Melting Arctic requires U.S. action

The Arctic, which is melting and thereby creating new shipping routes and access to minerals, poses a foreign policy challenge for the United States and other nations — particularly in the warmer months when once-impassable seas become open. But it’s easy to put off dealing with it. The process is like the annual scramble for summer camp: The need for planning begins around February, when the season seems so far away and the kids are still in school and wearing snow boots. Then, suddenly, it’s mid-May.

It is now past mid-May, and Secretary of State John Kerry and his counterparts around the world may be waking up to the need for action. Last week, Kerry spent a few days in Kiruna, Sweden, at the ministerial meeting of the Arctic Council. The agenda of the meeting had nothing to do with stopping global warming, which, in 2012 alone, caused the melting of a portion of the Arctic Sea larger than the entire area of the United States. Rather, the meeting was about nothing less than ownership of the new world that’s opening way up north.

The Arctic Council includes the eight countries with territory bordering the Arctic: Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States. For years, they have met to discuss the environmental challenges of the melting Arctic for the oceans, biodiversity, commerce, and the indigenous people of the region. As the Arctic thaws, the stakes have become more lucrative: Some estimates suggest that over 10 percent of the world’s untouched oil reserves and 30 percent of gas reserves lie under an ocean floor that gets more accessible each year. The routes now open through the Bering Strait around the Arctic circle will cut transportation times and costs for export-hungry nations.

On Wednesday, the Arctic Council agreed to let nations that, at last look at the map, are not located anywhere near the Arctic, join as observers. It may seem a diplomatic nicety, but it is the recognition that the Arctic Council nations no longer have a monopoly on the region. China, India, Italy, Japan, Korea, and Singapore are on a hunt for more energy and have their eyes on the waning polar ice caps.

The council members hope that the new observer nations will be “signing up to the principles embodied by this organization,” says Norwegian Foreign Minister Espen Barth Eide. It’s kind of quaint to think so; China probably has different motives. It has spent a decade investing in research expeditions and facilities and courting the smaller Arctic states for a seat at the table. As the Arctic recedes, it opens up two shipping routes — above Russia and above Canada — that would shorten the distance between Asia and Europe. The new route is called the “polar axis.”

Even among the member states, the United States has its hands full. It is difficult to characterize America’s relationship with Russia right now, given the Boston bombing investigation, a diplomat/spy expulsion, and fights over Syria. But the Arctic issue will outlive all those concerns. Half of the Arctic’s population is Russian. The area accounts for 11 percent of Russia’s GDP and over 20 percent of its exports. Russia owns the Arctic, or it least thinks so based on its placement of a rust-proof flag into the seabed below the North Pole. Under that theory, the moon is America’s.

Despite the presence of Kerry, whose Senate career focused in part on the national security implications of a changing environment, the United States is still pretty far from having a comprehensive game plan. Right before Kerry left for Sweden, the White House released a much anticipated white paper, “National Strategy for the Arctic Region.” It is 13 pages long; that is, at least, twice the length of the Arctic strategy memo released under George W. Bush. While Obama’s plan lays out basic principles for cooperative stewardship of the region, it has been uniformly criticized for lacking any specific means to assert American interests, protect the environment, and set standards for exploration.

Summer is coming. The ice is melting. And we seem to have no place to go.

Juliette Kayyem, a columnist for the Boston Globe and Lecturer in Public Policy at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

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