The Alaskan Arctic represents “the fourth coast of the United States” and should be a major consideration in discussions of U.S. national security, says Thad Allen, co-chair of CFR’s Independent Task Force on the Arctic. Its new report urges actions to safeguard U.S. strategic and economic interests in the Arctic, including building ports and icebreaking ships, appointing an Arctic ambassador, and ratifying the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
The convention "is the only international governing instrument that covers the Arctic,” says Allen, former chief of the U.S. Coast Guard. “The United States actually drove this process through the United Nations—and yet we are failing to accede to the treaty.”
Why should people be concerned about what’s happening in the Arctic?
The Arctic region is becoming more consequential to the rest of the world, particularly to the United States. Things we see in the lower forty-eight [states] tend to converge in the Arctic in a way that should give us insights on future threats. We’re seeing the first instances of the need to adapt to climate change because of the rapid changes with the ice caps. To the extent that we can learn from that as a precursor to water coming up to the storm drains in Miami, we need to pay attention to it.
What are some of the strategic considerations that policymakers should make when they think about the Arctic? You mention in the report that half the U.S. coastline is Alaska.
Alaska is critical to national security of the United States for several reasons. It is where we have ground-based missile systems that can intercept potential missile launches from Asia. It has operating bases where aircraft can refuel. It is on the great circle route from the United States to Asia. If you look at the ability of U.S. forces in Alaska to deploy to the Pacific Rim, it becomes a very important forward operating base or stopover point.
What is Russia doing in the region? The report notes that Russia has the longest Arctic coastline, and that it derives 95 percent of its natural gas and 75 percent of its oil from its Arctic territories.
Russia has very aggressive plans for the Arctic in terms of resource extraction. It has made claims to an extended continental shelf, almost to the North Pole, that will be adjudicated under the Law of the Sea framework.
Meanwhile, Russia offers an alternative sea route across the top of Europe. That is complicated because it’s still not completely ice-free at times, and there are issues related to what are international waters and what are internal Russian waters.
So there is no doubt that Russia has made a significant commitment both economically and politically to extend its presence, its access to resources, and to manage transportation routes close to the Russian coastline.
What are the special risks associated with operating in the Arctic, and are these increasing as a result of the melting ice?
I get asked a lot, having been the national incident commander for Deepwater Horizon, if it is safe to drill. That’s the wrong question. The right question is: is the trade-off for the risk associated with fossil fuel extraction worth the gain to be made? And when you start having that conversation, it becomes multifaceted, and it depends on anything from the current price of oil to the risk associated with extraction, to the impact on the local environment and indigenous communities. The conversation that occurs in the Gulf of Mexico is not the same conversation that would take place off the North Slope of Alaska. So you have to weigh the different elements of risk on a case-by-case basis.
The report calls on the United States to ratify the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Why is that important?
It is the only international governing instrument that covers the Arctic. There is a specific treaty for how we address multilateral presence in Antarctica. There is not a similar treaty for the Arctic. You need to remember that the Antarctic is a landmass; the Arctic is an ocean basin.
The governance structure of the Arctic differs from the Antarctic in that it is part of the larger framework that was created in the Law of the Sea treaty on how, as a group of nations and the globe, we will manage access, resource extraction, and other benefits associated with the oceans and seas. [UNCLOS] is the redoubtable international regime for governing how nations interact with each other, how claims are made beyond the extent of the continental shelf, and how nations actually have a basis for legal claims, for boundary disputes, and so forth. There is no other document, treaty, or framework in place that does that.
Can’t we just muddle along as we’ve been doing, in the sense that the United States subscribes to UNCLOS, but hasn’t ratified it? Why is ratification so important?
It’s important for a couple of reasons. First, Russia is making claims on its seabed far beyond its exclusive economic zone. The regime that’s been set up to decide that under UNCLOS we are not a part of because we are not a signatory.
Second, [without signing on to UNCLOS] any claims we make will be unilateral claims made on behalf of the United States that are not subject to the regime of the Law of the Sea treaty. And a lot of things—how we preach and act around the world, including our positions on the South China Sea and the recent case involving the jurisdictional dispute between China and the Philippines, directly reflect our understanding and the need to abide by the tenets of the Law of the Sea treaty.
It’s always been astounding to me that we, as a nation, will not stand up and say “we were instrumental in creating this framework”—the United States actually drove this process through the United Nations, and yet we are failing to accede to the treaty.
The report also talks about the need for six icebreakers to meet U.S. commitments in the Arctic and Antarctic. Why six?
There are international requirements to have ice-capable vessels to work at both ends of the world.
In the Antarctic, we need to break into McMurdo base every year and resupply it with fuel and other supplies. All the research we do in Antarctica is based on our ability to provide access and resupply McMurdo. The Coast Guard has done that since icebreaking became part of our mission set when we took it from the Navy back in the 1950s.
“To sustain a presence on a year-round basis, you cannot do that with the two ships now in the U.S. fleet.”
We also break ice to the north. We do that for transportation purposes and for scientific exploration. The reason we recommend six is that you need some ships undergoing maintenance, some undergoing training, and then some deployed. To sustain a presence on a year-round basis, you cannot do that with the two ships now in the U.S. fleet.
You also recommend improving infrastructure in the Arctic. What types of infrastructure are we talking about?
A good example is the Red Dog Mine, which is north of the Arctic Circle and is the largest zinc mine in the world. They had to build a road to connect that mine down to a pier where they can onload the zinc to ships for transport. If you take that as a mini system, any place in Alaska where you have a need for transportation that links surface and maritime, you’re going to have to think about not only a port but also roads. And then you need to think about electrical power and communications. And when you think about that, you think about empowering and providing those services to the indigenous peoples up there.
When I think about infrastructure in Alaska, I think about it from a mini case of a small village—water, sanitation, electricity—clear up to infrastructure that allows you to be able to move forward and north to support any kind of economic development, to perform search and rescue, or respond to an environmental event.
And in another recommendation you talk about deepening work with the other Arctic states, including Russia. Can you give an example?
We need to understand how we’re going to deal with the natural resources in the area. How do we engage others once fish stocks start to migrate north of the Bering Straits? Right now, there’s a moratorium in the U.S. on fisheries north of the Bering Straits, but that’s certainly something we’re going to have to talk with Russia about.
Meanwhile, the traffic in and out of the Bering Straits itself constitutes a challenge. Like the Straits of Malacca or the English Channel and the Straits of Gibraltar, the Bering Straits are what’s called a transit strait under the Law of the Sea treaty, and there’s every reason for the U.S. and Russia to cooperate on how to safely manage maritime traffic through there. The Coast Guard already has a relationship with Russia, but you want to improve it.
You also recommend U.S. diplomacy in the Arctic should be led by someone at the ambassador level.
Right now there’s no ambassador to the Arctic. Our goal is to have a high-ranking individual with support in the State Department who can represent the interests of the United States in unilateral or multilateral activities. Any worthwhile endeavor needs somebody out front to be the steward for the nation.
The report calls for a national plan for climate refugees. What is a climate refugee, and why is a national plan necessary?
When the effects of climate change result in indigenous peoples being displaced from where they have lived for decades or hundreds of years, what is the responsibility at the national, state, and local level? It’s not unreasonable to assume that with sea level rise and climate change there will be other coastline populations that are going to be affected. So we need to understand that holistically as a government and treat this as a policy issue.
The Trump administration recently put out its budget blueprint. How would you like to see this task force report influence the U.S. budget debate?
As we note in the report, the Arctic represents the fourth coast of the United States. Its prominence, geographically, makes it an indispensable part of the national security structure of the United States. So to the extent that this budget blueprint calls for improving U.S. national security, it should account for current military forces in Alaska, and their value based on their strategic location.
“If we are to interact with Russia and deal with its more aggressive activities up there, we have to have a sustained presence.”
Additionally, if we are to interact with Russia and deal with its more aggressive activities up there, we have to have a sustained presence. We have to have infrastructure and forward operating bases. That relates to the Coast Guard budget.
What is the role of the Coast Guard in the Arctic?
We need to remember that most of the trade in this world is done by shipping. The importance of the maritime commons requires us to have capability to deal with three basic needs of the country and the world, if you will. And they are security, stewardship of natural resources, and the safety of the maritime transportation system.
You don’t find very many government agencies that have a statutory authority to operate across all of those mission sets. The genius of the Coast Guard is we have multi-mission platforms and people to do a wide variety of things, but the public needs to understand that you can’t do all those missions at once. So the question is how do you rightsize the Coast Guard so you have a force that is flexible to the needs of the country across all three of those mission areas.
What are the risks if the U.S. does not take some of these steps?
In the near term, if we don’t have a coordinated approach to deal with search and rescue and environmental response with the other countries in the Arctic, we run the risk of having a suboptimal response if an event does occur. The lack of infrastructure, whether it’s communications, navigation, or so forth, presents risks that we could have an accident up there. The inattention to how we coordinate with other partners up there on how to manage fish stocks as they migrate north could result in overfishing, or having these fish stocks depleted to the point where they can’t recover.
This interview has been edited and condensed.