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Arctic Shipping

CFR Task Force Urges U.S. to Increase Its Strategic Commitment to the Arctic


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"The United States, through Alaska, is a significant Arctic nation with strategic, economic, and scientific interests," asserts a new Council on Foreign Relations-sponsored (CFR) Independent Task Force report, Arctic Imperatives: Reinforcing U.S. strategy on America's Fourth Coast.

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With the Arctic "warming at twice the rate as the rest of the planet" and melting sea ice opening up this resource-rich region to new trade routes and commercial activities, the report stresses that "the United States needs to increase its strategic commitment to the region or risk leaving its interests unprotected".

The Task Force finds that the United States lags behind other Arctic nations that have "updated their strategic and commercial calculations to take advantage of the changing conditions stemming from the opening of the region".

The report notes that while Russia has numerous ice-breaking vessels and China is building a third icebreaker, the United States owns only two operational icebreaking ships - one heavy icebreaker and one medium-weight icebreaker - to serve both the Arctic and the Antarctic. Asserting that "icebreakers are a national capacity" required for a range of maritime missions to support U.S. security, economic, and commercial needs, the Task Force recommends that the United States fund and build additional icebreakers.

The report also finds that the United States needs greater investment in Alaskan infrastructure, including deepwater ports, roads, and reliable telecommunications, to support economic development and a sustained security presence in the region. Currently, "almost no marine infrastructure is in place within the U.S. maritime Arctic".

As the United States concludes its chairmanship of the Arctic Council May 2017, the Task Force identifies six main goals that U.S. policymakers should pursue to protect the United States' growing economic and strategic interests in the Arctic:

  1. Ratify the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. The Senate should help secure the Unites States' legal rights to more than 386,000 square miles of subsea resources along its extended continental shelf by ratifying this treaty.

  2. Fund and maintain polar ice-breaking ships. Congress should approve funding for up to six icebreakers to improve operational capacity in the Arctic, so as to have at least three operational ships in the polar regions at any one time.

  3. Improve Arctic infrastructure. Invest in telecommunications, energy, and other infrastructure in Alaska and find locations for safe harbor ports and a deepwater port.

  4. Strengthen cooperation with other Arctic nations. Continue diplomatic efforts within the Arctic Council and work with other Arctic states, including Russia, on confidence-building and cooperative security measures.

  5. Support sustainable development and Alaska Native communities. "Maintain the [Arctic] Council's focus on sustainable development and environmental protection, and continued involvement of the Arctic's indigenous peoples."

  6. Fund scientific research. Sustain budget support for scientific research beyond 2017 to understand the regional and global impact of accelerated climate change.

The Task Force members include:

  • Thad W. Allen (co-chair), Booz Allen Hamilton, Inc.

  • Scott G. Borgerson, CargoMetrics Technologies

  • Lawson W. Brigham, University of Alaska Fairbanks

  • Esther Brimmer (project director), NAFSA: Association of International Educators

  • Stephen A. Cheney, American Security Project

  • Charles F. Doran, School of Advanced International Studies,
    Johns Hopkins University

  • Dalee Sambo Dorough, University of Alaska Anchorage

  • Jill M. Dougherty, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars

  • Richard H. Fontaine Jr., Center for a New American Security

  • Sherri W. Goodman, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars

  • Katherine A. Hardin, IHS Markit

  • Jane Lubchenco, Oregon State University

  • Kimberly Marten, Barnard College Columbia University

  • Marvin E. Odum

  • Sean Parnell, Law Offices of Sean Parnell

  • James B. Steinberg, Maxwell School, Syracuse University

  • Rockford Weitz, Fletcher School, Tufts University

  • Christine Todd Whitman (co-chair), The Whitman Strategy Group, LLC

  • Margaret D. Williams, World Wildlife Fund

  • Kenneth S. Yalowitz, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars

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