Refocusing U.S. Arctic Policy in 2016

COMMENTARY Environment

Refocusing U.S. Arctic Policy in 2016

Jan 21, 2016 2 min read

Research Fellow, Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

Daniel was a Research Fellow for European affairs in the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom.

The U.S. currently chairs the Arctic Council, the primary intergovernmental forum for addressing issues concerning the Arctic region, yet 68 percent of Americans have never even heard of it.

Small wonder. U.S. Arctic policy, what little of it there is, is adrift. The President’s State of the Union address, all 5,437 words of it, didn’t mention the word “Arctic” once.

The Obama administration tends to view the region as a political prop: a picturesque setting from which to pontificate on the dangers of climate change. But the Arctic region is an area of important national interest.

The U.S. can’t afford to squander another year. It should move, now, to put in place policies that actively advance and secure American interests in the region.

Washington can begin by listening to the views of the Americans who actually live in the region. The north slope of Alaska is home to 10,000 people. Their perceptions and concerns are far different from those prevailing in the 48 contiguous states.

As Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska notes, for most Americans, the Arctic is “like a snow globe on a shelf.” More than half of all Americans see climate change and global warming are the greatest threats to the Arctic region. But only 16 percent of Alaskans agree.

For the people who live there, protecting the environment from accidents and promoting economic growth are far more pressing matters. Surely Washington should start taking these citizens’ needs and opinions into account when formulating Arctic policy.

Where to begin? Well, the U.S. should be promoting economic freedom across the globe — and the Arctic should be no exception. Tourism, shipping and resource excavation will increase in the Arctic region whether the Obama administration wants it to or not. Washington could do the people who live in the Arctic a favor by enshrining the principles of economic freedom in U.S. Arctic policy. Doing so would also go a long way toward assuring the protection of the environment.

Economic growth will help alleviate unemployment as well as many of the social and technological challenges faced in the region. Challenges such as access to adequate physical and mental health care, lack of transportation infrastructure and difficulty in obtaining reliable Internet and cellphone service. Furthermore, economic growth would promote the types of development that mitigate the likelihood and impact of environmental disasters.

It’s doubtful that a Russian state-owned company operating in the Arctic would have the same squeamishness around environmental degradation as a private company seeking profit and wanting to avoid liability for negligence.

It’s important the U.S. enshrine economic freedom as a guiding principle of our Arctic policy and that it use the remaining time in its chairmanship of the Arctic Council to encourage fellow Arctic nations to do the same.

Finally, the U.S. must remain vigilant regarding Russia’s militarization of the region. This means investing in proper military capabilities by which American sovereignty and interests in the region can be secured and defended.

How much importance does Russia attach to the Arctic? Put it this way: Moscow’s Northern Fleet is based in the Arctic — and it constitutes two-thirds of Russia’s Navy. To accommodate its fleet, Russia has built new Arctic bases and retrofitted derelict bases from the Soviet era. It has also invested in troops and technology specifically adapted for the region.

In light of Russia’s aggression across the globe, its Arctic military deployments should be viewed warily. Russia is making good on its claim that the Arctic region is a priority.

It’s past time for the U.S. to fully embrace its status as an Arctic nation. Listening to Alaskans, embracing economic freedom, and investing in proper military capabilities in the region would be a fine start — and a policy legacy of which the president could be proud.

Daniel Kochis is a researcher in the Heritage Foundation’s Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom.

This piece originally appeared in The Washington Times.