, first I want to say good afternoon and it’s great to see everyone here in the room. There are many experts all the way around this room. And this task force really benefited from your input. And just before answering your question, I would also like to salute members of the task force who are here, and our co-chairs, because you will appreciate, this was a task force with people with a wide variety of political views, a wide variety of expertise, and people came together with a remarkable degree of professionalism and expertise and comradery. Everyone was about problem solving. How do we find the best solution for U.S. strategy? So it was a real honor to serve with this team. I think they were an example of people who are dedicated to public service and public life in the broadest sense. So I think we should—you should know that.
And I think that spirit actually infused the report itself. We’re very practical. The reason we look at international mechanisms in the report is because that’s where we get work done that benefits the United States. The Arctic Council has recently celebrated its 20th anniversary. It works on many areas of cooperation with the other Arctic states, including on environmental and scientific issues. And in this forum we’ve been able to discuss things such as search and rescue, cultural issues, a wide variety of important issues. We do not discuss hard security in this forum, but it has created a space where there is confidence building and real practical cooperation that is beneficial. So, in its chairmanship of the Arctic Council, the United States has launched several initiatives in this area advancing that. Finland will take over next. And idea is that we should continue this cooperative work in this body.
I also note that there were other parts of the international mechanisms that are important for the United States. And I will flag two. You will note that the task force, after a very vigorous discussion, does support ratification of the Convention on the Law of the Sea. Now, there are important dissents and deeper understandings of that, and that’s within the report. And we talk about the fact that, you know, this is—administrations of both parties have talked about this. But the main point here is real estate. If the U.S. does accede to the treaty, we can have a better chance to defend our claims to the extended continental shelf. That’s real land, under the water, that is important to the United States. We should not disadvantage ourselves. And so we look at how to talk about it. And it’s a complex issue, and the task force thought about it in very subtle ways. I’m sort of giving you the top line there.
The other I will note is that we look at very practical mechanisms, such as the new polar code, which was adopted by the International Maritime Organization. It is in the interest of the Arctic states that those who are in the Arctic area abide by the polar code, which sets higher standards for operation in this severe environment. So the reason you work in these international bodies is to get agreement with many other countries in areas that are important to the United States.
MCMANUS: I want to stay on the Law of the Sea Convention for a moment, because it’s an issue that has come up. I was staggered to go look and see that it has been 35 years since that convention was written and 23 years since it entered in force. So that’s not—it’s not only the Trump administration that has failed to ratify it.
WHITMAN: Oh, no.
MCMANUS: That’s your number-one recommendation. You’re putting it forward at a time that—well, it’s a courageous recommendation to put forward. How do you—how do you sell it? How do you change the dynamic around on an issue that has eluded, what, six presidents—not all of whom wanted to ratify it?
WHITMAN: No. But one of the things is, besides common sense and the best interests of the country, real estate, doing a deal, those are things that resonate with this administration perhaps more than some of the others. The fact that it is something that will give us an advantage and an ability to be heard. There are—it was—it was probably the area of the most vigorous discussion that we had in the task force. And there were those who said, look, let’s go for something that just—we work around the perimeter, we work on the important things such as search and rescue agreements, things like that.
But then the consensus—the overall consensus was, if we’re going to do this, we’ll go for the big one, which really makes the most sense, try to pull out and emphasize those parts of it like the real estate that we’re giving up, in essence because we’re not able to really stake our claim in a very direct way, the fact that it is doing a deal, the kinds of things that might appeal to this administration and help them see that, yes, there’s a lot here that they can go with, even though it does have that U.N. bit at the very front of it, which is a downer for the administration a bit.
MCMANUS: So you might want to rename the convention? (Laughter.)
WHITMAN: We might want to rename the convention, but we still think it’s the right way to go.
MCMANUS: If it were the Trump Convention on the Law of the Sea—
WHITMAN: Oh, then there’d be no problem. (Laughter.)
MCMANUS: Admiral, your thoughts? And just to be clear, that the debate you’re talking about on the task force was not over the substance of the treaty or the virtue of ratification, it was—yeah.
WHITMAN: No, no. It was more, look, you’ve been beating this horse. It’s a dead horse. Why keep beating a dead horse? And why not go for something that might move the ball forward? And that has a great appeal to it. And that can happen. But you might as well start out reaching for the stars for what we think is really the right thing. And then the rest of it, if that doesn’t happen, they may go ahead with some small steps toward that end.
ALLEN: I think there’s some confusion between sovereignty and common sense. You know, there’s an old saying, you don’t have sovereignty unless you can exert it. And some people are mistaking this for a sovereignty issue. Now, I wouldn’t—I wouldn’t stand here and say there aren’t some sovereignty issues involved, especially on some of the issues related to resource extraction and the proceeds from the resource extraction. But you look at net on value what’s to be gained by acceding to the Law of the Sea treaty in terms of this country, there is no reason in the world from a business sense, a policy sense, or economic sense why we shouldn’t do this.
MCMANUS: Admiral, the second big, concrete recommendation in the report is for investment in icebreakers. And one of the joys of my job as a journalist is I get to ask the dumb questions that people don’t want to look dumb by asking. We’re never under the suspicion on that. (Laughter.) So why do we need icebreakers? What do icebreakers get us? And also, a little bit of history, and how come we ended up with fewer icebreakers—if icebreakers are assets worth having, how come we ended up with fewer—not only fewer than Russia or Canada, but fewer, rather remarkably, than China?
ALLEN: Well, the majority of the icebreaking the Coast Guard has now was a legacy mission of the United States Navy, moved to the Coast Guard in the 1950s, and a large number of icebreakers moved with that mission. In addition, we have built three since then, two polar class heavy icebreakers and the Healy, which is an ice-strengthened research vessel. The collective requirements in the polar areas, include by the Arctic and Antarctica. The resupply of the base at McMurdo is the key lifeline for research at the South Pole. And the research that takes place at the South Pole largely cannot be done anyplace else, because either it’s in darkness or light or complete quiet. And the scientific value of what goes on at the South Pole is pretty inestimable.
I served on a blue-ribbon commission on support to research in the Antarctic. And the icebreaker comes up there, do we want it to be held hostage to leasing foreign vessels to do that, or is that important to the future of research for the United States? So if you’re trying to maintain a polar presence, at either end of the world, generally if you have an operating asset—I don’t care if it’s a small boat or a helicopter or a large cutter—if you want the ability to be able to project presence at any time, you basically need three of those because one will be operating, one will be in training or doing other things, and one will be in the long-term maintenance status. So ultimately six icebreakers allows you to operate full time if you need to at both poles.
Now, we’re not going to get there right away, but we certainly are under subscribed right now to the type of capability and mission performance that we need to actually represent the sovereign interests—so we go back to sovereignty—in the Arctic. So you can take—you can parse it between the Antarctic and the Arctic. But the Coast Guard has the same mission both places. And it’s to basically break ice. And if we’re going to do it to the levels that’s expected to support research in the Antarctic, and then access and research in the Arctic, six is the optimum number. But at this point, we got to get the first one built.
MCMANUS: While we’re on this subject, I want to go off topic for just a minute. But I can’t resist asking you what—I hope you’ll understand this—what they call in congressional hearings a friendly question. The White House issued a preliminary budget proposal last week, and it included significant cuts to the Coast Guard. Is that a good idea? (Laughter.)
ALLEN: I think some mid-level bureaucrats at OMB were acting without the informed consent of the political leadership. Somebody has asked me to inform them about what was going on and I said, well, first of all, do we have to send a memo to every new administration that says: The Coast Guard is a member of the armed forces—one of the five armed forces? And if you look at what’s happening with the defense budget, what’s happening with the demands on the Coast Guard, and there is more than a physically and geographically described southwest border. It requires a defense. It requires the exertion of sovereignty to do that.
My fear is—and it goes clear back to when I was the Atlantic commander on 9/11. And before the attacks, entering fiscal year 2002, the Coast Guard was poised to take a 20 percent reduction in operations. That did not happen. When the Obama administration came in in 2009, there was a quick review of the 2010 budget. The folks in OMB decided in the interest of cost savings that they would just cut out all LORAN programs in the United States, and then we’re going to have to rebuild LORAN as a backup to GPS. And at the same time, we have proposals to allow us to bring both icebreakers back into full operation. They were shovel ready, if you will, under the Recovery Act. That never made it to the White House.
So I’d refer your question to the mid-level bureaucrats at OMB. (Laughter.)
MCMANUS: OK. I didn’t think you’d embrace the idea very quickly.
Governor, you, of course, were administrator of the EPA. So let me start with you on a couple of environment and energy questions. If you could just bring us up to date on the pace of climate change in the Arctic and its consequences for those of us in the lower 48.
WHITMAN: Well, the pace of change is unlike the rest of the country. It’s happening up there faster than we’re seeing anywhere else, in sea level rise, because of the melting of the ice sheets. And that is occurring at an extremely rapid rate. And unfortunately, it feeds on itself. And as it releases more carbon, more methane, it’s happening even faster. It opens up the—the doesn’t covert the waters anymore, so if the sun can get directly down and release more. It’s something that is showing us what’s going to happen in the rest of the country.
We have—there are 12 villages, native villages, right now that undergoing the process of moving. And there are some 30 that are in danger that are going to have to at some point. And that is telling us, at the same time, we’re seeing that during king tides in Florida, in Coral Gables, they have parking lots that fill up with water and they have fish swimming in them. It’s two opposite ends, but they’re coming at it—it’s the same basic problem that’s occurring. It’s just happening faster in Alaska.
And the challenge that it puts to you up there is, OK, you’re moving people. You have to move whole villages. How do you do that? Who do you move first? Do you move the people, then do you put the infrastructure in with them? Or do you move the hospital first and the school, the church? Because they’re there because we actually made people—they used to be nomadic tribes—nomadic peoples who moved with their—they were subsistence livers who moved with the subsistence. The churches came in and kind of divvied up the state and said decided, OK, this is going to be a Protestant, this will be Episcopalian, they’ll be Catholic. And we moved the people there.
Now, you have to decide who pays for their move, where do they go, how do you build an infrastructure to reach them once you move them back further? And so that’s a real concern. It’s the same concern—New Jersey has 127 miles of beaches. We have a lot of communities on those beaches. As we saw from Superstorm Sandy, they can be devastated pretty quickly. We’re going to have to keep paying for these things over and over again if we don’t start to understand that we’ve got to prepare. And we are not doing that yet in Alaska. We need to do that and we need to understand that what we’re seeing there in biodiversity, what we’re seeing there with sea level rise is not going to stay, as you’ve pointed out in the beginning, not going to stay in Alaska.
And it goes to not just the rest of the coastline of the United States, but we also have to understand the impact it’s having on the rest of the world and what that means for us as far as national security goes, and demands on our military, as we look at the Bering Sea opening up and who is going to be traversing there, or attempt to traverse. That’s going to put some extra strains on things.
MCMANUS: But the task force also spotlights the resources available.
MCMANUS: Spotlights especially, obviously, oil and gas resources. Is it possible—and I want all of you to chime on this—I suspect this may have been an issue where there was some pretty good discussion too. Is it possible to move ahead and exploit offshore resources safely, without doing environmental damage? And then let me get specific about it, last year the Obama administration withdrew, along with the Canadians, those coastal waters from the ability to lease. Should that be—should that be reversed?
WHITMAN: Well, one of the things that we talk about in the report is just that, is the economic potential of Alaska. And there’s a right way and a wrong way to do a lot of things. I suspect in the future you’re not going to see so much of the offshore interest, because it’s just too difficult and too hard and then too hard to transport. But you probably will see more onshore. And that’s possible to do, but that is part of an overall understanding of the demands on infrastructure. How do you get it from where it’s being extracted to where you need to have it, where you need to refine it?
The Trans-Alaska Pipeline, obviously, has been a lifeline for Alaska, and for the lower 48. It’s produced—it provides a huge amount of our energy. But it is now, because of what’s happening with fracking and the low cost of natural gas, that’s put real pressure on it. There’s less demand. There’s less oil flowing through those pipelines. If you don’t keep it at full capacity you have a problem with freezing and water getting in, and it becomes an issue. And where does it stop being profitable and where do we stop doing it? Those are going to be decisions that are going to be made by the companies that are going to make economic determinations of where they want to make their investment, where it makes sense for them.
But there are more things that just the oil and the gas in Alaska. You have minerals as, again, under the Bering Sea, as that opens up and we have more of the continental shelf to look at, you have minerals there. You have all sorts of other things that can be developed. But they need to be developed in concert, we believe and it’s reflected in the report, with the native Alaskans, to ensure that it’s done in an environmentally sensitive way that doesn’t compromise their ability to live the way they have.
MCMANUS: Any other comments on that tradeoff?
BRIMMER: I will just note that you will see that the energy environment, economic issues are treated together, because we did want to talk about the interplay of issues. And I’ll flag, again, that the task force took a very practical view about some of the energy needs as well, because we also note that many of the native Alaskan communities in that area also now are, for example, layering in diesel fuel in very unsustainable ways, and talks about some renewables to help these communities which where, you know, providing electricity year-round is difficult.
So we looked at, so, what works? And what works in these different environments? It was very much trying to look in an integrated way. And again, I’ll commend people with different expertise who came together and say: What do we want to look at? And also, noted that for any of the areas we’re looking at we need much more knowledge—much more knowledge about mapping, much more knowledge about weather, for all of—for any of the activities we might need to look at. And that’s why the emphasis on additional research is so important, to support any of the types of engagement we’re talking about in the Arctic.
ALLEN: I’d make one more comment. Following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, I don’t know how many times I was asked: Is it safe to drill? And my answer was always, wrong question. There is no risk-free extraction of fossil fuels from the Earth. So the question is, is the extraction of the fossil fuels and their value to us equal or greater than the risks associated with the extraction? And that is an issue that varies by the locale, the culture, the people that are involved and impacted by it. And it’s best resolved in a transparent, open conversation that takes in all the equities that are involved.
The offshore drilling sites off the North Slope of Alaska, the water is so shallow that it requires the blowout preventer, the failsafe item at the top of the well, to actually be buried in mud because there’s not enough room. The Deepwater Horizon oil well was in 5,000 feet of water. When we lost well control, there was no human access. Those are two very, very different conversations. And you can still have that conversation, but it needs to be transparent, it needs to involve all the stakeholders, including the indigenous people in Alaska.
And you need to put everything on the table and not be, you know, it’s not drill, no drill. It’s like, what is the risk discussion we need to have. And frankly, the risks are mitigated when you move ashore. That’s a decision that some people say is binary. No. Well, that may be the case, but I think—and I’m not proposing that I would support either side—but we just don’t know how to have that discussion. If we’re going to adequately address the concerns of the folks that are up there and take advantage of the resources that are going to actually provide value to this country, we’re going to have to learn how to do that.
MCMANUS: OK. I want to open it up to questions from our audience here. And I know there are going to be lots of questions. So simply raise your hand in a non-threatening manner and I will get right to you. (Laughter.)
Q: Thank you. Bill Courtney, RAND Corporation.
Has Russia been a reliable supplier of icebreaking services to the United States? I gather we have leased icebreaking services on a quite substantial scale.
ALLEN: We haven’t continuously required Russian icebreaking services. We have on occasionally leased icebreakers to break out McMurdo because the readiness condition, the availability of Coast Guard icebreakers, which is part of the problem I alluded to earlier. And I think no matter who you pick to lease icebreakers from—and Russia is one source—you’re going to run—the risk is, they’re working on a profit motive. They don’t mitigate all the risk that we would. And you have some problems with performance if you do that.
WHITMAN: There’s a mic coming.
Q: I’ll get it next.
Q: Thanks for the report.
MCMANUS: And I want to thank Bill Courtney for reminding us that please start by introducing yourself and make sure your question ends in a question mark. (Laughter.)
Q: Yeah. I’m Mead Treadwell, former governor of Alaska, and chair of a task force on shipping and ports that’s going on.
I was intrigued by the conclusion on icebreakers, that you supported leasing them. And I guess the question is, did you grapple with the issue, as more shipping capacity opens up in the Arctic, and we’re trying to find ways to pay for icebreakers ourselves, how do we collect a tariff or collect some sort of financial support from the Asian nations who would be using Arctic shipping and port infrastructure to sell goods to Europe? Why should American taxpayers help China sell goods to France?
ALLEN: Let me take a crack at that. And I would offer Governor Whitman the chance to comment as well.
I see leasing of icebreakers as a bridge strategy to creating our own capacity. In other words, we have are requirement for presence up there right now. We have issues related to sovereignty and our ability to actually carry out our governmental responsibilities. That’s where a lease might make sense. There are issues with leases. You know, our friends at OMB, if it’s a capital lease, they score the entire cost of the lease up front in that year, and it can take up your whole budget. So we don’t have the methodology or the financial agility to actually address how we would actually execute it. But in concept, that’s a bridging strategy, but using the organic capability the Coast Guard can use.
Now, regarding cost, you get into some very, no pun intended, tricky waters there in relation to freedom of navigation and transit straits. And there have been some issues regarding the northern sea route with Russia you’re probably familiar with, and also the Straits of Torres down by Australia, whether or not they can exert mandatory pilotage in what is a transit strait, which is supposed to allow free passage between two large bodies of water. I’m not sure that is settled, because there are—there have been different claims made. And Australians made the claim the pilot is required to protect fragile, sensitive areas. The Russians say it’s based on where they claim their internal waters to be. I’m not sure we’re at the point where at least I would be prepared to come up with a really solid framework on how you would charge for that. My premise would be, we need the organic capability, regardless, for the United States.
WHITMAN: I would agree with what the admiral just said, that we need it now. As the Bering Sea opens up, you’re going to get more of just, let’s say, the tourist boats are going to want to make that crossing. And while the Crystal Serenity went while we were there, they had their own icebreaker with them. And they had a backup ship with them. The rest of—the next group that comes through, probably will not be that well-supplied, as it were. And so if there’s any rescue mission that needs to be done, we only have two icebreakers that are working. One is the light one and one’s a heavy-duty one. And if it’s in Antarctica and the problem is in Alaska, guess what, it’s going to take a while. You’re not going to get there quickly.
And so it’s a real capacity need for the United States now, which is why we talked about the leasing of—as a bridge, until we get our own online. But we need to get them. And it takes a long period of time and a lot of money to build an icebreaker. But we need it. We need them.
MCMANUS: Let’s stay in the lively middle of the room there.
Q: Thanks very much, Doyle. Dov Zakheim, former undersecretary of defense.
First, a comment about leasing, having tangled with OMB over the years. When there’s an OMB, there’s an OMB way. This would not be the first time we’ve leased. So don’t give up.
My question is about China. I noted that you didn’t have any findings listed about China, nor any recommendations listed about China. And the text basically says we ought to keep an eye on it. A, is that enough? And, B, was there a reason why there were no recommendations?
WHITMAN: It actually does reference China. There is a reference. And, Esther, why don’t you go into that?
Q: There was a reference, which is: Let’s keep an eye on it.
BRIMMER: Right. Actually, if you go through the text, actually, China and a variety of other countries are also mentioned in various points throughout the text. And so some of the places you might look—in particular, I’ll talk about changing relationships in the Arctic overall. In that section, includes—China is discussed there as well. Then, if you look at some of the others—for example, just to pick another topic—there’s a discussion of the current moratorium on commercial fishing in the actual Arctic Ocean. And in that discussion, it points out that there are non-Arctic countries that have significant fishing fleets that are—and others. So China and a variety of other countries appear throughout the text. And you could go through and extract what we say about different countries at various points. So they’re very much present. And in the discussion about icebreakers, we talk about countries that are building a significant icebreaking capacity, and we mention China. So China and other countries very much appear in the text.
ALLEN: Yeah, China has ice-capable vessels and is doing oceanographic research above the Bering Strait. Why would they want to do that? They’re allowed to as part of the UNCLOS treaty. They’re exercising their rights. And if we’ve got an issue with what’s going on up there, we can complain about it. But again, we haven’t acceded to the treaty.
MCMANUS: We got a couple of questions down here in the front, if we could, ma’am.
But I want to follow up on that, Admiral. Are the Chinese also up there because of shipping lanes? And as the sea ice recedes, what’s the security implication of that?
ALLEN: Well, my own view is they’re creating a presence. And they’ve got a legal reason to be there. They can articulate it under the UNCLOS treaty. I think there are a couple of reasons. One is shipping, sea routes—just certainly the northern sea route. But as Esther said, these—just fleets that very rarely come back to home port, follow biomasses around, and exploit protein. And many times these are countries that can’t defend their littoral zones, requires, at least in my view, to be pretty vigilant over what they might be thinking about the migration of fish stocks.
Q: Elizabeth Verville.
My question is for Admiral Allen. What is the fishing situation at the present? Are the Russians respecting the boundary agreement that we have that delineates fishing in the areas where our zones overlap? And in the so-called donut hole, what’s going on with third countries? And are the Russians cooperating with us to try to regulate it?
ALLEN: Yeah, by way of background, referencing my earlier comments, there are—there’s a good portion of the area up there that is—where we have the EEZs of Russia and the U.S. come together. There is one area where they don’t quite meet at the 200-mile limit. That’s called the donut hole.
I don’t think the bilateral issues between the United States and Russia—I don’t think have been as significant as they have in the past. And the cooperation we’ve been able to achieve through the North Pacific Coast Guard Forum and now the Arctic Coast Guard Forum is creating a modality by which we can deal with resource issues. And we have a—we have a shared, vested interest in that.
Now, the other vessels that operate up there in the donut hole and what they—folks, what they do is they’ll go over the line when you’re not there, and they will pop back out when you are there. So it’s a question of maritime domain awareness, presence, and being able to put up boarding teams—or locate these vessels and then hold them accountable. But I don’t think right now it’s as large an issue with Russia as it was, say, 10 or 15 years ago. And we have a shared interest to manage this together. That’s the reason—this is one of those lines of communication with Russia that we should continue to maintain in the interests of both countries.
MCMANUS: Ambassador Negroponte.
Q: Yeah, thank you, Doyle.
I was—when I was deputy secretary, I had the opportunity, actually the pleasure, of representing us once at Ilulissat, Greenland, a meeting of the Arctic Council. I think it was in 2008. Probably the most important crisis we had during that meeting was finding a bottle of Black Label scotch for the Russian delegation, which apparently needed it quite urgently between the end of our meeting and the press conference we were going to have for the general public. (Laughter.) And we did manage to find one.
But more seriously, my impression from the Russian—and it was Lavrov—Sergei Lavrov who was leading the delegation. He had a huge group of shipping people, specialized kinds of shipping and this and that. And would you care—would you venture to speculate, Admiral or any of you, as to how much international shipping is going to go through that part of the world, say, by 2050, or something like that? I mean, assuming that by then it will be pretty clear sailing.
ALLEN: Sure. Let me first say, Mr. Ambassador, your ability to deal with breaking diplomatic crises is legendary. So thank you. (Laughter.)
I don’t think we’ve established that the northern sea route is a reliable sea route for anything other than transiting to gain experience and basically carrying bulk materials. If you’re looking at containerized traffic for just-in-time manufacturing, we’re not there yet. We may not be there for a long, long time. So I don’t believe the northern sea route in the near term is viable or predictable enough to create a lot of investment in using that as a sea line of communication. I think in the meantime, what you’re going to see is large bulk cargo—you know, coal or whatever, being transported, to establish that it can be done, to learn more about the sea routes. But I don’t see that as a near-term threat from the Russians, frankly.
WHITMAN: But they’re definitely establishing a presence through it.
WHITMAN: And when we say it’s going to be open—that the Bering Sea will be open for a month a year, a period of time a year, it won’t be ice free. I mean, that’s where the problem comes and that’s where it does slow down traffic. You can’t depend on it. And in this real time real world in which we live, that means money. Delays mean money. And that’s going to be a disincentive. But they clearly are establishing a presence. They clearly are starting to establish some claims to what is under the water. And they have a long-range plan here to extend their influence. Right now it’s not at a critical stage, but it’s something that we have got to watch very carefully. And that’s why we did feel that we needed to ratify the convention, and so that we had a legal framework within which to operate to bring our concerns and to work them through.
ALLEN: They are aggressively trying to manage the traffic in terms of when they think they have authority or jurisdiction, to regulate the traffic and require pilotage. So that is an ongoing issue with them.
MCMANUS: Let me go to the neglected left side of the room. Yes, ma’am.
Q: Yeah. Marisa Lino with Northrop Grumman.
My question, sort of a follow-up to Dov’s question. With respect to China, does your section on UNCLOS mention that it will have a—if we ratify it, it would have a significant impact on China’s activities in the South China Sea as well? And I would also express the hope that you all will brief certain key senators with respect to your results.
ALLEN: Yeah, it’s a very prescient remark. We had a lot of discussions informally inside the task force about what the adjudication of the Filipino claim had to do with modeling behavior for Russia, based on what had happened in the South China Sea. And I don’t think we can discount that moving forward. So we take your point. We take your point. And it gets back to both the Chinese and the Russians have a long tradition of being pretty patiently and slowly moving out, whether it’s China’s middle kingdom and the nine-dash line or Russia’s near-term abroad with Ukraine. We understand the expansive nature of what they’re both trying to do. And we should not discount—in the military we call it the salutary effect on good order and discipline, what happens in the South China Sea.
MCMANUS: Ambassador Brzezinski.
Q: Thank you. And thanks to the task force for doing this timely report.
I want to zero in on your comments about the impacts of climate change in the Arctic, and how the looming crisis in the Arctic is a tangible preview of the looming crisis of the global condition that you touched upon, governor. And scientists have concluded that, in fact, we’ve underestimated the acceleration of this change, and what’s at stake is the basic outlines of communities, that you described, that face relocation, whether in Alaska or elsewhere. In Washington, you are your budget. We now have seen the new administration’s budget contract the budgets of key agencies responsible of monitoring and studying and understanding the climatic events that you are describing. Can you talk a little bit more about what is at stake, and what needs to be communicated with regard to the challenge that we face as a nation? It’s not a democratic issue or a Republican issue when the water is rising. Thank you.
WHITMAN: Well, that’s what one would think. We haven’t delineated zones along our coastline that are Republican or Democrat.
Perhaps the biggest concern for me is not just the whack at the agency budgets—let’s say, Environmental Protection Agency, 31 percent cut. Can’t survive that, and that’s the intention. It’s more the cut to science and research and the scientific community, because that’s what we need. We need to know more. We can’t make—you can’t make intelligent decisions if you don’t have a frame of reference, if you don’t have a base of knowledge. And we have so much more to learn about what’s happening and what is being displaced, what we’re losing through the climate change. It’s something that is impacting all of us, and we need to—the federal government is the one that has the capability and the resource—has had the resources to really focus on that.
And for climate change, I’ve almost gotten away from talking about it, except when you—when you look at the issues in the Arctic you have to, obviously, bring it in, because that’s what’s happening with the sea level rise because it’s also about human health and the environment. And if people will take steps to protect human health—and if you think about Alaska, you have communities that have no running water, that work on the honeypot system for dealing with their sewage and their waste. We signed on to COP 21. And we have agreed that we were—that everybody should have access to clean drinking water. We have a whole segment of our population, U.S. citizens, who do not have access to that. And as we see increasing sea level rise, there’s even less and less of that.
And so that is a real health crisis. And that is a real concern that we ought to have today. What is happening there as those ice sheets melt is exacerbating what’s happening in the lower 48 as far as climate change is concerned. And how we get people to recognize that—I am very pleased to say there are 17 Republicans in the House and Senate who have stood up and signed an agreement that says: Climate change is real, it’s occurring, humans have an impact, and we should do something about it. And we need to start building on that. If you look at any poll across the United States, even amongst Republicans, better than 50 percent believe just those things—that climate change is real, it’s occurring, there’s human impact, and we need to—we need to take some steps to prevent it.
And so what Alaska gives us is a very real right-now crisis that’s starting to occur. It is not something in the future. It is not something that you’re—that you’re game-planning out. This is real. This is now. Villages are having to move because people can no longer walk from one building to the next when the sea level rises to the point where that permafrost is going. We have real—we have some military bases there that are going to be subject to having to be moved. I mean, there are some very immediate concerns that we have with this that should be, I think—and that’s one of the important parts of this report—that should be a way to raise awareness.
That this goes beyond just tree-huggers, people who love birds and bees. This is not that. This is real. This is happening now. And it’s happening to real people in real time. And it’s also starting to affect our ability to protect ourselves internationally and militarily here at home. So I worry greatly about the cuts to the various departments and agencies, as much because—and they’re aimed at the science and undercutting the credibility of scientists, and trying to convince people that don’t believe them, because there will always be dissent within the scientific community.
Scientists are rarely 1,000 percent behind anything, although at least in this instance we have better than 97 percent of scientists saying this is real and humans have a relationship here, have a responsibility and we better be doing something. So kind of go with that. It’s as good a consensus as you’re ever going to get. But you’re always going to get outliers. I mean, you’re always going to get people who say no. And that makes it confusing for those who don’t live this in their daily lives, who don’t understand it at a regular basis, who’s—it’s beyond them what is my activity going to—what difference can I possibly make? And that’s the challenge, is bringing it home, bringing it real. And that’s why Alaska offers such a good opportunity to do that, because it is real and it is happening now.
ALLEN: Yeah, Ambassador, thanks for the question, and thanks for your collaboration and leadership on this topic.
We had an internal conversation over the last couple of days. And I’m not trying to, you know, get too overly dramatic here, but if we think we’ve got a problem right now with refugees in this—in this world based on political forces in Syria and elsewhere, we start dealing with climate refugees, you’re forced—the Alaska problem will be a very, very small problem on the order of magnitude of what we will see elsewhere. And I think, just to follow on to Governor Whitman’s comments, we need to start talking about it in those terms. And that’s not something you want to deal with when it happens.
MCMANUS: Farther in the back over here. Yes, ma’am. Yeah.
Q: Thank you. I’m Mitzi Wertheim with the Naval Postgraduate School.
This is an amazing story. And my question is, what is your plan to put it in non-expert language so the whole country understands it? I mean, we’re so good at writing stuff for our own folks who understand the code, but this is such an important one that I think you need a strategy to get it on every television station, get children writing about it, getting schools engaged in learning about it so they come home and talk to their parents.
ALLEN: I’ll give you an—
WHITMAN: Esther is the—(laughter)—she did it.
ALLEN: Go ahead.
BRIMMER: Just a couple things. Indeed, we want to be able to disseminate ideas to a wide variety of people—obviously, to policymakers, but also to Americans across the country.
So I will say that in addition to the actual hardcopy report, there are also some other—there are some online tools. There are also some—you know, there will be—you know, for those of you who tweet, there’s a version where you can see some—that has—some of the maps are available. So some of the materials that appear in the hardcopy report have been since reinterpreted into other formats that may also allow more people to access the information.
ALLEN: I would just give you an anecdote. In my simple attempts to try and have this conversation, I was testifying before that august body up on the Hill that engages in random acts of aftersight. (Laughter.) I had—
BRIMMER: So we had fun on this together. (Laughter.)
ALLEN: I had somebody lean over their glasses and said, Admiral Allen, what is your opinion on global warming? Like I was going to touch that. (Laughter.) And I said, sir, I’m agnostic to the science. Where there’s water where there didn’t used to be, and I am responsible for. We’re going to have to get it down where people understand there’s a real-time, immediate impact on what’s going on around them that’s a cause for action.
WHITMAN: And I think when you have a chance to really delve into the report itself, Esther’s done an extremely excellent job, I think, of putting it into the kind of language that everyone can understand. It’s not at that level that we—we touch on everything, and she’s got a glossary of the various acronyms, but the writing itself is pretty straightforward, and pretty direct and understandable. So that’s going to be helpful with—combined with the other tools at the Council we use, and of course we’re going to be doing a lot more panels and trying to take it out to people, sort of raise the level of awareness.
MCMANUS: I worry we’ve neglected the back of the room. So hands up. While you’re thinking of your—of your—
WHITMAN: It’s a silent back of the room.
MCMANUS: —of your next good question, look, this is a Washington crowd, and there’s no subject that gets us more excited than bureaucratics. (Laughter.) So my question is, where does Arctic policy reside in the bureaucracy? Is it in the right place? If you could—since it’s the beginning of a new administration and all the old rules are now off, if you could design a structure to look at this set of issues, which is remarkable in that it covers basically the gamut of national policy issues, where would you put it?
BRIMMER: I will jump in and I’ll say that the report does talk about continuing a structure within the White House. We think it’s very important that you have an interagency structure. Of course, the previous administration had the Arctic Executive Steering Committee. We think there should be some type of structure that allows for that interagency cooperation/guidance from the central point of the White House.
We then also talk about some of the different parts of different agencies. I’ll just take a moment and talk about the State Department, because that’s my corner of the world, and say that there we do think it’s important that we continue to have a senior diplomat in this area. We call for an Arctic ambassador. And we say that that should be part of the—part of the structure, and that person could also be a deputy assistant secretary as well. So we also have, if you drill into it, some notes about how we think about structure within the different parts of the federal structure to support a coordinated interagency response.
MCMANUS: But this does look like a basket of issues where Defense is going to have strong—where different agencies are going to see the agenda through very different lenses. So Defense is going to have one agenda. Coast Guard is going to have a contiguous but not identical agenda, which is of course in Homeland Security. Commerce is going to have an agenda. EPA, if there’s still an EPA, will have an agenda. Energy will surely have an agenda. That’s why it has to be in the White House.
WHITMAN: That’s why we talk about an ambassador in the White House to be the coordinating body to try to bring those things together. You know, we have the National Security Council. We have the Domestic Policy Council. And the Arctic really needs its own focus because it does cross all of the various agencies or require them all to be part of the discussion. And so it is going to be a challenge.
But this last administration raised the awareness of the issue. They raised the visibility of the issue. And we believe that that needs to continue and to go even further.
Q: Charles Doran, one of the members of the group. I must say I enjoyed enormously being part of this.
You might say I’m one of the impatient members because I think that the problem is that we have a hard time envisioning what the situation’s going to be 20 to 30 years down the road because most of us are using linear sort of models of projection, and we see a lot of change, but what’s actually taking place is an acceleration—a very sharp acceleration—such that, in my judgment, it’s not just going to be about the northern route, it’s going to be about a route through much of the—of the center of the Arctic. And the problem—what I worry about is this, that the United States is falling behind. China, Russia, even Germany are ahead in some respects. And what are they betting on? They’re betting on the fact there’s going to be transit through this area and increasingly there’s going to be product taken out. There’s something like 400 sites in the Arctic where mining and oil drilling and so on could take place. Now, the oil price is down currently, so people think therefore this is not going to be something people are interested in. My judgment is once there’s a big—really big find in oil, there’s going to be a gold rush. The firms that have the capacity are going to be up there to get at this. And we, unfortunately, the United States, are simply falling behind in terms of—not in terms of research, necessarily, but in terms of the—of course, the icebreakers, but in fact in terms of support for those who are going to be developing these areas. Our side, as opposed to the Russian side, is going to become kind of a backwater if we don’t take advantage of the opportunities we now have to move forward.
MCMANUS: I saw a question here. Yes, ma’am.
Q: Good afternoon. My name is Ninette Sadusky. I work for the Oceanographer of the Navy, which is part of the CNO staff.
So I wanted to thank the task force members, all the members, for making time to address these important issues. And for the four panelists, if you’re in the elevator with Secretary Mattis and you can make one recommendation—I saw the section with the series of recommendations—I would be interested in your perspectives on what it would be. Thank you.
MCMANUS: I like that question. (Laughter.)
WHITMAN: Read the report.
BRIMMER: Yes. (Laughter.)
ALLEN: I’m a—I’m a contemporary of Jim Mattis. I have great respect for him and I think he’s a terrific individual.
He said—he said two things that have kind of galvanized the country to think a little differently. One of them was when he came out of a meeting with President Trump and said if you give me, you know, a pack of cigarettes and two beers, I can turn these guys without torture. And the other one, he testified when he was still in uniform that the more money we spend on the State Department, the less ammunition I have to buy. So he’s capable of grasping complexity.
What we’re really dealing with here—and we use the canary in the coalmine as a(n) environmental metaphor. I would suggest to you there’s another metaphor out here, and that’s that we’re going to have to learn how to govern in the face of complexity, and it’s not just climate change. You can talk about internet governance. You can talk about a lot of things.
Here’s what drives the bureaucracy crazy: there is no clear statutory lead. Presidents are loath to subordinate one Cabinet officer to another. If there’s a novel event that doesn’t come with a funding source, half the agencies will say I won’t do anything until you give me a supplemental. The American public won’t stand for that. And at the end, there’s a question of how we’re actually going to maneuver this government in the future when we have converging rapidly advancing technology, intersection of the—of the human and the—human-built and the natural environment, and add globalization onto that. This is just a metaphor at a political level that’s telling us we have to learn how to govern, understand, and do things differently.
That’s a perfect—it’s not a—it’s not an existential threat right now. It’s one we can understand and manage if we’re smart enough and have the insight to say what can we learn from what’s going on right now. And whether it’s the executive committee that the ambassador led or some other governance structure, we have to learn how to do this because we’re going to reinvent it with Ebola, Zika, you name it. We’ve got to get better at doing this.
MCMANUS: I am very sorry to say that we have now used up our allotted time. This subject could have taken us—given us an extra half-hour, but the Council never lets us have that luxury. (Laughter.) Please join me in thanking Governor Whitman, Admiral Allen, Esther Brimmer, and all of the members of this task force for the work they’ve done. (Applause.)