The United States has vital interests in the Arctic Ocean, given Alaska's location and the impact of climate change in the far north on the world's environment, natural resources, population and security. The United States needs to assert leadership now to promote ecologically sound, productive and peaceful management of the Arctic Ocean. U.S. ratification of the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) is the urgent first step in this regard but it should be accompanied by an initiative to make the central Arctic Ocean a peaceful preserve for all humankind.
The effects of climate change are most dramatic in the polar regions. Sea ice, which has covered the Arctic Ocean for centuries if not millennia, is receding and thinning rapidly, declining 10 percent per decade. The way of life of indigenous peoples is drastically changing. There will be open water seasonally across the Arctic Ocean in the near future allowing for significant increases in marine shipping, easier exploitation of the extensive Arctic reserves of oil, gas and minerals and, consequently, greater environmental threats. The impact is not only on the five Arctic coastal states but also globally given the closely linked physical systems of land, water and atmosphere to which the Arctic is integral.
As the sea ice recedes, the other four Arctic coastal states (Canada, Russia, Denmark, and Norway) have pushed vigorously to extend their jurisdiction over the Arctic's continental shelves (and the rich natural resources therein). The international vehicle for handling and adjudicating such territorial and boundary claims is the UNCLOS, which all parties in the north accept as the appropriate forum for handling them but which is not open to the United States as a non-member.
Although the United States is gathering data to support possible future claims, these would have no standing so long as the United States is not a treaty partner. The UNCLOS has very broad support from the U.S. administration as well as from military, business and environmental groups. But the U.S. Senate has not ratified it. Ratification now would protect possible U.S. territorial claims and provide a basis for asserting a greater leadership role in promoting international cooperation and dialogue in the north.
There are also important security interests at play. The United States and its NATO allies are trying to engage cooperatively with Russia on regional as well as global issues. The Arctic Ocean is a region where the two countries have strategic postures dating from the Cold War that are still hard to transcend. Nonetheless, the two countries - along with other Arctic states and indigenous people's organizations - have agreed on "common arctic issues" that include sustainable development and environmental protection. The United States, Russia and the three other Arctic coastal states have jointly declared that they remain committed to UNCLOS as the basis for resolving issues relating to the Arctic Ocean.
A well-crafted policy initiative accompanying U.S. accession to UNCLOS and focusing on the Arctic Ocean can help meet these objectives. It would also continue the record of far-sighted and successful American diplomacy that led 50 years ago to the signing of the Antarctic Treaty with the Soviet Union and 10 other nations at the height of the Cold War when questions of sovereignty and resources were tempered by an innovative and lasting agreement to preserve and protect the Antarctic for peaceful, scientific, and ecologically benign purposes.
Under UNCLOS, areas beyond the 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zones of the five Arctic coastal states in the Arctic Ocean and legally separated from the sea floor are high seas open to all. The United States should now propose steps to promote cooperation and prevent discord in this international space at the center of the Arctic Ocean, a step that would not contravene the sovereignty, sovereign rights or jurisdiction of any nation.
This action would simultaneously reinforce coastal state jurisdiction landward of the central Arctic Ocean and protect Arctic marine ecosystems and their resources for sustainable uses. More generally, this initiative would enhance international cooperation in the Arctic region in the face of pessimistic predictions regarding the onset of a new diplomatic "great game" or even the occurrence of armed clashes over Arctic resources as the ice melts.
To achieve this result, President Obama should take the lead in proposing that the central Arctic Ocean be declared a pole of peace and international cooperation based on shared interests in environmental security. He should invite Canada, Denmark, Norway and Russia to join the United States in endorsing this initiative.
ABOUT THE WRITERS
Paul Arthur Berkman is head of the Arctic Ocean Geopolitics Programme at Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge. Kenneth S. Yalowitz is director of the John Sloan Dickey Center for International Understanding, Dartmouth College. Oran R. Young is professor at the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management, University of California Santa Barbara.
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