White House releases national Arctic strategy

President Obama in April 2013. © U.S. Gov't Work
President Obama in April 2013. © U.S. Gov’t Work/Flickr

“We in the lower forty-eight and Hawaii join Alaska’s residents in recognizing one simple truth that the Arctic is an amazing place.” That’s how U.S. President Barack Obama begins his written statement on the first page of the National Strategy for the Arctic Region (PDF), which the White House has just released ahead of next week’s Arctic Council Ministerial Meeting in Kiruna, Sweden. Obama’s quote shows in one fell swoop the breadth of the United States, which stretches from his home state of tropical Hawaii to Arctic Alaska. “Our pioneering spirit is naturally drawn to this region, for the economic opportunities it presents and in recognition of the need to protect and conserve this unique, valuable, and changing environment,” Obama continues. Manifest Destiny pushed the United States west. The continuing desire to play into the national narrative of a country that explores the last frontier, whether it’s in the outer space or the Arctic, certainly informs some of the president’s rhetoric.

With the Obama Administration’s National Strategy, the U.S. finally joins countries such as Norway, Canada, Russia, and Denmark, all of which have official policies on the Arctic. Still, the American strategy is short, at only a mere 11 pages (Norway’s is 73, and Canada’s is 41). The strategy builds on National Security Presidential Directive 66 (NSPD-66), the Arctic policy document released in 2009 by President George W. Bush. The spirit of the new strategy remains somewhat the same. The three main lines of effort are national security, stewardship, and international cooperation, themes parallelled by the Bush directive. One policy goal emphasized by the Americans, but not by the Canadians, Russians, or even the Norwegians, is freedom of the seas and airspace. With the world’s most powerful navy and largest economy, the U.S. has an interest in keeping shipping lanes open around the world. The strategy calls upon the country’s “long-standing policy and approach to the global maritime spaces in the 20th century.” In 1918, during World War I, President Woodrow Wilson declared to Congress as part of his Fourteen Points Speech that the U.S. insisted upon “absolute freedom of navigation upon the seas, outside territorial waters, alike in peace and in war, except as the seas may be closed in whole or in part by international action for the enforcement of international covenants.” What the U.S. might find is that insisting upon both freedom of the seas and environmental stewardship could conflict. It is surprising that under the stewardship section, the strategy states, “Together, Arctic nations can responsibly meet new demands – including maintaining open sea lanes for global commerce and scientific research…by increasing knowledge and integrating Arctic management.” Canada, for instance, would argue that responsible stewardship requires drawing maritime boundaries and allowing for internal waters – the opposite of open sea lanes.

So far, one of the key differences I see between Obama’s strategy and that of his predecessor is that the 2013 version seems to make a concerted effort to consult indigenous peoples and integrate traditional ecological knowledge into decision-making. On that note, a press release stated that both the State of Alaska and Alaska Natives were consulted in the drafting of the document.

In the next few days, I’ll post a more thorough analysis of the new U.S. strategy. In the meantime, it’s interesting to observe that it closes with the following line: “To meet this challenge, we will need bold, innovative thinking that embraces and generates new and creative public-private and multinational cooperative models.” Could the phrase “multinational cooperative models” point to official American support for non-Arctic states like China and South Korea to have a seat at the Arctic Council? That’s unclear for now. The Guardian reports that while a senior official in the White House stated at a press briefing regarding the release of the national strategy, “There are a series of entities that have requested observer status as this time,” the official said. “We have not taken a position.”

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