The White House just released a new US policy for the Arctic.  (You can read the HSPD/NSPD here.)   While this is a vast improvement over the previous antiquated and inadequate policy dating to 1994, the new US Arctic Policy does not go far enough.

The Arctic is important to the readers of this page because the melting sea ice is allowing access to an estimated 22 percent of the world’s undiscovered but technically recoverable hydrocarbons as well as new access to the Northwest and Northeast Passages, shipping shortcuts between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.  The polar ice cap is melting fast, losing up to half its thickness near the North Pole in just the past six years and perhaps is passing a tipping point; it is now shrinking at more than three times the rate predicted by the  Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change only four years ago.  At the current pace, the Arctic may well be ice-free in summer by 2013.  As this new policy document articulates, this literal sea change has extraordinary strategic implications.

Before briefly addressing the content of the new policy, I have to comment on the strangeness of its release.

Instead of a major press conference on the White House lawn or other high profile event, this important new policy receive zero fanfare, only an obscure press release buried in the White House website.  One would think given the dreadful environmental reputation of the President that, similar to the splash made with the new and impressive marine sanctuaries covering nearly 200,000 square miles created last week, that the White House would have gone out of its way to trumpet this achievement.  Instead, with only eight days to go until the inauguration, it was published (if it you can call it that) as quietly as possible.

Clearly, the White House didn’t want anyone to take notice, although I can assure you Russia, Canada, Denmark, Norway, Finland, Iceland and Sweden, among other countries interested in the opening Arctic, especially China and Japan, will have this at the top of their docket tomorrow morning.  Despite that there is something for everyone in this document, one can only guess that the President did not want to create the impression at the midnight hour that this was a shotgun effort to lock in goodies for the energy companies.

Quite to the contrary, the Administration is to be mostly applauded on the comprehensiveness of the new policy and how it speaks to all stakeholders in the region.  Especially interesting to the readers to this page will be the section “National Security and Homeland Security Interests in the Arctic.”

The policy gets right the pressing strategic imperative of the opening Arctic and how it relates to national sovereignty, border security and traditional Coast Guard missions in lower latitudes such as regulating commercial shipping, waterway management, search and rescue and maritime domain awareness.  This is a thoughtful and impressive policy that captures almost every facet of this critical issue, including the importance of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) as a central governance framework for managing the fast changing region and the need for the US to formally join the treaty without delay (President Bush supports UNCLOS, as does President-elect Obama, the CNO, USCG Commandant, USMC Commandant, major environmental groups, industry, etc. – a later blog will be forthcoming on the strategic imperative for ratifying the Law of the Sea).

While the administration gets high marks for getting this new Arctic policy mostly right, unfortunately it does not go far enough.  The policy does not specifically call for building new icebreakers, despite the fact the Coast Guard’s few ships are a geriatric bunch desperately in need of revitalization and/or replacement.  This is perhaps its biggest flaw.  Leaving specific language out for new icebreakers is a major oversight that one can only chalk up to OMB intransigence.  The Coast Guard certainly wanted them and fought hard to get specific language towards reenergizing this capability, as did Senator Murkowski who is deserving of tremendous credit for this policy coming together.

The policy also does not authorize the US to help give the Arctic Council teeth to empower it to deal with security issues.  The policy specifically says it should stay neutered and operate within its limited mandate.  The policy is not open to some diplomatic initiatives that have been offered in recent years such as a possible Arctic treaty.  And, the policy unnecessarily pokes Canada in the eye over Arctic sovereignty.  While the Arctic receives little to no attention in the United States, it is front page news north of the border and more than a big deal to our largest trading partner and close ally.  Our disagreements in the Arctic have started complicating our collaboration on securing the land border.  The Arctic has figured prominently in Prime Minister Harper’s last several speeches from the throne, similar to our state of the union address, and is a priority of his government.  Instead of using language that throws down the gauntlet to Canada, the policy should have been more conciliatory and outlined areas where we might specifically cooperate such as an Arctic Seaway Commission for the Northwest Passage modeled on the St. Lawrence Seaway.

Still, this was a sorely needed update in the face of massive climate change in the region that rightly acknowledges the enormous security challenges to the United States in the new Arctic.