President Obama is in Alaska today to speak at a conference called Global Leadership in the Arctic: Cooperation, Innovation, Engagement and Resilience. If that name sounds like a mouthful, consider that it was likely chosen for its much pithier acronym, GLACIER. Obama is the first sitting president to make a trip to the Arctic, a fact that points to the growing importance of the region as at least some polar ice begins to break up and melt. But as the New York Times reports, a simple visit doesn’t mean Washington is well-prepared for the strategic and commercial concerns that a less icy Arctic is poised to bring:
Some lawmakers in Congress, analysts, and even some government officials say the United States is lagging behind other nations, chief among them Russia, in preparing for the new environmental, economic and geopolitical realities facing the region…“We have been for some time clamoring about our nation’s lack of capacity to sustain any meaningful presence in the Arctic,” said Adm. Paul F. Zukunft, the Coast Guard’s commandant. […]
Russia, by contrast, is building 10 new search-and-rescue stations, strung like a necklace of pearls at ports along half of the Arctic shoreline. More provocatively, it has also significantly increased its military presence, reopening bases abandoned after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Predictions about an entirely ice-free Arctic may run ahead of the evidence, but the Arctic won’t have to be ice-free to become economically and geopolitically interesting. It appears that some ice, at least, is melting—and that we aren’t ready for what will happen as it does. Last summer the National Research Council released a report that found America was woefully unprepared for a potential Arctic oil and gas rush. The USGS estimates that the Arctic contains 15 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil, and nearly a third of its undiscovered gas. Shell recently got the green light from the Obama administration to begin drilling an exploratory well, and you can be sure more majors will be looking to get in on the act in the coming years.
But it’s not just oil and gas that makes the Arctic important. New shipping lanes could open up, creating new strategic interests for America’s navy. As Admiral Jonathan Greenert put it, “[t]he inevitable opening of the Arctic will essentially create a new coast on America’s north.” But the Navy has just two icebreakers, one of which is nearing the end of its lifecycle, while Russia has more than 40. Nor is Russia the only competitor here: the NYT also states that China, South Korea, and Singapore are looking at shipping through waters that could open in coming years.
Star Trek told us that space was the final frontier. Maybe one day we’ll find that true, but it’s not true today, because the Arctic looks poised to see terrestrial land grabs. And while countries like Canada and Russia jockey over boundary-setting, America may be falling behind in preparations for at least a somewhat more navigable Arctic Ocean.