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The Northern Question and the United States

By Andrew Blinkinsop, Transatlantic Security and Community Analyst


While many in the American political establishment continue to publicly deny the reality of climate change, its effects are increasingly felt across the globe and pose unprecedented humanitarian and geopolitical challenges to states large and small. From rising sea levels that potentially forcing millions from their homes to droughts that drive conflict and instability, climate change adds an unpredictable and powerful variable to equations of global security. One region of the world – the Arctic – is experiencing more dramatic changes than any other, and it is an area of special importance for several NATO countries. According to a 2014 study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world, and some predict that summers will see the Arctic ice-free by 2030.

A widely cited effect of melting Arctic sea ice is the potential unlocking of large quantities of oil and natural gas as the region holds 22% of the world’s untapped conventional hydrocarbon resources, the burning of which will only intensify climate change. As a result, some point to the Arctic as a potential global flashpoint; the site of a destabilizing and intense competition for resources between powerful northern states. Actions such as Russia planting its flag on the seabed at the North Pole in 2007 generate media attention and reasonable fear in neighboring countries. However, resource competition is not the only factor in the Arctic, and opportunities and a real will for rule-based cooperation exists at the international level. Besides hydrocarbon extraction, potentially lucrative trade routes and military buildups are two issues that shape the Arctic’s geopolitical space, and the dynamics of all three hinge on various territorial claims. To respond to these three challenges, U.S. Arctic policy should seek to shore up relevant aspects of international law, discuss emerging security concerns openly in international fora, and resolve existing bilateral territorial disputes before the inevitable opening of the Arctic occurs.

UNCLOS, EEZs, and the CLCS

Despite the perception of the Arctic as a “legal no-man’s land,” there are in fact international treaties and associations that bear on Arctic issues, the most important of which is the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). UNCLOS gives countries sovereign rights to living and non-living resources in their “Exclusive Economic Zones” (EEZs), defined as the area stretching up to 200 nautical miles from their coastline.

For the most part, EEZs are clear in the Arctic. The sticking point comes in the issue of “continental shelves,” a contentious geographical term that gives countries additional resource rights beyond their EEZ if they can prove that a continental shelf represents a natural extension of their dry-land territory. As it stands, Russia, Denmark and Canada have conflicting claims about the extension of their shelves, and their petitions await additional research and a ruling by the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS). Russia’s flag planting was related to its own research mission in support of its CLCS claim.

However, there is little reason to be alarmed at these territorial disputes. It is important to note that the overwhelming majority of hydrocarbon reserves lie within the accepted and well-established EEZ lines. One report estimated that the disputed area Russia claims as its extended continental shelf contains less than 3 percent of undiscovered Arctic oil and gas. And because the disputes are over territory in the extreme far north, the relatively small reserves that exist there might be economically prohibitive to extract. As a result, Arctic countries’ fundamental energy interests do not hinge on the CLCS territorial disputes; the EEZ framework defined by UNCLOS already guarantees states access to the bulk of oil and gas in the Arctic.

Skeptics of the constraints imposed by international law may question the efficacy of treaties like UNCLOS and point to Russia’s recent aggression in Ukraine and elsewhere to highlight its willingness to break rules that do not suit it. However, at the moment at least, all northern countries’ interests are served by a stable legal regime in the Arctic, and Arctic powers have consistently signaled their desire for rule-based cooperation. The five coastal Arctic states (Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia and the U.S.) signed the Ilulissat Declaration in 2008, in which they reaffirmed their commitment to international law pertaining to the Arctic. Indeed, Russia’s agreement with Norway in 2010 over disputed territory and its submission to the CLCS in August demonstrate its intention to adhere to rules in this policy area.

The biggest challenge for UNCLOS is a detail that afflicts several other useful UN treaties, including conventions on the rights of women and children and prohibitions against torture: the U.S. never ratified it. Despite decades of broad support for UNCLOS in the U.S. foreign policy establishment, and both Republican and Democratic administrations’ recognition of U.S. interests in ratification, opposition from part of the Senate has blocked the move. The arguments against ratification, which rely on a narrow definition of sovereignty and the assumption that the U.S. navy is so capable that the U.S. needs no legal guarantees of its rights, do not recognize the ongoing shift toward a multipolar security environment.

An Effective Diplomatic Toolkit

For the U.S., ratifying UNCLOS would be a first step toward establishing a defensible diplomatic position to deal with problems that may arise. A second step would be to end the gag rule on security discussions at the Arctic Council, which consists of the aforementioned coastal Arctic states in addition to Sweden, Finland and Iceland. Russia’s reopening of several Arctic bases, addition of ships to its northern fleet, and restoration of its Soviet-era Arctic infrastructure, have raised fears among the other council members. In response, Canada and the U.S. are both looking to add icebreakers to their small Arctic fleets. These are necessary moves, but ones that should be cast as practical means to building infrastructure for transportation and research in the Arctic rather than the start of an arms race. The Arctic Council should be equipped to deal with security concerns openly as they emerge.

Finally, there remain divisions among Western allies that should be resolved before they are exploited by less friendly actors. Most important is the ongoing U.S.-Canadian dispute over the status of waters in the Canadian Arctic archipelago, through which a lucrative “Northwest Passage” trade route could run as ice continues to melt. Canada insists these waters are “internal” while the U.S. calls them “international.” So far, the dispute remains subdued as the passage is still blocked by large amounts of ice, and the two sides have essentially agreed to disagree. But this position is untenable and creates space for a wedge between the two allies. As some have pointed out, a hypothetical Russian flyover of Canada’s claimed “internal waters” could force the U.S. to decide between defending its position on the passage or supporting its ally. Given the frequency with which Russian planes have violated NATO airspace in the north, this is a plausible scenario. The U.S. and Canada should resolve this dispute bilaterally before such a wedge can be driven.

A New Era?

Whether the Arctic’s inevitable opening will be defined by cooperation or competition remains to be seen. But the assumption that the Arctic will bring unprecedented security challenges is unwarranted at this time. The Arctic is likely to mirror the broader geopolitical context rather than define it. If relations between Russia and the West continue to deteriorate, the prospects for cooperation will suffer accordingly. For the U.S., shoring up all the diplomatic tools available to head off such an outcome, while bringing Western Arctic powers closer together by resolving ongoing disputes, is the best course of action.

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