Clinton headed to Greenland for Arctic summit

Clinton headed to Greenland for Arctic summit

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is on her way to Greenland’s capital, Nuuk, to assert U.S. diplomatic influence in the Arctic. But because the United States hasn’t ratified a key treaty, its ability to exert influence in the North Pole region is severely hampered.

Clinton is traveling with Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to represent the United States at the ministerial meeting of the Arctic Council, a forum designed to promote international cooperation in the Arctic Circle. The region is becoming increasingly important as melting ice caps create passageways for shipping and new areas for underwater energy exploration. This will be the first time a U.S. secretary of state has attended an Arctic Council ministerial meeting.

"We want to send a strong message that, in the post-Cold War world, the Arctic is a region of cooperation," Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg said on May 9 at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). "Another major goal is to strengthen the Arctic Council to ensure that it remains the preeminent forum for Arctic diplomacy."

But the United States does not have all the same rights under international law as the other council members because it has never ratified the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), commonly known as the Law of the Sea Treaty. The treaty went into force in 1994; 161 nations have signed on, but the treaty has never come up for a full vote in the Senate.

"We recognize that one of the important elements of supporting the work of the Arctic Council is strengthening the underpinnings based on the U.N. Convention on Law of the Sea," Steinberg said. "The Obama administration remains committed to UNCLOS and we continue to work with Senator Kerry and others to look for opportunities to move that forward. We are strongly committed to its success and we believe it will advance the full range of U.S. interests in this region, and, indeed, across the world."

When pressed by The Cable as to why there has been no action on the treaty in the two years the Obama administration has been in office, Steinberg again pointed back to Congress and Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) specifically.

"This is at the very top of the list of administration priorities," said Steinberg. "Obviously, we need the leadership and the cooperation of the Senate to find a good opportunity in the Senate calendar."

A spokesman for Kerry declined to respond to requests for an update on Senate consideration of the treaty. Several senior Republicans objected strongly in 2007, when a vote on the treaty seemed imminent, including Sens. Jon Kyl (R-AZ), James Inhofe (R-OK), Jeff Sessions (R-AL), and Jim DeMint (R-SC).

Yet there is large coalition of senators, former senior national security officials, and even current military leaders that is calling for the treaty to be ratified soon.

On April 24, former Coast Guard commandant Thad Allen, former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, and former Deputy Secretary of Defense and current CSIS President John Hamre argued for ratification in a New York Times op-ed, arguing that being outside the treaty puts the United States "at a military and economic disadvantage."

"Joining it would allow us to secure international recognition of a claim to the continental shelf as far as 600 miles beyond our exclusive economic zone in order to explore and conserve the resource-rich Arctic as the polar ice cap recedes. It would also provide American companies with a fair and stable legal framework to invest in mining projects in the deep seabed," they wrote.

In 2007, the Joint Chiefs of Staff sent a "24-star" letter to the Senate (signed by 6 chiefs, each with four stars) urging accession.

"The convention codifies navigation and overflight rights and high seas freedoms that are essential for the global mobility of our armed forces," the letter said. "It furthers our National Security Strategy, strengthens the coalition and supports the President’s Proliferation Security Initiative."

In preparation for this week’s meeting, CSIS joined forces with the World Wildlife Fund on a project they called "The Road to Nuuk." CSIS’s Heather Conley and the WWF’s David Reed spoke at the May 9 event. "The United States Senate must ratify UNCLOS in 2011," the group wrote in their most recent brief. "Without ratification, the U.S. will be unable to explore or conserve its Arctic resources while other nations will."

Other members of the U.S. delegation to Nuuk include Deputy Secretary of Interior David Hayes, Lieutenant Governor of Alaska Mead Treadwell, Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans and Environment Kerri-Ann Jones, U.S. Ambassador to Denmark Laurie Fulton, and, depending on Senate schedules, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK).

Steinberg joked about the location of the summit. Apparently there aren’t enough beds in the small town to accommodate the various delegations.

"As most of you know here, there are no roads to Nuuk — so we’re all facing the challenge of a very exciting environment in which there are few roads and few hotel rooms," he said. "But the American team is going to look forward to the opportunity to be seaborne while they participate in this meeting."