New Security Beat: Concerns Rise Over Governance Gap in Arctic

“We’re attempting to do something that’s never been done before in world history,” said Senator Angus King (I-ME). “The peaceful development of a major new physical asset.” He spoke of the Arctic Ocean at the 8th Symposium on the Impacts of an Ice-Diminishing Arctic on Naval and Maritime Operations. The symposium was hosted by the Wilson Center’s Polar Institute, in partnership with the U.S. Arctic Research Commission, U.S. National Ice Center, Arctic Domain Awareness Center, Patuxent Partnership, St. Mary’s College of Maryland, and the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center.

“The basic question is: ‘How do we discover the Arctic without the Peloponnesian War?’” said Sen. King, alluding to the history of the Mediterranean Sea. Both he and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), founding members of the Senate Arctic Caucus, framed the discussion, which was focused on growing security issues in the Arctic. They noted that increasing militarization and investment in the area is of particular concern, as no entities with the authority to enforce conflict resolution or sustainable development initiatives exist yet. Also on the agenda was discussion of the lack of infrastructure on the U.S. side of the Arctic. Even as activity continues to increase, no national institution has the capability to respond to accidents or environmental emergencies, said Sen. Murkowski.  

Security and the Arctic Council

The institutional heart of Arctic relations is the Arctic Council—an intergovernmental, consensus-based body that includes representatives from the Arctic Nations and indigenous groups within them. The Council is widely regarded as an example of international cooperation and stewardship.

A matter of particular contention is the fact that the Council’s charter explicitly excludes discussions of security. “Russia is already building on their Arctic shore—bases, missile bases, naval bases,” said Sen. King. “But the issue is, what is that military build-up all about?” he said. Military officials maintain that the presence is defensive.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently raised the same concern at the Arctic Council, rattling many parliamentarians who were disturbed by his suggestion that the role of the council ought to be expanded to include issues of national security, said Sen. Murkowski.

New Age of Strategic Engagement

Still, she said, while his comments may have made Council members nervous, it is true that the Arctic today is not the Arctic of generations past. The flood of interest in the region has created opposing interests. Pompeo’s view is that the Arctic Council no longer has the luxury to focus exclusively on scientific collaboration, cultural matters, and environmental research, said Sen. Murkowski. From her perspective, his comments were rooted in something more fundamental. “He was basically telling us: ‘Look, whether you like it or not, whether you are ready for it or not, it is coming. It is here,’” she said. We can acknowledge that this is a new era of strategic engagement in the Arctic, she said.

We all talk about the buzz words—collaboration, cooperation, she said. And we want that. But we also recognize that with greater accessibility comes greater investment and activity, she said. And that breeds competition.

“I understand that the council is this entity that avoids those issues and therefore is able to accomplish great things in a cooperative way,” said Sen. King. But if we don’t have institutions thinking through how to address security, then we have a major problem moving forward, he said. Structures for deconflicting would be needed if there’s an accident, he said. An institution would also be needed to resolve the inevitable questions that relate to how we define international waters in the Arctic, among others. “We’ve got to avoid militarization, it seems to me, as much as we possibly can,” he said. “The problem with militarization is that it can sometimes lead to confrontation.”

Sen. King underscored this urgency, noting that policies and structures need to be in place now, not 5 or 10 years from now—and not when countries are on the cusp of a conflict. “Should security and deconfliction be made part of the Arctic Council’s mission?” said Sen. King. “That’s the challenge. And I don’t know the answer to that.”

 Responsible Economic Development

The gap in institutions able to mediate conflict is accompanied by a lack of rules governing sustainable economic development. We’ve got to figure out how to responsibly develop the minerals and other resources, said Sen. King. But right now, questions remain. “Who has the rights, who has the rules?” asked Sen. King. What are the rules going to be for safety and avoidance of environmental catastrophe? We need to understand the environmental factors, including geographic and geologic considerations. An oil spill in the Arctic is not going to have the same consequences as a spill in the Gulf, he said. We need to be able to manage it.

Also related to economic development is the lack of port infrastructure in Alaska, the only U.S. territory touching the Arctic. Currently, the closest deep-water U.S. port is 800 miles away from the Arctic, she said. Without better infrastructure, the U.S. will struggle to engage in global trade as well as search and rescue operations, which remain a major struggle in the region. Right now, if you are going into the Arctic you have to have your own emergency plan, your own way out, said Sen. Murkowski. As activities in the Arctic expand, infrastructure will be needed to support Arctic activities. When we talk about how to attract investment, said Sen. Murkowski, if you don’t have some certainty of policy, it’s very difficult to attract longer term investment. Institutions could help build this kind of certainty.

You shouldn’t have to ask what the U.S. policy is on the Arctic, she said. “That should not be something that changes with every administration.” She called for a concentrated focus on where we’re going and what we’re doing. Drawing on the words of a friend, she said, we just can’t put a do not disturb sign on the door out there and say, “We’re not ready yet. Wait for us. We’ll check back in a couple years.”

By:  McKenna Coffey
Source: New Security Beat