Washington's Arctic "To Do" List
January 31, 2014
On January 30th, the White House released its “Implementation Plan for The National Strategy for the Arctic Region.” This document follows the May 10, 2013 release of the Obama administration’s National Strategy for the Arctic Region.
When the much anticipated May 2013 strategy was released four years after the Bush administration’s Arctic strategy, the strategy was short (only 13 pages) on policy content, but was an opportunity to restate and reaffirm longstanding U.S. Arctic policy priorities. The 2013 strategy did introduce a new term to our Arctic lexicon -- “integrated Arctic management” – which, in theory, means a holistic approach to Arctic decision-making through balancing economic development, environmental protection and cultural values. It is too early to determine how policymakers will practice integrated management.
In stark contrast, the White House’s Arctic Implementation Plan gives us no less than 32 pages of detailed information regarding the three main areas of U.S. interests: advancing security interests, pursuing responsible Arctic region stewardship and strengthening international cooperation. Helpfully and constructively, the plan sets out timelines and is specific as to the lead and supporting governmental agencies and departments tasked with implementation. This level of specificity is welcome as it provides an improved level of accountability and transparency for federal departments and senior officials to ensure implementation of such a robust agenda.
The less positive side of the implementation plan is the frequency of words like “assess/assessment” (used 34 times), “understand/develop a better understanding/improve understanding,” (used 31 times), “monitor/monitoring” (used 17 times) and “evaluate/evaluation” (used 10 times). Through assessments, feasibility studies, plans, and evaluations which will “inform,” “encourage,” and “promote” various initiatives and policies, there is little sense of urgency to the plan. More importantly, there are few details regarding the new resources that will be needed for the U.S. to adequately prepare for a new ocean which spans roughly 14.5 million square miles and covers over 1,000 miles of American coastline.
This lack of urgency is particularly pronounced in the security interests section of the plan. Under the subheading of “Evolve Arctic Infrastructure and Strategic Capabilities,” the first objective is to “establish a framework to guide Federal activities related to … ports and other infrastructure needed” and to “deliver a 10-year prioritization framework … by the end of 2015.” The United States is already a decade behind in producing such a framework let alone implementing one. It is encouraging that the U.S. government will begin to focus attention on aviation requirements and telecommunications in the Arctic, hopefully as part of an urgent effort to improve maritime domain awareness. Although the plan notes that the U.S. government will only “evaluate the costs and benefits of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) in the Arctic,” it is an important start on a much neglected area of focus.
And finally -- perhaps saving the best for last or rewarding the reader for making it through the document, the most interesting bits of the implementation plan are found in the last four pages. Beginning on page 28, the plan highlights the leadership opportunity for the United States which is its upcoming chairmanship of the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental forum, beginning in May 2015. The mention of the consideration of a Presidential Arctic Summit in connection with the 20th anniversary of the Arctic Council in 2016 is very significant. Holding such a summit would send a strong message that the Arctic is an issue of national and international importance. Perhaps Senate ratification of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) by no later than the start of the U.S. Arctic Council chairmanship in 2015 would send an equally strong message: America, the world’s greatest global maritime power, is ready to constructively engage in this rapidly thawing new ocean.
Heather A. Conley is Senior Fellow and Director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.
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