Op-Ed: Being an Arctic Nation is for the Good of All Americans

Coast Guard
File image courtesy USCG

Published Nov 22, 2023 1:25 PM by Dr. Abbie Tingstad

Last month at a gathering of Arctic leaders and experts in Reykjavik, Iceland, U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) commented: “I’m very encouraged that the United States and our interest in the Arctic are now clearly visible. America is finally appreciating that we are an Arctic nation and our vision for the region is slowly but surely taking shape.”

Indeed it is. Just days before on October 18th the U.S. released the Implementation Plan for the 2022 National Strategy for the Arctic Region. It lays out thirteen strategic objectives, with associated investments, across themes that include security, climate and environment, economic development, and governance and international cooperation. Following suit, the U.S. Coast Guard released its Arctic Strategic Outlook Implementation Plan on October 26th.

Yet many taxpayers outside of Alaska do not contextualize the U.S. as an Arctic nation. Fairly little has been done to advertise the region to the American public outside of being a rapidly heating up tourist destination with captivating but likely ephemeral megafauna like the polar bear.

Hoped-for commitments implied in the implementation plan could both better position the U.S. to govern and sustainably develop this region as well as generate more dialogue about the Arctic with the broader American public.  Which Arctic investments might the U.S. government prioritize and what impacts could they have?

A first tenet is to continue working with Alaska Native and other local organizations to strengthen dialogue on infrastructure and economic development projects earlier in planning and decision processes. Despite the landmark 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act there remains work to be done in ensuring that Native and other local Alaskans participate in initial discussions about opportunities, risks, and plans.

There are also several fundamental investments in regional access that are central for enabling presence, response, and coordination. These include continuing appropriating funds for additional U.S. Coast Guard icebreakers. The existing two government-owned polar capable vessels put the U.S. at the lower bound for icebreaking capacity among nations with polar interests.

Additionally, finishing the port expansion at Nome, Alaska will provide the U.S. its first deepwater draft infrastructure of its kind north of the Arctic circle, though there are important local community concerns that must also be addressed. There are also increasing opportunities to partner with government and commercial satellite programs to make more imagery publicly available which could boost local planning and preparedness, fundamental scientific research, and ability to coordinate broadly during crisis.

Investments necessitating primarily softer capital include confirming the first-ever U.S. Arctic Ambassador and ratifying the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Although the U.S. functions by international rules and norms in the Arctic, officially supporting measures such as these would improve the U.S. position from a diplomatic standpoint internationally.

There are also priorities for the U.S. in emergency planning and management. One would be to lead in generating new dialogue on emergency management in the Arctic. An encompassing Search and Rescue agreement was signed in 2011 among the eight Arctic nations. Yet the few recent tests of emergency response and management such as that when a cruise ship ran aground off eastern Greenland in September have led to worries about “what-ifs” had the conditions against which rescuers prevailed turned out differently.

Another priority could be to engage China in back-door diplomacy to manage Russia’s risky behavior in sensitive polar waters that could circulate massive fuel spills to other countries’ shores and broadly harm northern ecosystems. In September, Russia sent a non-reinforced oil tanker through Arctic waters for the first time. Like much of Russia’s northern oil and natural gas, this vessel’s destination was China. Per China’s Arctic Policy, it abides by the terms of the International Maritime Organization’s Polar Code, and may be in the best position to convince Moscow to stick with those terms.

Although the Arctic may seem remote to most Americans, many of the country’s priorities for the region could have direct or indirect impacts on many across the nation. More holistic inclusion of Native Alaskan and other local voices in planning can serve as a model for such discussions across the U.S. Lessons from Arctic emergency response and management can also strengthen these functions elsewhere. Americans may see more opportunities to travel north for tourism, business, or education, and those living along the coasts may see an icebreaker make a port call or even see one home ported near them. Finally, the Arctic may serve as an occasion – as it has in the past – for positive diplomacy which could ultimately lead to opportunity and prosperity for people across the U.S., while being a relief-valve for geo-political pressures.

Dr. Abbie Tingstad is a visiting professor of Arctic research at the Center for Arctic Study and Policy at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy.  The views here are her own and not those of the Coast Guard Academy or other branches of the U.S. government.